Obama says it hurts when he’s accused of anti-Semitism

In push to garner US Jews’ support for Iran deal, president says Jewish community ‘helped shape me into the person I am’

US President Barack Obama speaking about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University in Washington, DC, August 5, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/JTA)
US President Barack Obama speaking about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University in Washington, DC, August 5, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/JTA)

Charges that he is anti-Semitic are baseless and a source of emotional hurt, US President Barack Obama said in his first interview to the American Jewish press since taking office in 2008.

The president spoke to the Jewish Daily Forward as part of his recent media campaign to garner American Jewish support for a controversial nuclear deal with Iran. In the interview, published on Monday, Obama also highlighted his Jewish bona fides.

“It’s not just that I’ve received votes from the Jewish community, it’s that I have received ideas, values, support that helped shape me into the person I am,” he said.

The Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, asked the president whether charges of anti-Semitism hurt him personally. Recently, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson charged that the president’s speech at American University defending the Iran deal against its opponents was “replete with coded innuendos employing standard anti-Semitic themes involving implied disloyalty and nefarious influences related to money and power.”

“Oh, of course,” Obama told the paper. “And there’s not a smidgen of evidence for it, other than the fact that there have been times when I’ve disagreed with a particular Israeli government’s position on a particular issue.”

Obama didn’t mention any specific critics or targets by name.

Asked to whom the president was referring, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday mentioned former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s charge that the nuclear deal was like “marching the Israelis to the door of the oven,” a reference to the Holocaust. Earnest added: “It’s certainly not the only example of the kind of political rhetoric that certainly the president and others find objectionable.”

Obama’s interview with the Forward largely reiterated points he made Friday in a live broadcast organized by North American Jewish groups about the Iran nuclear deal. The Forward said that Obama’s interview was characterized by “intense advocacy, especially to engage and convince a divided Jewish community.”

The president repeated his point that disagreements between Israel and the US over the Iran nuclear deal were akin to “fights within families and among friends,” and that the nuclear deal would make the region safer for Israel, not — as the Israeli government has maintained — the opposite.

“I think it is important for everybody to just take a breath for a moment and recognize that people on both sides of the debate love the United States and also love Israel,” he said.

“I do get disturbed sometimes when I hear folks suggesting that those who oppose the deal are pro-Israel. We’re all pro-Israel. The issue is, how do we solve this very particular problem of making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon,” Obama added. “I think we have to steer away from incendiary language that suggests that either those who are in favor of the deal are appeasing Iran or, conversely, that those who are opposed to the deal are not thinking about America’s interest.”

Moving to the specifics of the nuclear deal, the president said that a focus of security enhancement once the agreement goes through will be neutralizing Hezbollah’s threat to Israel.

“As soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles,” he said.

“Where Iran has been effective in its destabilizing activities, it’s not because it’s had a lot of money,” Obama said, countering criticism that the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal that will unfreeze $50 billion in funds will increase Iran’s capacity for disruption.

“It’s because they’ve effectively used proxies; it’s because they’ve invested in places like Lebanon for decades and become entrenched,” the president said. “And the reason we haven’t done a better job of stopping that is not because they’re outspending us. The reason is, is because we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back as we need to be.”

Hezbollah fighters hold party flags as they parade during the opening of a new cemetery for colleagues who died in fighting against Israel, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, November 2010 (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)
Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon (AP/Hussein Malla/File)

Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia, has stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles on Lebanese territory since its 2006 war with Israel.

Netanyahu, who vigorously opposes the deal, has rejected Obama administration efforts to coordinate post-deal defense strategies regarding Iran, preferring to wait until he is certain that Congress will not reject the deal.

Republicans mostly oppose the deal, so there has been a concerted effort by both sides to win over Democrats, in part by appeals to the Jewish community, a key constituency of the party. Congress has until late September to consider whether to reject the deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

In additions to concerns about how Iran will spend its unfrozen funds, Netanyahu and other opponents, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, say the expiration dates for some of the deal’s components, in 10, 15 and 25 years, will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state.

Obama said that tensions between the Israeli and US governments surrounding the deal would not last.

“People will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “The one thing I do want to make sure is that your readers and everybody who cares about the US-Israeli relationship retain the understanding that I think is one of the foundations of this relationship, which is, is that this is not a partisan issue; the bipartisan support of Israel is critical to a strong US-Israeli relationship.”

AP contributed to this report.

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