by Rafael Medoff
Anyone wondering why President Obama’s 30-point lead over Mitt Romney among Jews in New York has shrunk to just eight points need look no further than the president’s meeting last week with a delegation of Jewish leaders.
According to the latest survey by the Siena College Research Institute, one of the top polling agencies covering New York State, Obama’s previous 62-32 edge over Romney among the state’s Jewish voters has dwindled to 51-43. That’s the lowest Jewish support for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1980.
A few days before the poll came out, a delegation of Orthodox Jewish leaders met with the president at the White House. In a memo to his congregants this week, Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue, described the meeting.
“When asked about the perception that Israel is being pressed on the peace process more than are the Palestinians,” Rabbi Lookstein wrote, “the President indicated his belief that both sides need to compromise and that he has pressured both sides. However, in truth, he only cited pressure on the Israelis with respect to stopping settlement activity. He indicated that all of the United States assistance to Israel on security issues is problematic for the Palestinians, but, of course, that doesn’t constitute pressure on them to do anything. The one thing the Palestinians have to be pressured to do is to sit down at the table and negotiate without pre-conditions. The President has not done this and he avoided giving a clear response to the question of how he is specifically pressuring the Palestinians.”
Although the president and his advisers had plenty of time to prepare for the meeting, and even though the meeting was, as Rabbi Lookstein put it, “carefully scripted,” President Obama “avoided giving a clear response” regarding pressuring the Palestinians. One would think he would have come up with at least one example, even if it was more rhetorical than substantive, to soothe the concerns of the Jewish delegation. No such luck.
Rabbi Lookstein, the author of Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?, an important book on American Jewry’s response to the Holocaust, has a keen sense of history. He recalled, in his memo, how some prominent Jews with access to President Franklin Roosevelt hesitated “to ask the hard questions or raise the tough issues.” In December 1942, after the U.S. had verified that mass murder of Europe’s Jews was underway, Jewish leaders were granted half an hour with the president. He spent the first 23 minutes telling jokes and commenting on other subjects. Then FDR spoke in generalities about the Nazi genocide for a few moments. And then –one participant later wrote– he “pushed some secret button, and his adjutant appeared in the room” to usher the Jewish leaders out.
In his diary, Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace, wrote about an incident in March 1944, in which FDR met with Jewish leaders and “caused [them] to believe that he was in complete accord with them…” The very next day, Roosevelt boasted to his cabinet that he had told the Jewish leaders “where to get off” and had warned them that their agitation for Zionism was “going to be responsible for the killing of a hundred thousand people” (“enraged Arabs” would retaliate by attacking Americans in the Mideast, FDR claimed). “The President certainly is a waterman,” Wallace wrote. “He looks one direction and rows the other with the utmost skill.”
American Jews in the 1940s had no way to know President Roosevelt’s true feelings on these issues, and Jewish leaders were reluctant to speak up. “Thank God, we live in a very different world today,” Rabbi Lookstein wrote this week. Today’s Jewish leaders are much more willing than their predecessors to ask the president the difficult questions that need to be asked.
At the end of the meeting with President Obama, Rabbi Lookstein gave the president’s Jewish chief of staff, Jack Lew, a copy of his book, which he inscribed, “May you, unlike American Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, speak truth to power when the opportunity presents itself.” “My only question,” Rabbi Lookstein concluded, is “will the President listen? I hope the answer to that is yes.”
I hope so, too. But unfortunately, so far President Obama evidently prefers to “avoid giving a clear response” regarding pressuring the Palestinians. If that continues to be his policy, then the president may well find his Jewish support decreasing even further.
(As published in the Jerusalem Post – June 18, 2012)