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 last week during a White House meeting with Orthodox leaders convened by the Orthodox Union.
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 convened with Jack Lew, Obama’s 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.
Obama’s outreach, particularly last week 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 last week was friendly, in depth and constructive, participants on all sides said. An OU official asked Obama what lessons he had learned about promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, considering his perceived even-handedness.
Participants said that Obama responded by rejecting the notion 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 position 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.
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.
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.
Participants included much of the OU’s leadership; Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University; Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of American Friends of Lubavitch; Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America; and Solomon Werdiger, a member of Agudath Israel of America’s board of trustees.