WASHINGTON – Washington’s Jewish power elite – or at least the center/left/nonpartisan Jewish power elite – lined up around the long block of the historic Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park for hours on Friday. President Barack Obama was set to take the podium at the synagogue, and ticketed attendees wanted to be sure to be inside in good time to hear the president’s address, timed to honor Jewish American Heritage Month.
Many of those in attendance had been to the White House a few times, some of them more than a few. But Friday’s event was different. This was the president on the Jewish community’s home turf, come to deliver a message with what was intended to be a very succinct core: I’m with you guys.
As the city’s largest Conservative congregation, with congregants liberal enough to embrace their rabbi’s decision to come out of the closet last year, Adas Israel provided the president with the right optics. Obama took the bima under a large Hebrew inscription reading “Know Before Whom You Stand,” head respectfully covered with a white yarmulke, flanked by a torah scroll on either side. And the speech hit many of the right notes, reflecting on the Jewish immigrant experience and the contributions of Jews to American society as a whole. Obama mentioned Jewish participation in civil rights and labor struggles, and invoked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Sometimes explicitly and sometimes by discreet reference, Obama touched on topics that are Democrat voters’ meat-and-potatoes. There was no mention of the impending trade legislation that has kept Congress preoccupied for weeks, but universal early childhood education, subsidized college tuition, and the benefits of immigration on American society were all addressed.
None of these passages in the speech (full text here) garnered huge applause, however, even from an audience that included heads of organizations that have lobbied on these issues
Instead, the applause came when the president spoke about Israel’s security and his own support for the Jewish state. When he was asserting his firm backing for Israel, those present were engaged, passionate, unified in their support.
But while there was another round of applause, and whoops of “yeahh!,” when Obama spoke of the need to establish a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, here the response was not universal. Indeed, some attendees responded with stony silence. The divide was clear, and telling.
If Obama’s speech was meant to reassure the audience – and American Jewry as a whole – that he should not be regarded as a divisive figure in the community, the reception for that and other more complex passages relating to Israel painted a far more nuanced picture.
Members of the audience were politely supportive of his comments on American-Jewish identity. They were similarly supportive when he dealt with the kinds of policies that the Democrats hope to use to attract middle class moderates in the 2016 presidential elections. But if, as many pundits had claimed ahead of time, he was bidding to regroup the traditionally Democratic American Jewish community after months of contention and in-fighting, the very-Washington-insider-audience’s reactions to his rhetoric on Israel seemed to serve as much as a warning light as a vote of confidence.
Obama garnered an overall warm welcome from representatives of a community that votes – according to most estimates – 65-70 percent for Democratic candidates, and particularly supports progressive social policy. But the lines of contention became clear the moment that progressive domestic issues took a back seat to matters relating to Israel.
Obama’s speech thus demonstrated the challenge facing Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates in the coming campaign season. Broad-based support for domestic policies masks deep, nuanced divisions in the Jewish community, and indeed among the politicians seeking their vote, regarding support for Israel and what it means.
Standing before many of Washington’s Jewish leaders, Obama demonstrated that the Jewish-American experience can still be enlisted as a powerful rhetorical call to values of equality and civil rights. At the same time, a speech that was meant to show that backing for Israel was not bifurcated or partisan yielded a different lesson: support for Israel, even among Obama enthusiasts, is multidimensional and complicated.
In such a climate, it will be very challenging for Obama’s would-be successors to Know Before Whom They Stand.