President Obama sought to reassure American Jews that he is a fierce supporter of Israel as he visited an influential synagogue here on Friday to defend his quest for a nuclear agreement with Iran. The visit was also an attempt to mend a strained relationship with parts of the American Jewish community that dates to the start of Mr. Obama’s presidency and has worsened in recent months.
“When I hear some people say that disagreements over policy belie a general lack of support of Israel, I must object — and I object forcefully,” Mr. Obama said. But he said he was unwilling to “paper over differences.”
Calling himself an “honorary member of the tribe,” Mr. Obama, wearing a yarmulke and standing at the bimah where rabbis chant from the Torah, told about 1,000 people in the packed sanctuary at Adas Israel, a large Conservative congregation about three miles from the White House, that the United States had an “enduring friendship with the people of Israel” and “unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel” that could never be weakened.
“Our commitment to Israel’s security, and my commitment to Israel’s security is, and always will be, unshakable,” Mr. Obama said.
And, he said, “it is precisely because I care so deeply about the state of Israel that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think would lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.” He added, “I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
The president used the roughly 30-minute speech to vow that he would reject a “bad deal” or one that failed to meet his objective of cutting off Tehran’s pathways to developing a bomb, and argued that an agreement was in Israel’s best security interests.
Above all, Mr. Obama said, “the people of Israel must always know: America has its back.”
It was unclear how much a single visit to a synagogue would assuage Jewish concerns, but White House officials indicated that it was part of what they described as a sustained effort to reach out to American Jews before the June 30 deadline for completing the Iran accord.
In his remarks, the president worked to put his support for Israel in a personal context and to knock down a perception among some Jewish leaders and activists that he lacks a deep emotional connection to Israel and its people. As a young man inspired by the civil rights struggle in the United States, Mr. Obama said, he came to know Israel “through these incredible images of kibbutzim,” the collective communities that formed the backbone of the Jewish state.
“Those values in many ways came to be my own values,” Mr. Obama said.
The president’s views on Israel were forged during his time in Chicago, when he became friendly with a group of prominent Jewish Democrats that included Lester Crown, a Chicago-based industrialist, the federal judge Abner J. Mikva, and Newton N. Minow, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He came to share their approach to Israel, which involved staunch support for the Jewish state coupled with a willingness to criticize its policies.
Years later as he campaigned for president, Mr. Obama would tell a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland that a person did not have to be pro-Likud — a conservative and hawkish party in Israel — to be pro-Israel. At a White House meeting during his first year in office, he questioned whether a stance that put “no daylight” between the United States and Israel was productive, telling a group of Jewish leaders that it had yielded no progress during the previous administration.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Julie Hirschfeld Davis