Bintel Blog

Obama To Address UJC General Assembly

By Nathan Guttman

The chase is over, and United Jewish Communities is the winner.

Ever since he took office in January, major Jewish groups have been trying to land President Obama as a speaker at their annual conferences. So far, the furthest Jewish groups could reach in the administration were Vice President Joe Biden and the National Security Advisor James L. Jones.

Until now.

On Friday, the UJC, which is being renamed the Jewish Federation of North America, announced that Barack Obama would be their keynote speaker at the General Assembly, scheduled for the second week of November in Washington.

“We are honored to be hosting President Obama at the GA,” said Dede Feinberg, the North America chair of the General Assembly.

This will be Obama’s first appearance at a Jewish community event, although he did hold a small meeting with a small group of Jewish leaders in July.

Although not officially announced yet, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also expected to speak at the GA. An announcement from Jerusalem confirming the appearance is expected in the next few days.

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President Obama's Rosh Hashanah Message

By Gabrielle Birkner

Four months after putting out a video commemorating the Persian New Year, or Norwuz, President Barack Obama is extending New Year’s wishes to the Jewish community in this video, posted on the the White House Web site Thursday:

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Obama and Bush: A Rosh Hashanah Double Standard?

By Daniel Treiman

Comparisons of President Obama to Hitler by health care town hall protesters have drawn widespread ridicule and outrage. Some conservatives though see a double standard: Where was all this outrage when President Bush was being compared to Hitler by some on the left?

But that’s not the only double standard that has some conservatives exercised nowadays. There’s also the Rosh Hashanah double standard.

U.S. News and World Report blogger Paul Bedard reports:

Washington Jewish Week and Politico tell us that Obama today reached out to about 1,000 Jewish leaders in his expanding campaign for healthcare reform. One of those on the call, Rabbi Jack Moline, tweeted through the call about what the president said. His Twitter page noted: Obama: “shanah tovah to all of you.”

That’s a reference to the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashana, which starts at sundown September 18. It means “Have a sweet new year.” An associate said that the president was just being polite with the rabbis, and spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Obama was invited by the rabbis to join in on the call “as they get ready for their important holidays.”

But in September 2007, when Bush issued a holiday greeting a week early, he was roundly ridiculed for jumping the gun. The Washington Post said that there was “quizzical reaction” from even Bush’s friends.

A former Bushie who remembered the spat said: “Strange. When GWB sent out Rosh Hashana greetings a few days early, he was mocked. Obama is an entire month too early, and no big whoop.”

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The President Is on the Line

By Jane Eisner

Every year, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sets up a mega-conference call for its rabbis — a sort of spring training for the High Holidays, with discussion about sermon topics, text study, and the like. And every year, the RAC invites guest speakers to participate.

This year, they scored a home run.

At 11 a.m. today, the nearly 1,000 rabbis who signed up for the call will get to hear President Obama offer his ideas for the Jewish new year. According to Kate Bigam, the RAC’s press secretary, “we made a leap” and tried to get on the president’s schedule. It worked.

Obama is expected to talk about 10 to 15 minutes in what is billed as a strictly private conversation, though how private that can remain with a thousand rabbis on the line will soon be tested. Bigam says it’s the first time a president has ever participated in this program.

What’s next? Shofar blowing in the White House?

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Obama Making Modest Inroads With Israeli Public

By Nathan Jeffay

The Fatah general conference, which has been extended to run until tomorrow, has been characterized by tough talk on Jerusalem. “Fatah will continue to sacrifice victims until Jerusalem will be returned [to the Palestinians], clean of settlements and settlers,” states a position paper which was adopted, according to reports. The paper apparently does not make a distinction between the eastern and western parts of the capital.

Interestingly, this comes as a poll shows that Israelis are currently strongly assertive about their rights over the whole of Jerusalem. The monthly Tel Aviv University War and Peace Index found that two-thirds of Israelis think that Israel should build anywhere it likes in Jerusalem, as it has the right to do so given its sovereignty over the whole city is indisputable.

Pollsters chose to survey on this topic after the U.S. State department protested plans to build housing on the East Jerusalem site of the Shepherd Hotel and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that, whatever limitations it may agree to regarding building in the settlements, it can build where it likes in Jerusalem, including the areas captured in 1967.

This is a conviction that America and much of the international community rejects, claiming that construction in disputed areas of Jerusalem should stop as part of the overall demand on Israel to freeze construction in the territories. But according to this new poll, it resonates with two out of three Israelis. Only 27% of people surveyed, the overwhelming majority of them Meretz and Labor voters, oppose Netanyahu’s position while the rest do not know.

