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What Did We Learn?

It wasn’t Obama who was on the spot when the Jewish leaders came to call

Seth Lipsky
July 22, 2009
Obama at the AIPAC conference last year.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Obama at the AIPAC conference last year.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

“What did we learn?” is the question posed at the end of The Accomplices, Bernard Weinraub’s play about the mission to America of Peter Bergson, who, in 1940, was sent by Vladimir Jabotinsky to rouse the Roosevelt administration to save the Jews of Europe. I saw the play in 2007, when it was in New York, and have been thinking about it this week in the wake of the meeting between a delegation of Jewish leaders and President Obama.

The president did a fine job in the interview, according to the participants. He was friendly and relaxed, re-avowing his commitment to the existence of the Jewish state but also insistent on America’s right to have differences with Israel. Two aides, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, were with the president, who spent the hour mostly on Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, the wider issues in the Arab world, and Iran.

The headline question was put to Obama by the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein. A lively account of it was up on Jeffrey Goldberg’s Web log within minutes of the meeting. It quoted Jeremy Ben Ami of J-Street paraphrasing Hoenlein, who suggested that “history shows that progress is made on the peace front when Israel and the U.S. are in lockstep and there’s no daylight between them on their position publicly.”

The president disagreed. “For eight years under the prior administration,” Ben Ami quoted the president saying, “there was no daylight between the two sides and there was no progress on the peace front, and no hard decisions were confronted, no progress was made.”

In other words, it’s George W. Bush’s fault. It’s not that one is shocked, shocked to find political jibes being uttered in the White House, and not even I would argue that Israel and America need to be in lock-step. My own view has long been that, if peace is the goal, then the right policy for America is to shadow whatever government Israelis elect a bit to the hawkish side, so that we are never caught between Israel and her enemies. But it’s startling that he got so little, if any, pushback when he suggested that no hard decisions were confronted. We’ve just come through a period, after all, when the government in Jerusalem decided, to the cheers of the peace camp, to uproot forcibly the Jews who’d settled in Gaza and to impose wrenching retreat—only to be met with yet more war.

To at least one participant it seemed as if there was a kind of unstated assumption in the conversation—that the settlements were, in the main, not a good thing and were even part of the problem. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a friend to whom I often turn when trying to fathom liberal thinking, told me after the meeting, which he attended, that the major institutions within his movement, which he characterizes as the largest grass roots movement in American Jewry, are against the settlements.

So I asked Rabbi Yoffie about the “accounting of the soul” that he had gone through after the rejection of Camp David II and the launch of the Second Intifada. The phrase was from a speech he delivered at Cleveland in 2001. I’d written about it in on the Wall Street Journal’s Website at the time. Back then Rabbi Yoffie said the crisis in Israel had led him to re-examine his most fundamental assumptions about the Middle East. He had gone so far as to review all that he had said and written during the past five years as well as all the resolutions of the board and assembly of what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella group for Reform Judaism.

“With that review complete,” the rabbi said back then, “I share with you my feeling that we have been wrong about some very important things. We have been wrong not so much in what we have said, but rather in what we have not said. We have been wrong in not understanding the full complexity of the threat that Israel faces.” First and foremost, he said, “we have been wrong about Palestinian intentions. We believed, along with our allies in the peace camp, that if an Israeli prime minister would be brave enough to say that Israel must choose peace over territories, the Palestinian Authority would also choose peace.”

That was at the start of another administration. Now Rabbi Yoffie says simply that it is one thing to be skeptical about the prospects for peace (he still is) and another to countenance actions, like building settlements, that preclude peace. Which seems to be the logic of the peace camp—and the administration—as we approach the 80th anniversary of August 1929, when the Jews were driven out of Hebron. The one leader in the Conference of Presidents who might have been counted on to speak up for the Jews who have returned to Hebron and other settlements, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, wasn’t at the meeting with President Obama.

When I asked Rabbi Yoffie about that, I didn’t detect a lot of regret. There was a time, though, when a leading figure in Reform Judaism, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, was head of the ZOA. It is something to read from this remove Silver’s speech at Madison Square Garden, where, in 1955, he thundered about the folly of what we now call land for peace. As his rage grew over the next two years, Silver dressed down the American administration mercilessly for pressuring Israel—going so far as to say at one point that some of its members had become afflicted with “the same blindness which formerly afflicted the Mandatory Power in its dealings with the Arabs and Jews.”

So what, in fact, have we learned? I telephoned Klein and asked him why he wasn’t at the meeting. He said he’d been told by his friends in Washington that one can’t criticize a president with the harshness Klein has used in respect to Obama and expect to get invited to the president’s house. Fair enough. Bergson never got in to see the president, either, though the treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, did step up. Bergson ended up organizing a protest of 400 Orthodox rabbis outside the White House, which helped throw the situation into sharp relief. It’s a reminder that, from the long perspective of history, there are times when it’s not the worst thing in the world to be on the outside looking in.

Seth Lipsky’s column for Tablet runs every other Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.