Obama to talk up peace process in Rosh Hashanah call to US rabbis
Rosh Hashanah 5774

Obama to talk up peace process in Rosh Hashanah call to US rabbis

In conference call to 1,000 spiritual leaders across the religious spectrum, president aims to encourage support for talks in synagogue sermons

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

President Barack Obama (Pete Souza/White House via JTA)
President Barack Obama (Pete Souza/White House via JTA)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is set to make a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call to some 1,000 US rabbis in which he will discuss key issues of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the hopes that the spiritual leaders will raise enthusiasm for those talks among their congregants in their High Holiday speeches.

Policy experts close to the administration told The Times of Israel that support for the negotiations would be a major part of what has become the traditional presidential Jewish New Year conference call to rabbis. They said the president would also touch upon domestic issues, including immigration and economic recovery. Rosh Hashanah starts this year on the eve of September 4.

The call will not be the first time that the administration has reached out to representatives of American Jewry to discuss the peace process. Shortly after the first round of resumed talks concluded in Washington last month, Secretary of State John Kerry and an A-list group of colleagues met with 19 representatives of major American Jewish organizations to discuss the new 9-month effort to broker a permanent Israeli-Palestinian accord. During that meeting, Kerry told the leaders that he feared for Israel’s future if a peace deal were not reached.

That early August conversation would not be the last attempt by the administration to stress to American Jews the importance of the new peace bid, policy experts close to the administration said at the time. While many US Jews support the talks, there is widespread pessimism that they will yield real results.

Obama has made the Rosh Hashanah conference call an annual feature, using it to advance specific administration talking points, usually framed in the context of Jewish ethics.

Barack Obama, far right, meeting with Jewish leaders in 2011. (photo credit: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza)
Barack Obama, far right, meeting with Jewish leaders in 2011. (photo credit: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza)

In 2009, he pushed some 1,000 rabbis to discuss the health-care plan now known as Obamacare. The year after, in the midst of the previous attempts at brokering a peace deal, he used his call to discuss his Middle East peace thinking. 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.

Last year, in the heat of the presidential election campaign season, all ears were on the phone lines as Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney offered their Rosh Hashanah greetings — and talking points. Buffering himself against complaints that he was lax on security issues, Obama talked tough on Iran to an audience of some 1,200 rabbis.

Obama has voiced strong support for the new Kerry-led peace effort and the administration has been at pains to stress his personal involvement and interest in the negotiations. When the negotiators gathered in Washington last month, the American president said that it was “a promising step forward, though hard work and hard choices remain ahead.”

Unlike other administration meetings, such as the August sit-down with Kerry, the annual conference call is specifically geared toward rabbis rather than lay leaders. The 1,000 or so rabbis invited to join the call traditionally come from across a wide spectrum of Jewish practice.

“The White House call is a reflection of where the American-Jewish community is today and its importance to the political mosaic of the country,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland.

As of Sunday, rabbis said they had not yet received word as to when the call will be. Veteran participants say that the call is often scheduled on short notice. The White House would not comment on when or even if the call would take place, or on the likely subject matter.

Left-wing group J Street has already issued both a High Holiday brochure “in an effort to build support for Middle East peace negotiations” and a sermon guide for rabbis “to build a connection between the tones of these important days of spiritual observance with the renewed, U.S.-led diplomatic effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Last week, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the United States Michael Oren held a pre-High Holidays conference call with dozens of US rabbis.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Oren touched upon a wide range of issues, including peace talks, Iranian nuclear ambitions, the developing situations in Syria and Egypt and religious pluralism in Israel, an issue that has garnered significant attention from American Jewry. Oren told the rabbis that there was progress toward the compromise proposal currently being brokered by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, and emphasized the Netanyahu government’s willingness to reach a negotiated solution to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

Oren also reflected on his four-and-a-half year tenure as ambassador, which will draw to a close in September, discussing the difference between the challenges facing Israel in 2009 and today.

Embassy officials told The Times of Israel that “traditionally during his tenure, Ambassador Oren has reached out before Jewish holidays to the Jewish community, organizations and leaders, in order to convey his greetings. This is part of the continuous dialogue that the Embassy of Israel has with the Jewish community in the greater DC area in particular and across the country.”

Said Weinblatt, “The call from the ambassador is a reflection of the strong connection between American Jews and Israel.”

The outreach by Obama, Oren and groups like J Street are part of a growing trend, in which organizations attempt to bring their messages to the large number of Jews who attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanha and Yom Kippur. In recent years, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC has also begun holding a similar conference call.

Weinblatt says that he believes that the sermons delivered by US rabbis during peak attendance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very important. “We need to be conscious of the fact that people at high holiday services might not be there during the rest of the year,” he said.

“I try to get the message to my congregants to examine what is happening behind the headlines — they are subjected to so much negative coverage of Israel in the media,” he added. “Rabbis have a very important role to help contextualize and frame the issues and give the background materials that congregants might not otherwise hear.”

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