The pollsters also asked about President Obama, and where Israelis believe that he stands on the Middle East. Since they last polled on this question — in June, just after his famous speech to the Arab world at Cairo University — he is seen as less pro-Palestinian. In the latest poll, 46% of respondents said he is pro-Palestinian, down from 55%. Around a third of respondents believe he is neutral (31%, slightly down from 34% in the June survey). The percentage of people deeming him pro-Israeli has stayed constant — a tiny 7%.

Where they think his sympathies lie is the question of whether Israelis trust Obama, and here, he is making inroads. Two months ago only 26% of people surveyed responded that they trusted him compared to 68% who did not trust him to look out for Israel’s interests. Today the rate of those who trust him has risen to 38% while the rate of those who do not has declined to 60%.

Since the nongovernmental organization Breaking the Silence released testimonies from soldiers claiming misconduct during Operation Cast Lead, Israelis have been debating their trustworthiness, as discussed in this Forward article The poll found that the testimonies have made their mark on a considerable part of the Jewish public (on this topic, figures are for the Jewish public alone) — with 43% of respondents saying they believe them while 47% do not. Nevertheless, 76% see no need to resume investigations in to the operation and just 17% are in favor of doing so.

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Rev. Wright: Oops, I Meant ‘Zionists’

By Daniel Treiman

Real Clear Politics reports:

Reverend Jeremiah Wright corrected his comments in which he said “Jews” were not allowing him to speak with President Obama. Wright says he “misspoke” and it is actually the “Zionists” who are preventing him from talking with the President.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote: “When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews — this is God’s own truth.” I always thought that King was perhaps painting with a bit too broad a brush, but his statement does seem rather apt in the case at hand.

RCP has the audio of Wright’s so-called explanation.

Here’s the Associated Press’s report on the Wright remarks.

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Offbeat Israel: Polling Israelis on Obama and Settlements

By Nathan Jeffay

Every month, Tel Aviv University pollsters gauge Israeli public opinion, and the Bintel Blog closely follows the results.

The latest poll, which was conducted last week just before Barack Obama’s speech, found that 55% of the Israeli public felt that the American president leans in favor of the Palestinians.

Few Israelis, 5%, said that he favors their county’s position, and 31% said they view him as neutral.

As Obama sets about changing America’s relationship with the Muslim world, 60% of Israelis do not trust him to protect Israel’s interests in the process.

Asked about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, 65% of respondents said it was unsuccessful and just 19% deemed it successful.

Given all the international attention to settlements, the pollsters decided that in this month’s survey they would gauge opinion on this subject.

More Israelis feel that settlements are bad for the state’s interests than those who think they contribute: the figures were 48% and 43% respectively.

Nevertheless, Israelis tend to expect large settlement blocks close to the Green Line to remain part of Israel in any peace settlement (as do most analysts), and therefore 53% of respondents said Israel should not agree to evacuate all settlements, even if a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians hinged on doing so, while 41% said it should.

The figures were very different when it came to illegal outposts and smaller settlements that are among Palestinian towns and villages. Regarding these, just 29% of respondents were against evacuation while 53% were in favor.

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On the Eve of Bibi's U.S. Visit, Jewish Groups Fight it Out

By Nathan Guttman

There are only a few days left until Benjamin Netanyahu descends on Washington, and preparations within the Jewish community are in high gear. That means, of course, that it’s time for some inter-organizational fighting.

The first question is who will get to meet Bibi. The Israeli embassy is putting together a list of 40 communal leaders that will cram into the Blair House meeting room on Tuesday to hear the prime minister sum up his first visit with President Obama.

So far, based on a partial sample of Jewish organizations, all the major mainstream groups are in, as are some of the smaller political groups (Zionist Organization of America, from the right, and Americans for Peace Now, from the left). Notably absent is the up and coming dovish lobby J Street. Not a big surprise considering the group’s harsh criticism of the Netanyahu government and their call for U.S. pressure on Israel to move forward with the peace process.

Then there’s the substance.

All Jewish advocacy groups are pitching in to tell Congress, the administration and even the Israelis what exactly should be said and done at the May 18 meeting between Netanyahu and Obama.

AIPAC is lobbying for a Congressional letter supporting the White House’s drive for peace, but stating that “the parties themselves must negotiate the details of any agreement.”

J Street is pushing for a different letter, which calls for a policy that will “actively working to de-escalate conflict and advance peace.”

But that’s not all: Americans for Peace Now put out an action alert calling on its activists to urge Obama to “stick to his guns,” and not give up on the two-state solution. And the Israel Policy Forum out a letter, signed by former ambassadors to the region, encouraging Obama to take an active role in promoting Israeli–Palestinian peace.

