President Barack Obama will meet today with over a dozen heads of influential American Jewish organizations and is expected to respond to concerns that the White House is pressuring Israel over West Bank settlements while it is soft-pedaling with some of Israel’s worst enemies. “American Jews more or less agree with the president on settlements, but it’s the focus on criticizing Israel that’s disconcerting,” said an organization leader who will be attending the meeting.
“There’s no single monolithic voice speaking for American Jewry,” said another participating leader. “When both the Orthodox Union and [American Friends of] Peace Now are in the room, you won’t get a unified opinion.”
He added that “it’s important to speak carefully, because one Jewish leader shouldn’t say things that will be contradicted by another. It’s important not to appear divided.”
The meeting, under the aegis of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, will include representatives of groups such as AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, ADL and Hadassah.
While the Jewish leaders are expected to raise many domestic issues – from welfare reform to security concerns for Jewish institutions – the question on everybody’s mind will be Obama’s Middle East policy, participants said. Most of the heads and membership of the major organizations are Democrats who broadly support the current administration – another cause for discomfort.
These concerns have been discussed, though quietly, ever since Obama’s June 4 speech to the Muslim world.
In the wake of that speech, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents, was quoted as expressing “concern” over the US president’s seeming justification of Israel’s founding on the Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust. Hoenlein has claimed he was misquoted in those comments, but he seems to share the concerns of other Jewish leaders that some of the language coming from the administration shows a lack of understanding of the mainstream Jewish perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Similarly, New York Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt recently quoted AJC executive director David Harris as saying that “[I’m] hearing a growing number of questions and concerns about the US-Israel relationship, and a sense that the Obama administration’s response to the Iran crisis was slower than it should have been.”
The meeting today is off-record and was intended to be kept secret.
Meanwhile, Obama used a Sky News interview aired Sunday to express concern over Syria.
There are “aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us,” he said in response to the interviewer’s question on whether he would accept an invitation for direct talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
He also noted that there were already “some diplomatic contacts between the United States and Syria,” and said his administration believed there was “a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues.”
Obama said he was “a believer in engagement, and my hope is that we can continue to see progress on that front.”
In late June, the US State Department praised Syria for its “constructive role to promote peace and stability” as it announced plans to return an ambassador to Damascus after a four-year absence.
Also Sunday, in a CNN interview that aired after the president’s return from Ghana, Obama spoke about slavery and the Holocaust, saying they were terrible chapters in history that should not be ignored. He said slavery’s part in US history should be taught in a meaningful way and that the two events must never be forgotten.
The Ghana visit was the first trip to sub-Saharan Africa by America’s first black president.
Obama and his family visited a West African castle where traders once shipped slaves to the New World.