In outreach to Orthodox Jews, Obama repeats commitment to Israel

President Barack Obama is photographed with Orthodox Jewish rabbis inthe Oval Office, June 5, 2012.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — President Obama is spreading the word, one Jewish constituency at a time: He has Israel’s back.

Obama defended his record on Israel and on religious freedoms on Tuesday during a White House meeting with Orthodox leaders. Challenged by one of those leaders on the efficacy of his perceived even-handedness in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians, Obama countered that he has not been even-handed; he has favored Israel.

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Obama’s meeting was the second such encounter in a week; six days earlier he met with leaders of the Conservative movement. 

The meetings come in an election year in which the Obama administration has intensified its Jewish outreach. Obama spoke to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial in December, and then to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. Vice President Joe Biden addressed the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in May, and later the same month hosted a briefing day for about 70 leaders convened by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The last two meetings have come in the form of informal “drop-bys” on meetings that various Jewish umbrella groups routinely convene with Jack Lew, his Jewish chief of staff. White House meetings have been commonplace for decades, and generally take place once or twice a year with the presidential adviser designated as the senior outreach official for Jewish groups. 

Although Obama’s “drop-by” at the last two meetings was described as informal by Jewish and White House officials, it seemed to be carefully planned. The Orthodox Union leaders arrived prepared with a gift for the president.

Obama’s outreach, particularly on Tuesday to the Orthodox leaders — whose constituency increasingly tends to favor Republicans — fits in with a strategy that senior Democratic officials have in the past described as tamping down pockets of hostility as much as it is about cultivating the party’s natural base in the Jewish community.

The meeting Tuesday, convened by the OU, was friendly, in depth and constructive, participants on all sides said.

However, the Orthodox leaders pressed Obama harder on some issues than had their Conservative counterparts, particularly on how he has handled the U.S.-Israel relationship and on his decision to mandate contraceptive coverage for employees at some religion-based institutions.

An OU official asked Obama what lessons he had learned about promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, considering his perceived even-handedness and how his first two years in office had been marked by tensions with Israel. Participants said that Obama responded by rejecting the notion that he was even-handed in his attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Insisting that the U.S. posture was pro-Israel, he pointed to his calls for making Israel’s security needs paramount in any final-status deal.

He said his calls to freeze settlement expansion reflected the same positions of his four predecessors, and blamed differences with Israel in part on the quirk of history of a centrist U.S. government and a right-wing Israeli government coexisting. Obama said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to act without restraints, but that he understood him — most leaders want to act without restraints.

He said peace was critical as the Arab democracy movement swept the region but worries that the Palestinian leadership was no longer as interested in advancing toward peace.

When it came to Israel, Obama asked the group not to doubt his “fidelity” to their cause, according to one participant.

Another OU official reiterated the group’s unhappiness with Obama’s decision to require contraceptive coverage for employees at religious institutions not directly involved in religious activity, like hospitals or orphanages.

The official noted that the OU did not oppose contraceptive coverage, but was concerned that the two-tier system was confusing and represented governmental intrusion into matters of faith. Roman Catholic groups have led the opposition to the mandated coverage, introduced by Obama earlier this year.

Obama said he was proud of his administration’s record of defending religious liberty, but that the contraceptive coverage case presented him with a dilemma: How to protect the right of millions of women working at religiously run institutions. He defended his solution, exempting purely religious establishments like churches and providing the contraceptive coverage through third-party insurance companies, instead of the religiously run institution. He said the solution allowed religious individuals who objected to contraceptive coverage not to participate, but simply to passively tolerate others receiving the coverage.

Asked about assistance for students in parochial schools, Obama said he was open to expanding federal assistance to such schools.

Before Obama arrived, the group had discussed with Lew Iran policy and Homeland Security Department funding for protecting nonprofits.

The talk with Obama lasted 45 minutes, and ended when the group presented Obama with a framed reproduction of George Washington’s letter to the Jews. The group then moved from the Roosevelt conference room to the Oval Office for a photo.

Participants included much of the OU’s leadership: Simcha Katz, president; Rabbi Steven Burg, managing director; Nathan Diament, Washington director; and Yehuda Neuberger, public policy chairman. Among those also attending were Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University; Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of American Friends of Lubavitch; Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinic Council of America; and rabbis of leading Orthodox shuls, including Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun in New York City and Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida.

“We are deeply appreciative to President Obama and Chief of Staff Lew for meeting with us to discuss the president’s priorities and the Orthodox Jewish community’s values and interests,” Katz said in a statement after the meeting.

A White House official said that “the president discussed with the rabbis and lay leaders a variety of issues of mutual concern on issues related to both domestic and foreign policy. The president reiterated his unwavering support for Israel’s security and his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”