May 28, 2010
Obama hosts Jewish leaders at White House reception
What Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg has called “Operation Desert Schmooze” continued at the White House yesterday. A group of some 150 people, mostly Jews prominent in their fields, gathered for the latest volley in the Obama charm offensive. This was the first White House event in honor of Jewish Heritage month which—it may have escaped your notice—was in May.
The White House continues its campaign to sell both the genuineness of its sympathy with Israel and its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclearization of Iran. This was the’soft sell;’ reminding us of the President’s deep ties to Jews and the Jewish community.
The reception brought together an impressively wide array of personalities. In addition to internationally known Rabbis including Harold Kushner and David Saperstein, there were prominent LA leaders, such as Rabbi Sharon Brous, Aaron Bisman and Shawn Landres. There also were Washington insiders like David Brooks, Nina Totenberg, Roger Cohen, Diane Sawyer, Carl Bernstein and government officials like David Axelrod and Peter Orszag, a group of Senators and congressmen (including the easily spotted Al Franken.) Supreme court justices—and Elena Kagan, the nominee—added to the august feel of leather bound books on the shelves and Presidential seals on everything from the carpet to the paper hand towels. Several non-Jews active in politics and supportive of Israel, including the Director of research for the Southern Baptist convention, Barrett Duke, were present; and of course Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren. To reinforce the connection of the administration with Israel, the President made a point to remind us that Rahm Emanuel was in Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of his son.
As the formal part of the program began I found myself sitting in front of Robert Pinsky, the former poet Laureate of the United States. Also occasioning a lot of whispered interest were the perennially popular children’s author, Judy Blume, Theodore Bikel, and a gathering of sports figures: the Miami Dolphin quarterback Jay Fiedler and basketball legend Dolph Schayes.
I had been to the White House once before, for the opening of the Anne Frank exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. Then of course the mood was far more somber; on this day there was a great deal of clinking glass, canapé scarfing and neck craning to spot others (except for Dolph Schayes and his son, who took easy advantage of the Jews’ vertical deficiencies.)
In his opening remarks the President acknowledged the biggest draw. He said it was a remarkable gathering of rabbinical scholars, politicians, artists and Sandy Koufax. When he mentioned the name of legendary pitcher, the room exploded in applause. Koufax is of course famous in the Jewish community not only for his epochal skills as a pitcher, but for refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur in the World Series. The President mentioned the similarities between himself and Koufax: “We are both lefties. He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur, and I can’t pitch.”
His words were brief and focused on the Jewish struggle through history which has turned us to a more compassionate people, and an extraordinarily accomplished one. He spoke of the symbiosis between America and the Jews. And in the line the assembly was waiting for, the President reinforced the unbreakable bond between America and Israel.
This was the undercurrent of the afternoon. The primary topics of conversation beforehand (apart from the horrendous oil spill) were Mideast peace, Iran and President’s standing with the Jewish community. He is currently polling lower among Jews than any Democrat in recent memory. The causes are primarily a perceived lack of sympathy with Israel and fear of developments in Iran. I spoke at length with Roger Cohen from the NY Times, who visited Sinai Temple over a year ago to engage the Iranian community. We both agreed there has been woefully little encouragement of dissidents in Iran, a crucial step. As Leon Wieseltier from the New Republic pointed out to me the day before, even when the Soviet Union was a major nuclear power we did not hesitate to encourage Soviet dissidents in every way we could. So why the diffidence on Iran?
A reception will not change anyone’s mind. The undeniable grace and charm of the President and First Lady will not either. The divides on policy are deep. But for a moment, the politics of the event slipped away; the people in the room represented the range of political views, left to right. For most there was the enduring wonder of the instant: as Alysa Stanton, America’s first female, African-American Rabbi read Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and singer Regina Spektor performed, there endured the miraculous reality of Jewish Americans gathering in the White House. Together this group represented a stunning range of achievement and a fair return for America’s deep blessing of freedom.
As we melted away into the blazing Washington sun, past the portraits of Presidents and first ladies, past the honor guard and escorts, I came upon a small group discussing the American Jewish museum, due to open in November. The museum is built on Independence mall in Philadelphia. From literature to music to the pitcher’s mound, you cannot tell the story of America without telling the story of our people. On the steps of the White House we spoke about the museum near constitution hall. At the fraught founding of this great nation, who knew that when the cracked bell first tolled, it was playing our song?
This article first appeared on Huffington Post and is reprinted with permission.