So, which of the letters will the president have read as he sits down with Netanyahu in the Oval Office?

Given his extremely busy schedule this week, probably none of them.

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Offbeat Israel: Has Kiryat Gat Adopted the Iranian Flag?

By Nathan Jeffay

If there was an Israeli “Obama Girl,” chances are that she would be approaching middle age.

The American president may have been a big hit with young Americans, but in Israel, it’s apparently the young who are the most skeptical about him.

Bar Ilan University, together with the Anti-Defamation League, have polled Israelis on their attitudes towards Obama, and presented results in two categories: those under 42, and those over.

Among the older respondents, 41% said they felt the new U.S. president was capable of making the right decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the figure among younger respondents was just 32%. The pattern was similar when people were asked whether they believed President Obama would maintain friendly relations with Israel. Among older respondents, 41% said yes; among younger respondents, the figure was 34%. Obama’s policy on Iran also gets more approval among older Israelis. Some 60% of younger Israelis are against him talking to Iran, whereas 42% of younger respondents share that position.

Aside from the age factor, the survey provided interesting findings about the way Obama is viewed. Back in 2007, Bar Ilan research found that 73% of Israelis considered the U.S. president — then George W. Bush — friendly to Israel; the figure today for Obama was 38%.

The poll also asked people if they are in favor of an Israeli strike on Iran if that country’s nuclear program is not halted. Two-thirds of Israelis were; 15% were against such a strike.

On a lighter note: What do you think this flag looks like? It’s actually the municipal flag of the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Gat, but the resemblance to the Iranian flag isn’t lost on the city’s officials and residents.

At a council meeting yesterday, one councilman showed the Iranian flag and said it looks too similar to the municipal flag. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is unlikely to change his, even though Kiryat Gat’s came along first (56 years ago; Iran’s was chosen only after the Islamic Revolution of 1979). So the councilman said his city should come up with something new; some of his colleagues, however, gave him short shrift — saying that the city shouldn’t surrender its heritage just because of Iran’s taste in colors.  

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To Iran, With Love — And Geopolitical Challenges

By Gabrielle Birkner

To commemorate the festival of Nowruz — marking the beginning of the Persian New Year — American President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres have each recorded friendly messages, embedded with challenges, for the people of Iran.

Obama, in his statement, also available with Farsi subtitles, said:

The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

His comments can be seen in their entirety here:

Peres in his message, broadcast on Israel Radio’s Farsi channel, said:

With great pleasure, I offer you this blessing on your holiday, a day of renewal that brings with it happiness and hope of a new day, of better days and a blessed new year.

… Unfortunately, the relations between our two countries have hit a low point, stemming from ideas that compel your leaders to act in every possible way against the state of Israel and its people. But I am convinced that the day is not far off when our two nations will restore good neighborly relations and cooperation in thriving in every way.

… At the start of the New Year, I urge you, the noble Iranian people, on behalf of the ancient Jewish people, to reclaim your worthy place among the nations of the enlightened world, while contributing a worthy cultural contribution.

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Obama and the Christian-Muslim-Jewish Nation

By Nathan Guttman

One staple of any great speech is that everyone hears it in a different way. For some, President Obama’s inaugural address was all about hope and optimism; for others, it was about the nation’s resilience. For the Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein, it was all about one sentence: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”

Turns out that it’s all about the sequence, and Klein, the ZOA president, feels that Jews were unfairly downgraded to third place. In a press release, Klein reads into Obama’s decision to put Muslims before Jews (and Hindus and non-believers) in his speech.

“Throughout its history, the United States has always been known as a nation based on Judeo-Christian values and heritages,” he argues, quoting former president Bush’s 2001 inaugural address in which he put “synagogue” before “mosque.”

According to Klein, it is not a matter of prestige but of numbers, and since Jews outnumber Muslims in the United States, they should rightly hold on to their second place. “This is not a Muslim-Christian-Jewish nation, it is a Judeo-Christian nation,” he told the Forward.

But if numbers and sequence do matter, here is a point Jewish observers who are worried about Islam beating Judaism for second place in the president’s eyes, should look at: A day after the inauguration, Obama attended the national prayer service, and guess what: There were three rabbis and only one Muslim representative.


Helen Suzman, Barack Obama, and 100 Years of Black-Jewish Relations

By Gabrielle Birkner

Helen Suzman, the Jewish anti-apartheid activist who died earlier this month, was long critical of South Africa’s organized Jewish community for its policy of political non-involvement during the apartheid years. When the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) gave her a humanitarian award in 2007, she accepted the honor with the words, “It’s about time.”

