If the goal of the Jewish Americans for Obama event was to rally the home crowd and pound away at well-worn talking points about why Jews should support Obama, an event held at a Philadelphia suburban synagogue on Monday night was just what the doctor ordered.
If the JAO’s goal was to inform and educate those who were not already fervent supporters of the president, the cantankerous headline speaker and a determined and equally partisan segment of the audience made sure that did not happen.
More than a thousand people filled the auditorium of Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, Monday night, to hear Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz tout President Obama’s record.
The warm-up speakers were an array of local, state and national Jewish politicians. They mostly stayed on message, and hit the high notes of the president’s accomplishments that appeal to Jews.
Much was heard from column A of the Jewish menu, the domestic front: primarily abortion rights and the more generic “civil rights and civil liberties,” and, from column B, support for Israel: continued foreign aid for the Jewish State, increased funding for the Iron Dome defense system, and the amorphous but emphatic “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation” between the U.S. and Israel.
There were some partisan swipes, but an effort was made, especially by favorite son Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, to emphasize their kosher bona fides, providing the hecksher for Obama support.
But when it came to the main act, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the evening became a little less of a Jewish kumbaya session and a little more of a boxing brawl. After spicing up her standard purely cultural Jewish connection between Barack Obama and American Jews with some Hebrew phrases (some of which, like gemilut chasadim—acts of charity—she stumbled over), the congresswoman at last re-entered her comfort zone.
“Our faith is so rooted in ideas of justice, and our values are the same as those at the core of the Democratic party,” she told the audience. “The harmony between these ideals makes the Democratic party the natural home of the American Jewish community.”
Once Wasserman Schultz was fully launched, it seemed impossible for her to hold back. After extolling the justice and fairness values of the Jewish religion, and lining it up precisely with the Democratic party, she went the next step, and opened the sluices.
“There is nothing, and I mean nothing, in the Republicans’ right wing social agenda that appeals to the American Jewish community,” she asserted.
“Not true,” a lone female voice was heard from the audience.
And from that moment on, there were repeated interruptions and isolated but persistent heckling, whenever the speaker veered into anti-Republican commentary. There were also open challenges to some assertions of the president’s stalwart support for Israel, especially that he has “unequivocally, publicly defended Israel on the world stage.”
There are some in the Jewish community who believe the United States has not done enough at the United Nations to support Israel from constant and unfair attacks.
And so the rest of the evening went, with a constant but muffled Greek chorus of “untrue” in response to some of the more extreme statements either praising Obama or bashing the Republicans.
An apparently unintentionally ironic Wasserman Schultz statement drew the biggest laugh of the evening. Following a ten minute talk liberally sprinkled with attacks on Republican values and on the Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, she said, “I know we are all disturbed and troubled by those who make misleading statements for purely partisan gain.”
Walter and Marcia Rosen are Republicans who readily acknowledge they were initially unhappy with the idea of having the Wasserman Schultz event at their synagogue. Walter, a retired scientist and entrepreneur, is intensely aware of current events and is critical of President Obama for many reasons, particularly his lack of appreciation of the role played by the private sector in creating jobs.
Rosen was ultimately satisfied that the shul saw the event as an opportunity to provide information to congregants, and that the leadership is committed to having a similar event for the Republicans. But he was nevertheless disappointed by the event. “The idea may have been to have an educational event, but Wasserman Schultz and her team clearly considered this to be nothing more than a pep rally,” he said.
As happens so often with a large crowd, audience questions written out by participants on index cards were collected in advance. An announcement was made at the beginning of the evening that the most representative questions would be selected for the Question and Answer session.
The first question, directed to Wasserman Schultz, was “How do you feel about Romney having a Swiss bank account?” Romney has taken a pounding in the media for having money in such accounts, socked away beyond the reach of the Internal Revenue Service.
Wasserman Schultz pounced over to the microphone. “It is difficult for me to understand why an American businessman needs a Swiss bank account, other than if he’s trying to evade paying taxes,” she said.
Over the past week it was revealed that Wasserman Schultz herself (or, at least, her husband) had at least some funds in Swiss and similar bank accounts.
At the conclusion of the event, a woman approached Marcia Rosen, who, unlike much of the crowd, had not been enthusiastically clapping throughout the evening.
“What’s the matter, aren’t you a Jew?” The woman demanded of Rosen. “Do you want another Holocaust?” Rosen, a tall, thin woman, shrank back. Larry Kagel, from nearby Fort Washington, adorned with an Abortion Rights pin, and a Jewish Americans for Obama pin, interceded. “People can have disagreements,” Kagel said, “but you’re both Jews.”
Lori Lowenthal Marcus