It is a mystery: Why do so many Jewish Americans wherever I go express grave concerns about President Obama’s commitment to the Jewish state of Israel?
The shocking loss of the Democratic congressional candidate last week in New York’s 9th district — the first time a Republican has won that seat since the presidency of Warren Harding — was in large part a result of the defection of substantial numbers of Jewish voters. (Former Mayor Ed Koch’s endorsement of the Republican was a reflection of his concerns about Obama’s support of Israel.)
Yet, just days before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Obama for his personal intervention that saved lives of Cairo Israel Embassy officials under attack by Muslim extremists. And Obama has courageously stood up for Israel in announcing that the U.S. will veto a Security Council resolution supporting recognition of a Palestinian state.
I hope the White House and Democratic officials didn’t really believe it when they discounted the significance of the loss in New York’s 9th as the result of the alienation of a small segment of “conservative Orthodox Jews.” It is far more serious than that, in my experience.
My theory is Obama’s problem is more about his insensitivity in his choice of words and phrases than his policies towards Israel or where his heart truly is.
Some may say Jews are overly sensitive to words. Jews would say back: If that is so, then oversensitivity has been an important survival device, enabling Jews to survive thousands of years of persecution.
Here are three examples of times that Obama’s insensitive words have set off alarms in Jewish communities — left, right and center:
In Obama’s Cairo speech in the first few months of his administration, he said that the state of Israel was born as a result of the Holocaust. He seemed to be giving credence to the historical lie that offends Jews all over the world, part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel by those who refuse to accept Israel as a sovereign Jewish state — i.e., that Israel was founded by alien Europeans after World War II, foisted on native Palestinian Arabs. This lie denies the historical fact of Jewish ties to the land of Israel going back more than 3,000 years. Obama also seemed oblivious to the trauma of the “Diaspora,” the forced expulsion of Jews from the holy land of Israel beginning with the destruction of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of the Jewish people more than 2,600 years ago.
In March 2010, Obama approved of the use of the word “condemned” to describe Israel’s decision, during a visit by Vice President Biden, to announce the building of several hundred apartments in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem that dates back over 100 years. The last times the U.S. used the word “condemn” about a foreign country was to describe the North Korean nuclear detonation and the murder of an innocent Iranian woman during its period of civilian protests.
Then, just this past spring, Obama chose to use the expression that Israel should negotiate peace based on a “return to the ’67 borders with land swaps.” Obama seemed to forget that it was the Arab nations that, prior to 1967, barred all Jews from the holiest of holy places, King Solomon’s Western Wall in East Jerusalem, and then invaded Israel without warning, not to honor those ’67 borders but rather to extinguish Israel as an independent Jewish state.
Obama certainly still has a chance to win back most Jewish voters, which he needs to do in order to win such “must-win” states as Pennsylvania and Florida in 2012. This should be possible, especially given his recent courageous actions in defense of Israel and the fact that most Jews are liberal and support President Obama’s domestic policies.
But to do so, he must do more listening than talking as he reaches out to American Jews and conveys sensitivity to them, just as he does with other racial and ethnic groups throughout America. He can do it. But it won’t be easy.
Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).