As Claudia Braude points out in her appreciation of Suzman in this week’s Forward:

“For decades, the SAJBD maintained a cordial relationship with the apartheid government. Believing that Jews should not compromise their group interests by opposing the ruling powers, the board’s leaders discouraged criticism of apartheid. This contrasted strikingly with the stance that American Jewish organizations took, in varying degrees and forms, toward racial segregation in the American South during the 20th century. Civil rights was a cause they embraced, even at the cost of discomfiting Jews living in areas where Jim Crow laws reigned.”

Not that it’s clear-cut. Over the past century, the relationship between black Americans and Jewish Americans has been alternately symbiotic and fraught; that relationship is the subject of a spectacular photo essay in the most recent issue of Moment magazine. The feature comprises, among other photographs, images of Jewish academics who found work at historically black colleges after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe; Reform movement leaders carrying Hebrew-language signs while partaking in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed March on Washington, and scenes from the riots in Crown Heights (and those from the cross-cultural reconciliation forums that the violence eventually spawned). Four pages are devoted to the President-elect, and his high-profile supporters and advisors. The prose that accompanies the photo essay ends with a quote from the speech Obama gave at last year’s AIPAC conference:

“There is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and tradition to freedom and fairness, to social justice and equal opportunity, to tikkun olam, the obligation to repair the world. I will never forget that I would not be standing here today if it weren’t for the commitment that was made not only in the African-American community, but also in the Jewish-American community. In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jews and African-Americans have stood shoulder-to-shoulder.”


Obama Breaks His Silence on Gaza, but Doesn’t Say Much

By Daniel Treiman

The Associated Press reports:

President-elect Barack Obama broke his silence on the crisis Tuesday, saying that “the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me.” He declined to go further, reiterating his stance that the U.S. has only one president at a time.

Obama had been withholding comment on Gaza, with an aide explaining that President Bush is still responsible for American diplomatic policy. “During this transition period, we are not engaging in any action that could send confusing signals to the world about who speaks on behalf of the United States,” the aide said.

In the meantime, supporters of the Palestinians and of Israel were left stewing over Obama’s silence, angry at him for not speaking out. Of course, each side wanted him to say opposite things.

Many Arabs, of course, wanted Obama to call for an end to the Israeli offensive. “We want him to say something at least to stop the bloodshed,” said Suhail Natour, a Palestinian activist in Beirut told The Chicago Tribune. “Waiting until the 20th, with the bloodshed continuing, I don’t think is an acceptable way of confirming a new policy in the Middle East. Silence on this means complicity.”

Meanwhile, some pro-Israel activists — particularly those from the right end of the political spectrum — have criticized Obama for not weighing in on Israel’s side.

Reuters reports:

Morton Klein, president of the pro-Israel Zionist Organization of America, noted that Obama spoke out on Mumbai.

“And he’s acting almost as if he’s president when it comes to the economy, right? He’s not screaming ‘there’s only one president’ when he’s talking about the economic stimulus package,” Klein said.

Obama’s latest comments are sure to satisfy no one. Then again, anything he could have possibly said would have been sure to offend someone.


Beyond Rick Warren's Invocation

By Gabrielle Birkner

The Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament has some advice for Barack Obama. Writing in The New Republic, Diament — the OU’s public policy director — urges the incoming president to do more than offer religious voters symbols, like an inaugural invocation by Rev. Rick Warren. Obama, Diament writes, has an opportunity to “advance policies that are important to them” — and can do so without sacrificing Democratic Party principles on issues like abortion, gay rights, and school vouchers.

To that end, he suggests that Obama support programming aimed at reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies; ensure that religious schools and social welfare agencies can continue to receive federal funding, regardless of their policies on homosexuality, and make federal grants available to parochial schools expanding their pre-kindergarten programs or greening their campuses. He writes:

”In their faith-outreach efforts, Democrats were wont to quote the Book of James’ statement that ‘faith without works is dead.’ If there were a Talmudic commentary to the Christian Bible, it might suggest that having won the power to govern, Democrats ought now to reread this verse to say, ‘Without work, faith outreach will be dead.’”


Babs on Barack: He’s Kosher on Israel

By Daniel Treiman

Entertainer extraordinaire and Hollywood liberal stalwart Barbra Streisand fields some questions from Politico on the 2008 presidential campaign. Among other tidbits, there’s this exchange:

POLITICO: There’s been a lot of discussion about Israel during this race so far. Should this issue have a major place in this year’s election?

STREISAND: Issues of foreign policy have a place in every election for President. As a woman, a Jew, and a strong supporter of Israel, I am confident Sen. Obama is committed to Israel’s safety and security.

