From American Jews, a wide reaction to Obama's Middle East speech

Obama was no doubt mindful of Jewish voters in giving his Middle East speech. He'll need to work hard to win their backing again in 2012, and many are skeptical of his support for Israel.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama waves to the audience as he arrives to speak at a reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House on May 17 in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, newly elected chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, speaks during a DNC meeting on May 4 in Washington.

President Obama’s Middle East speech on Thursday had several important audiences, most of them overseas in a region marked by political turmoil and long-standing challenges.

But as he accelerates his 2012 reelection campaign, one domestic audience in particular was no doubt on Mr. Obama’s mind: Jewish voters.

In 2008, Obama won nearly 78 percent of the Jewish vote; just 21 percent went for his Republican rival, John McCain. More than ever, Jewish voters remain a crucial part of his political base – in terms of campaign contributions as well as votes.

Can he retain that kind of Jewish support?

It helps that Obama recently chose US Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida as the new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). She is an active member of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) and Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.

The NJDC, which describes itself as the “liaison between the organized Jewish community and the Democratic Party,” lauded Obama after his speech for “his strong support for Israel and the pragmatic approach he put forth to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

But overall, the reaction – from individual voters as well as major Jewish organizations – was decidedly mixed. Or as the Jewish news agency JTA put it, there were “wildly divergent responses from Jewish groups and opinion shapers, even among some who are otherwise often on the same page.… From accolades like ‘compelling’ to accusations like ‘Auschwitz borders’ to radio silence.”

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) both chose to accentuate the positive, skirting the contentious issue of borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Obama had said such borders “should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

“AJC has long supported a negotiated two-state settlement, and welcomed the president’s reaffirmation of this goal,” the organization said in a statement, also noting Obama’s rejection of the effort by the Palestinian Authority to get the United Nations to declare a state unilaterally. “President Obama has sternly warned the Palestinians, and the international community, to stop this senseless drive to try to achieve a state without any negotiated agreement with Israel.”

In its statement, the ADL called Obama’s speech “compelling,” and it said, "The Palestinians must heed the President’s warnings about imprudent and self-defeating actions, including through campaigns to delegitimize Israel, plans to unilaterally declare statehood, and a unity agreement with a Hamas which remains committed to violence, rejection and anti-Semitism.”

On the other hand, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flat rejection of any return to the 1967 borders.

In its statement, the ZOA, which describes itself as the oldest pro-Israel organization in the United States, “strongly condemned President Obama’s Mideast speech … promoting and supporting the establishment of a Hamas/Fatah/Iran terrorist state on the Auschwitz 1967 indefensible armistice lines.”

ZOA President Morton Klein called Obama "the most hostile president to Israel ever,” and his organization urged the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group, to rescind its invitation to Obama to address AIPAC’s annual conference on Sunday.

The reaction among American Jews interviewed in the Chicago area was mixed as well.

“Obama needed to do something because the instability in the region is getting worse,” said Joshua Schwartz, who voted for Obama in 2008. “However, I find his plan to return to the 1967 borders distasteful.”

“We have seen presidents try to suggest the same thing but never so boldly as Obama,” Mr. Schwartz said. “I can’t see how this will help him win any Jewish votes here in the next election.”

Benjamin Abramson voted for Obama as well, but he says the president’s statement on Israel-Palestine borders “is dangerous and wrong.”

“Israel is the only ally the US has in the Middle East, and it will be weakened if those borders are tampered with,” he said. Still, he says he’s likely to vote for Obama again because “any alternative the Republicans come up with will likely be worse.”

“He has to make the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” says Chaim Twerski. “If they don’t do that, it puts all the pressure on Israel. If they don’t do that, there’s probably going to be some disappointment [among Jewish voters in the US].”

But Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski, senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, commends Obama for his “leadership, his courage, and his willingness to take risks.”

“Drawing a line in the sand about specific borders may undermine some aspects of conversations moving forward,” Rabbi Petuchowski acknowledges. “Yet the realism conveyed and the frustration expressed by our president are real. Most Jews who share both a genuine love for and commitment to a Jewish state at the same time believe in the notion of freedom and dignity for law-abiding nonterrorist Palestinians.”

Some close observers perceive a shift in Obama’s attitude toward the Middle East.

Writing for the Jewish news agency JTA, Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas notes that Obama is “moving away from what was perceived as his previous over-eagerness to engage with the region's autocrats … unstinting in [his] condemnation of Syria and Iran.”

In its statement, the ADL said, "This administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel.”

There may be a very practical political reason for this.

“Jewish donors and fund-raisers are warning the Obama re-election campaign that the president is at risk of losing financial support because of concerns about his handling of Israel,” The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Among the complaints: Obama’s repeated criticisms of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank; the perception that Obama is pushing Israel harder than he is Palestinians to negotiate a peace settlement; and the fact that Obama has yet to visit Israel since becoming president.

Recognizing the problem, the Obama campaign has enlisted Penny Pritzker, Obama's 2008 national finance chairwoman and a member of one of the country’s wealthiest Jewish American business families, to talk with Jewish leaders about their concerns.

"I do think there's an education job to be done, because there's lots of myths that abound and misunderstandings of the administration's record," she told The Wall Street Journal. "The campaign is aggressively getting the information out there."

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