Last night in a Cleveland-area synagogue, Jack Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff, and Tevi Troy, special adviser to Mitt Romney, gathered to make a last-minute pitch for the Cuyahoga County Jewish vote, which some have argued is the fulcrum in this election.
Lew and Troy, both Orthodox Jews, clamored over themselves to persuade the crowd of about sixty why their candidate was better for the Jews and for Israel. Much of the debate, moderated by Nathan J. Diament, Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, centered on Romney and Obama’s relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Lew started the conversation by bragging that Obama has “spent more time with Prime Minister Netanyahu than he has with any other world leader.” Though the two leaders may not agree on “every single issue,” Lew admitted, when it came to the important questions that define friendships—“Are you there when we need each other?” and “Can we have candid conversations together?”—“the president and the prime minister have it.” Additionally, Lew said that under Obama, Israel and America have had greater military and intelligence collaboration than ever before, citing the U.S.’s financing of Iron Dome, an air defense system designed to protect Israeli cities from rocket and missile attacks.
In response, Troy, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, countered that the “lack of warmth” between Netanyahu and Obama was “troubling.” “They maybe talk more often, but I don’t think Obama is happy with that,” Troy said, citing an incident last year, when Obama, unaware his microphone was on, responded to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comment that he couldn’t stand the Netanyahu with: “You are sick of him, but I have to talk to him every day.”
“I don’t think that is the sort of relationship that builds trust,” Troy argued. “Countries notice when there is daylight between leaders. People who don’t like Israel notice when the United States is not defending Israel.”
Bibi and Romney, on the other hand, are friends that have known each other since their time at the Boston Consulting Group. “In Mitt Romney, you have a candidate who not only trusts Netanyahu, he consults with him on a regular basis,” said Troy, adding that Romney will show his support of Israel in “every situation.”
In response to questions about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the election, neither would comment about the possibility of extending election hours or dates. “People will vote if they can,” said Lew. Added Troy: “We are not worried about the effect of the hurricane on the election. We are worried about the effect of the hurricane on the people.”
As for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s surprise Thursday endorsement of Obama, Lew played it cool, saying: “We appreciate all endorsements. We appreciated the endorsement from [Ed] Koch, and we appreciate the endorsement from Bloomberg, as well.”
Troy, on the other hand, claimed that the endorsement was inconsequential. “It wasn’t that surprising,” he said. To which an audience member loudly added: “It’s just one liberal supporting another liberal.”
The representatives each ended their speeches by talking about how being religiously observant has affected their careers. “I’ve always been a proud Jew who’s kept Shabbat and kashrut,” said Troy. In 2003, Troy became the White House liaison to the Jewish community, and last night he admitted he took the job “with trepidation.”
He knew what he was getting into though, when he accepted the position. “On the first day in office during the transition in 2001, when the rest of the office staff was trying to get acquainted with the computers and learning their phone numbers and hand delivering notes to each other, Adam Goldman’s [the former Jewish liaison] phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” he said. The job gave Troy, a better appreciation of Judaism and Americanism, but when he left his post—passing on a bottle of slivovitz instead of a baton— “you never saw anyone with a bigger smile,” he said.
Lew had similarly respectful experiences in D.C., saying it was often other Jews, not non-Jews, that caused the biggest conflicts. “They were concerned that I would judge them or they thought my [observance] was anachronistic or embarrassing,” he said. When Obama asked Lew to be his chief of staff, it was the president who brought up religion – not Lew. “He said I want you to know I will never ask you to be here on Shabbat unless it is really unavoidable,” remembered Lew. “I will never be there just to fill a chair. But if there is a national crisis, I will always find a way to be there. I go by the same rules a doctor works by.”
I really don’t couldn’t tell who won — but the rapt crowd stayed till the very end, relishing the compliments they received from the moderator on their well thought out, intelligent questions and concluding with the words “go vote.” After the debate, both candidates stayed for Maariv.
Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.