Famed philosemite and McCain booster Jon Voight, however, is less keen on him (though not necessarily for reasons having to do with Jews).


What Happens at the Kotel Doesn’t Stay at the Kotel

By Daniel Treiman

An Israeli newspaper has published what apparently is a photo of the note that Barack Obama placed in the Western Wall during his visit Wednesday. The Israeli tabloid Ma’ariv reports that the note — written on stationary from Jerusalem’s King David hotel, where Obama was staying — was taken from the wall and given to the newspaper by a yeshiva student.

The text of the note:

Lord,

Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair.

Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just.

And make me an instrument of your will.

The Jerusalem Post reports that the Western Wall’s rabbi has condemned Ma’ariv’s action.

Hat tip: Politico

UPDATE: The yeshiva student who removed Obama’s note has apologized, and the note has been returned to the wall.


Obama’s Busy Day: Bibi, Shimon, Tzipi, Two Ehuds and a Pair of Palestinians

By Daniel Treiman

Barack Obama is going to be pretty busy on Wednesday.

His campaign has announced that he will be meeting in Israel that day with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. As if that’s not enough for a day’s work, he’ll also be meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

Politico’s Ben Smith thinks that Bibi Netanyahu is “[p]erhaps the most striking name” on Obama’s itinerary. Smith doesn’t elaborate, but perhaps his “perhaps” is due to a statement Obama made back in February referencing a certain Israeli political party of which Bibi is a member.

“I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel,” Obama told a Jewish audience in Cleveland. (That remark, incidentally, prompted to Ha’aretz’s Shmuel Rosner to opine that Obama had made “a questionable comment that can be seen as meddling in the internal politics of Israel.”)

As to Obama’s powwow with Netanyahu during his current world tour, however, it’s worth noting that the Likud-nik isn’t the only right-wing opposition leader with whom the presidential hopeful is meeting: He’s also sitting down with the leader of Britain’s Tories later in the week.

UPDATE: Obama’s busy Wednesday is getting busier: His aides say he also plans to visit the embattled town of Sderot, as well as Yad Vashem, and maybe even a stop at the Western Wall.

UPDATE II: Ha’aretz has more details of Obama’s itinerary for his visit to Israel and the West Bank. Given Obama’s packed schedule, it’s not surprising that many of his meetings look like they’ll be less than an hour long. It does seem, however, as if the presidential hopeful will be spending quite a bit of time with the woman who may very well be Israel’s next prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will be accompanying him on a visit to Sderot.


Rahm Emanuel: First Jewish Speaker of the House?

By Daniel Treiman

Politico examines the ambitions of Democratic powerbroker Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who is considered a possible Senate successor to Barack Obama in the event that the Illinois Democrat is elected president in November.

But Emanuel insists that he’s not interested in Obama’s Senate seat , which, Politico notes, begs the question, “What does Rahm really want, and what is his timetable for getting there?”

Politico reports that “before he was even elected to his first term as the congressman from the North Side of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel was telling friends that he had one goal in life: to become the first Jewish speaker of the House.”

Insiders apparently think that Emanuel’s dream is a real possibility. Politico’s John Bresnahan writes:

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Obama Digs Roth, But McCain Prefers Wouk

By Daniel Treiman

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg — who has lately established himself as a key contender for the title of Mr. Jewish Journalist — grilled Barack Obama about Israel and other topics of Jewish interest. Now, he covers some of the same ground with John McCain.

Since Obama, in his interview, volunteered that he is a fan of the writers Philip Roth, Leon Uris and David Grossman, Goldberg grills McCain on his Jewish literary tastes. And while the two presidential hopefuls may have very different views on the potential utility of talking to Iran (“you don’t sit down face-to-face with people who are behave the way they do, who are state sponsors of terrorism,” McCain told Goldberg), at least they can agree when it comes to Leon Uris:

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Quizzing Obama on the State of Israel — and the State of His Kishkes

By Daniel Treiman

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (who in the 1990s wrote for this rag) chatted this weekend with Barack Obama about Israel and Jewish issues.

Goldberg, who recently penned a widely discussed article for the Atlantic looking at Israel’s difficult choices through the prism of the tensions between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and writer David Grossman, finds that Obama has done some reading on the topic — from Leon Uris to “The Yellow Wind,” Grossman’s 1987 look at life in the West Bank.

Goldberg poses a smart question — one that has also been raised by another smart Jewish journalist — that cuts to the core of Obama’s challenges in the Jewish community. I’m talking about “the kishke question,” the implications of which Goldberg does a good job of summarizing:

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