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Reaction To Obama Speech Divides Along Ideological Lines

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WASHINGTON – Jewish organizational reaction to President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4 can be summed up in one sentence: Left-wing Jewish groups applauded the speech as a whole, while more centrist groups or those that tilt more to the right had both praise and criticism.


They all liked Obama’s affirmation of the “unbreakable” bonds between the United States and Israel, and his denunciation of Holocaust denial, but many thought he missed an opportunity to affirm the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old connection to the land of Israel. There also was wide disappointment with the portion of the speech on Iran, which was seen as not forceful enough in proclaiming U.S. opposition to the Iranian regime acquiring nuclear weapons.


The American Jewish Committee focused on what it liked about the speech and gave much less emphasis to its displeasure about the Iran remarks. In a release, the group emphasized the president’s denunciation of anti-Semitism, and praised his language on the “unbreakable” bonds with Israel and denunciation of Palestinian violence.


Not until the eighth paragraph did the statement mention that the AJC was disappointed by Obama’s failure to be “more explicit” about “the danger Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons poses to the entire Middle East and to global security.”


The Anti-Defamation League, by contrast, put both praise and criticism near the top of its news release. The group praised Obama for broaching issues that never really had been addressed to the Arab world before now, but said he failed to put the conflict in its proper historical perspective.


For example, “while he made strong statements against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, it should have been made clear that Israel’s right to statehood is not a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We are disappointed that the president found the need to balance the suffering of the Jewish people in a genocide to the suffering of the Palestinian people resulting from Arab wars.”


In an interview, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman added that the Iran portion of the speech was “very weak.”


The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations did not put out a statement, but its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, and chairman, Alan Solow, in interviews both said they were happy the president spoke of the “unbreakable” bonds between the U.S. and Israel, and both praised his condemnation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.


Hoenlein, like the ADL, wished the president had provided more historical context on the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel, but noted positively the lack of linkage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to progress on the Iran issue. Both Hoenlein and Solow, though, had hoped for stronger words on Iran, with Solow – one of Obama’s top Jewish supporters – saying he hoped the president would use “more forceful” language in the future.


The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism strongly praised the speech while also briefly pointing out that Israel’s claim of legitimacy was rooted in 3,000 years of history. “He made it clear that the United States and Israel have an unbreakable bond and spoke forthrightly about the need for the Palestinians to abandon violence if their hopes for a state are to be achieved,” the group said. The RAC, unlike some other Jewish organizations, praised the president’s language on Iran, saying “he was clear in recognizing the urgency of addressing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and his support for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


The Orthodox Union had five “welcome” and five “worrisome” aspects of the speech. It liked Obama’s challenge to Arab states to do more and his denunciation of Holocaust denial, but was concerned by his language on Jerusalem and his reinforcement of Israel “as a modern colonial upstart.” It also lamented Obama’s lack of a “nuanced approach” on settlements.


The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism applauded the president for honoring the “strong bonds” between the United States and Israel. The speech was vital to the “future relations between Israel and the Arab world, and to the United States’s Middle East policies,” said the group.


J Street was one of a few groups that had universal praise for the speech. It said Obama showed “bold, assertive leadership” in reaffirming the two-state solution while setting out conditions for everyone involved, and said the “overwhelming majority of American Jews and other friends of Israel support his active diplomacy, his calls for an end to violence and settlements – and, most important, his intention to work publicly and aggressively to end the conflicts that have plagued the Middle East for far too long.”


Americans for Peace Now also lauded Obama’s “determined, praiseworthy leadership” in creating a “historic opportunity” and his calls on Israelis, Arabs and Americans to react accordingly. “For Americans who support Israel, this is also an important moment in which to stand squarely with a President who is doing his utmost to bring peace to Israel,” the group said, adding that its supporters should make their voices heard.


The one Jewish group to totally pan the speech was the Zionist Organization of America. Its national president, Morton Klein, said it was a “strongly biased speech, inimical to Israel, supportive of false Palestinian and Arab claims against Israel, blatantly factually inaccurate – inaccuracies that always benefited the anti-Israel Palestinian, Arab and Muslim cause.”


As for the partisan Jewish groups, the Democrats liked it and the Republicans didn’t:


The National Jewish Democratic Council liked that “Obama did not just reiterate what the audience wanted to hear. Instead, Obama was forthright about the necessity for acceptance of the Jewish homeland in Israel and called for Palestinian abandonment of violence.”


The Republican Jewish Coalition, though, believed the speech was too balanced, and that was what was wrong with it: “American policy should not be balanced – it should side with those who fight terror, not those who either engage in it or are too weak to prevent it.” (JTA)

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