Is the administration of President Barack Obama pursuing policies that are detrimental to Israel's security and international standing? Or is the distrust that Obama is facing among some American Jews and Israelis more of an issue of perception and how policies have been framed?
That's the question Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park had in mind when she was invited to join a small group of rabbis for two recent meetings with high-ranking White House officials.
For the most part, she said that she came away with the feeling that the administration has Israel's best interest at heart. But she had a message for the president that she delivered to his advisers.
"I personally believe that our president needs to get on a plane and go to Jerusalem and visit our sites, and go to Yad Vashem and lay a wreath and embrace the Jewish people by embracing our people in Israel," Merow said after the second White House meeting on May 13.
The two meetings were part of a charm offensive after relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments hit a low in early March, when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration wants Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and building in the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently annexed.
Of late, several high-profile Jewish communal figures have slammed the Obama administration over the intensity and public nature of its criticisms of Israeli actions on these fronts. Some of the critics accused the White House of exerting much more pressure on Israel than the Palestinian Authority.
Some Serious Outreach
The thinking behind the meetings — the first took place on April 20 — was that a carefully selected slate of 15 rabbis from across the country, and representing the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative streams, could help spread the administration's message and assuage fears in the American Jewish public that the administration has taken an anti-Israel turn.
Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., initiated the meetings after talking to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.
Moline said that the rabbis — all of whom attended both meetings — were selected because of the high profiles they have in their communities, and because they had concerns about how the Obama administration was conducting Middle East policy — but they had not displayed outright hostility to the president.
Merow was chosen because she represents a large congregation with a potentially big audience to report back to, she has a strong record of social-justice advocacy, and she has been outspoken on behalf of the Jewish state, said Moline. She was one of three women included.
Their interlocutors at the meetings were high level: Dennis Ross, who runs Obama's Iran policy; Dan Shapiro, the deputy national security adviser who supervises policy for Israel and its neighbors; Susan Sher, the chief White House liaison to the Jewish community; and Emanuel.
Not all of the rabbis came away entirely mollified, but most said they were impressed by the seriousness of the outreach.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida said that he left the meeting still wondering if the administration is on the right track, though he noted that he was "cautiously optimistic" because of the depth of commitment to Israel he heard.
"Among the rabbis there was a diversity of those who support the administration policies and feel the message hasn't trickled down, and those who have problems with some of the policies," said Goldberg. "But the universal message was you need to show more love; this is not how you treat family."
The rabbis put questions to the group that ranged from the substantive to repetitions of certain rumors about the president, and how he was perceived to have treated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poorly during a visit to Washington in March.
Moline noted that officials denied these reports, and said that, in fact, Obama presumably got out of bed and met with Netanyahu after midnight.
The advisers highlighted some of the policies and activities of the administration, and they also expressed "some frustration" that what the Obama administration has done for Israel "has not been comprehensively and accurately reported."
The officials emphasized, for instance, the closeness of the defense relationship. On May 13, as the rabbis were meeting with the staffers, for instance, the Obama administration authorized $205 million on top of the annual $3 billion in defense assistance for Israel to complete its Iron Dome short-range-missile defense system.
Merow said that she felt reassured that the administration has chosen a sanguine strategy vis-à-vis Iranian sanctions by trying to build the case for international sanctions, rather than acting unilaterally. But she still remains concerned that the United States is not doing enough to aid Israel in preparations for a possible military confrontation with Tehran.
Another participant from Florida, Rabbi Aaron Rubinger, said in a Shabbat morning sermon to his Conservative congregation in Orlando: "Our president is every bit as committed to Israel's safety and security as any previous administration. I do not believe the president is abandoning Israel or has any intention of abandoning Israel."
The rabbi listed what he called "significant" administration talking points: The refusal to participate in the U.N.'s Durban Review Conference against racism last year in Geneva because the president believed Israel would be unfairly criticized; the rejection of Richard Goldstone's U.N. report on Israel's actions during last year's war in Gaza, which pro-Israel advocates called inaccurate and biased; the refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey when Ankara said that it would withdraw if Israel were included; the ongoing cooperation between the United States and Israel on missile defense issues; and numerous recent visits to Washington by Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister.
Rubinger said that he believes these actions far outweigh the negativity surrounding the housing "flap." Fellow Floridian Goldberg said his congregants still needed to know more.
"It's easy to repeat the phrases 'unbreakable bond' and 'shared values,' " he said. "We want to hear in no uncertain terms that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, that it's great that the proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians "have started, but inevitably there will be an impasse, and when that happens, will they only apply pressure to Israel, or have they learned something? My community in Palm Beach County is confused and has questions, but is seeking answers."
Ron Kampeas of JTA and Lyn Payne, associate editor of the Heritage Florida Jewish News, contributed to this report.