The athletes, the astronauts, the alternative music, the black rabbi, the white dress uniforms and, above all, the left-handed baseball giant: Welcome to Barack Obama’s Jewish America.
The first-ever Jewish America Heritage Month celebration at the White House on Thursday underscored the Obama administration’s determination not to be locked into Washington’s conventional notions of Jewish leadership.
President Obama did not exactly snub the usual suspects who have peopled similar events for decades. There was Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and there was Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both also happen to have been major fund-raisers for Obama’s campaign, as were several others among the 250 or so in attendance.
But the image that the White House sought to convey was one of Jewish America not necessarily bound to the alphabet soup of the Jewish organizational world and of pro-Israelism. Instead, Obama presented an array of Jewish heroes and celebrities who pronouncedly defied Jewish stereotypes. In addition to the major givers, the entrepreneurs and the communal leaders, there were also sports heroes—including Sandy Koufax—veterans, non-profit innovators, journalists, actors and organizers.
Obama referred also to “the countless names that we don’t know—the teachers, the small business owners, the doctors and nurses, the people who seek only to live honestly and faithfully and to give their children more than they had.”
The reception was in the works for months, and planning predated the tensions between Israel and the United States precipitated in early March when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit there by Vice President Joe Biden, who also was at Thursday’s reception.
Still, the White House’s message was timely: Obama would not be second-guessed by his pro-Israel critics on his friendship to the Jewish community and to Israel. The reception included a traditional reference to the “unbreakable” Israel-U.S. alliance dating back to within minutes of Israel’s establishment.
Jewish values, Obama said, “helped lead America to recognize and support Israel as a Jewish homeland and a beacon for democratic values—beginning mere minutes after its independence was declared. In fact, we have the original statement by President Harry Truman on display here today.”
Obama also made it clear, however, that he sees the alliance as part of America’s strategy of outreach to the world.
“My administration is renewing American leadership around the world—strengthening old alliances and forging new ones, defending universal values while ensuring that we uphold our values here at home,” he said. “In fact, it’s our common values that leads us to stand with allies and friends, including the State of Israel.”
The dual message—closeness to Israel coupled with global outreach—has characterized the recent “charm offensive” launched by the White House in the wake of the recent tensions with Israel. Obama is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next Tuesday, and the signs are that it will be a higher-profile reception than the thief-in-the-night encounter the two had when tensions were at their highest in March.
But the president is also hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on June 9, and in both cases Obama has made it clear that he wants to advance the “proximity” talks currently underway to direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
It’s a message that his administration is taking to Jewish audiences, and aggressively. His top Middle East negotiator, George Mitchell, this week chose a fund-raiser for the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital to delicately advance a subtle but substantial shift in U.S. policy. Mitchell, who rarely addresses such forums, likened Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip, to Irish Republican hardliners during his five years negotiating the Northern Ireland peace. Like Hamas, the hardliners did not accept the fundamental principles of the peace talks, but Mitchell eventually broke down their resistance through incentives.
“Everyone is welcome as long as they are prepared to accept” the principles of recognizing Israel and swearing off terrorism, Mitchell said. He did not say what incentives, if any, he had to offer Hamas, but the expectation that he could wear Hamas down is new. Bush administration policy was to theorize that Hamas would be welcome if it changed colors, but to operate on the practical assumption that it was incapable of doing so and to instead machinate Hamas’ replacement with Palestinian moderates.
Mitchell was just part of what seems a never-ending effort in recent weeks to simultaneously stay on message but to win over the Jewish community: Laura Rozen of Politico this week reported that Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman who has a high Jewish establishment profile and whose views on peace coincide with Obama’s, is under consideration to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Jewish federation leaders who flew in from across the country for a Jewish Federations of North America briefing got meetings with some of Obama’s closest advisers, including Mitchell and Dennis Ross, the top Iran policy official at the White House.
The administration’s Jewish Heritage Month festivities amounted to a bald emotional appeal to Jewish soft spots: The National Archives ran a session on stereotype-defying Jews in the military during the Civil War. The Library of Congress celebrated Jewish comediennes.
Nowhere were the emotions more in evident—yet more controlled—than at the White House reception.
The Heritage Month was established after legislation passed in 2006 by Rep. Debra Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), then a freshman in Congress. In subsequent years, Jewish Democrats fumed that President George W. Bush did nothing more to mark the month than issue a proclamation. After such griping, it raised eyebrows last year when Obama did not mark the month, so Thursday’s reception was seen as inevitable. When Obama pronounced this the “first-ever” such reception, Wasserman Schultz leaned back in her chair and beamed at her congressional colleagues.
Rabbi Alyssa Stanton of Greenville, N.C., the first black woman rabbi, read the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. When she smiled and raised her arm to pronounce, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” there was a gasp: A descendant of immigrants brought to America in chains was celebrating those who fled bondage and sought its freedom.
Regina Spektor, the “anti-folk” singer who performed on a grand piano, presented a similar contrast: An alternative music favorite of New York cosmopolitans who refuses to shake off her provincial roots as the little 9-year old refusenik who came here in 1989 and who famously told New York magazine when her career was taking off: “The Jewish question—it still exists.”
Spektor had to breathe deep before starting. Prodded by a nod and a grin from Michelle Obama, she attacked her first song, “Us,” with lyrics suggestive of Jewish frustration at coping with how others define Jews: “They made a statue of us and put it on a mountaintop/ Now tourists come and stare at us, blow bubbles with their gum, take photograph, have fun.”
There were military veterans, guided to their seats by servicemen in white dress uniforms. There were athletes, including Darra Torres, the five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose son snapped a photo of her with Obama. (“Can you beat your mom yet?” Obama shouted at the strapping teenager, who murmured “No.”)
Jewish astronauts were invited, a White House official said, but none could make it—although one, Garrett Reisman, carried Obama’s proclamation into space aboard the last mission of space shuttle Atlantis, which returned to Earth this week.
There were establishment journalists, like Roger Cohen and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, but there was also Heeb publisher Josh Newman, and Doug Bloomfield, an irreverent Democrat who has for years been excoriating conservatives in Jewish weeklies. There was Michael Adler, the Florida philanthropist and vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, but there was also Eli Winkelman, the college student who founded Challah for Hunger, which brings students together to bake challahs which are sold to raise funds for Darfur.
The star of the afternoon was Koufax, the legendary Dodger southpaw who made baseball history by pitching four no-hitters and who made Jewish history by bailing on a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur.
“We’ve got senators and representatives, we’ve got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes—and Sandy Koufax,” Obama said. “Sandy and I actually have something in common—we are both lefties. He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur; I can’t pitch.”