Obama talks Islamic State, Syria with US rabbis

Over 900 clergy participate in annual Rosh Hashanah tradition to talk policy before High Holiday sermons

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, July 25, 2014. (photo credit: Pete Souza/ White House)
US President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, July 25, 2014. (photo credit: Pete Souza/ White House)

WASHINGTON — The Middle East led the agenda Monday afternoon when US President Barack Obama held his annual pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call with close to one thousand rabbis from America’s Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist communities.

Packed between meetings and photo-ops as the White House prepares for the president’s annual appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, this year’s call left little room for doubt that foreign policy topped the president’s agenda.

Six weeks before what is expected to be a critical midterm election, domestic policy seemed to pale in comparison to pressing issues in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State.

The pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call is seen by administration officials as an opportunity to send critical messages out to rabbis days before they direct sermons to packed synagogues during the High Holy Days.

“I wouldn’t say that it is going to impact the message, but it gives a certain context to it,” Rabbi William Gershon, president of the Rabbinical Assembly said following the call. “It is gratifying to hear the kind of thinking, intellect, and support that the president put forward and that gives me hope.”

In 2009, Obama urged the rabbis to discuss the Affordable Care Act, the crowning legislative achievement of his first term in office. A year later, in the midst of his first attempt to broker a peace deal, he used his call to discuss Middle East peace.

In his 2011 call, he combined domestic and foreign policy, discussing both his jobs bill and American attempts to block a Palestinian declaration of statehood at the United Nations.

The year 2012 broke records for participation in the heated run-up to the presidential elections, with both Obama and then Republican candidate Mitt Romney offering their Rosh Hashanah greetings — and talking points. Strengthening his foreign policy credentials during a campaign in which they were called into question, Obama talked tough on Iran to an audience of some 1,200 rabbis.

Last year, Obama’s message was to push the now-defunct peace talks, urging community leaders to support the administration’s renewed effort to achieve a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

This year’s call demonstrated how far events have come in just twelve months. Foreign policy challenges still dominated the conversation, with Obama focusing on the dangers and complexities of the current conditions in the Middle East and on the challenges of making peace in the conflict-ridden region.

Although Obama asked for the rabbis’ support on domestic policy, the focus was on Iraq, Syria, and of course, the Islamic State.

Participants described the tone as “warm, engaging and cordial” as the president emphasized the strength of the relationships binding Israel and the United States. Obama did not, however, gesture to the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, a key bill which proponents hope will be sent for presidential approval during the post-elections “lame duck” session of Congress.

The president fielded two questions from participants – one general question about the situation in the Middle East as a whole, and a second regarding the challenge of demilitarizing Hamas and preventing the terror group from benefiting from reconstruction efforts.

In answer to the latter, Obama described efforts that are currently underway to ensure that aid to Gaza reaches its intended recipients.

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