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Politics Abound at 'Non-Partisan' Pro-Israel Event

June 2, 2011
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An activist proclaimed his message last week at a pro-Israel rally. Photo by Richard Chaitt

Arecent synagogue program focusing on the fallout from President Barack Obama's recent speeches on the Middle East was touted as a nonpartisan, educational town hall meeting.

But two speakers at the May 25 event called for the election of a new president in 2012 and the majority of the audience cheered.

If nothing else, the evening seemed to signify that the battle for the Jewish vote in the next presidential election is now under way and that many of Obama's Jewish critics have been galvanized by recent events.

More than 300 people turned out at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in the Northeast for the program that featured about 10 speakers and was called "Israel in Crisis: President Obama Calls For A Hamas/Fatah Terror State Based on Indefensible '67 Lines."

The Zionist Organization of America's Greater Philadelphia District -- a hawkish group long skeptical of a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority -- and the synagogue co-sponsored the program.

Leonard Getz, co-president of the local ZOA chapter, said after the program that he wasn't bothered by the criticism of Obama.

"We have a president who has shown his hostility towards Israel," Getz said the next day, during a ZOA rally in support of the Jewish state outside the Israeli Consulate.

He added that a close reading of Obama's speech suggested that the president blamed Israel for the current impasse.

The tone of the event seemed to foreshadow the criticism that partisan groups and activists will hurl at Obama in the year leading up to the election.

Republicans tried hard to hit Obama on the Israel issue in 2008 but he wound up capturing 77 percent of the Jewish vote. Still, many political observers are wondering if the string of diplomatic disputes between Jerusalem and Washington will improve the GOP's numbers.

No Funding for P.A.

Attendees at the event were asked to sign a petition that rejected "in its entirety, President Obama's support for a state of 'Palestine' based on the armistice lines established prior to the Six-Day War." ZOA is also calling on Congress to halt funding to the P.A. as long as it governs with Hamas.

Two of the panelists -- Teri Adams, of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association, and Binyamin Korn, host of Jewish Independent Talk Radio and a supporter of Sarah Palin -- told the crowd to work toward electing a new president.

After they did so, Steve Feldman, executive director of the ZOA's local chapter, reminded the audience that neither his group nor the synagogue endorses candidates. Political endorsements jeopardize the tax-exempt status of certain nonprofits.

Other speakers, many of whom blasted Obama but did not explicitly say he should not be re-elected, included three area rabbis, two Christian clergy members and staffers for four Republican lawmakers: Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-District 7), U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R- District 6) and U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-District 8).

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the lone Democrat mentioned, did not send a staffer, but asked organizers to read a prepared statement reiterating his support for a unified Jerusalem. Feldman said that all local members of Congress were invited.

Absent from the podium were representatives of other Jewish organizations as well as the consul general of Philadelphia. A source at the consulate said that the office was invited but would not participate in a program criticizing the president. According to the source, the reference to Obama calling for a "Hamas/Fatah Terror State" made it all but impossible for a diplomat to take part.

Many of those who did attend wore pins that said, "We stand with Israel." Some even waved the blue-and-white Israeli flag.

During his speech, Getz said that by signing a pact with Hamas, Fatah has now become complicit in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

William Sutter, executive director of the Friends of Israel, a Christian organization, told the audience that "God gave the land to the Jewish people."

He warned that reverting to the 1949 armistice lines could result in Jerusalem being "chopped up like minced meat."

The synagogue's religious leader, Rabbi Jean Claude Klein, said he believed the Israelis should trade land for peace if they had a true partner.

"What I do not believe is to give up territory for war, for terror and for blood," he said.

Older adults dominated the crowd. But one college student, 19-year-old Ross Marks, said he felt energized by the event and hopes to see Obama defeated. Marks also said he hopes to use some of the talking points to make Israel's case on campus.

"I know a lot of people who are pro-Palestinian," said Marks, an engineering major at Penn State University. "I'm going to try and talk to them."

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