At the end of the Obama rally Sunday, I approached Ambassador Dennis Ross and introduced myself. I mentioned that I’d met Sen. Obama one week before the Ohio primary in the same venue — Obama had come to the Landerhaven banquet hall to speak directly to the Cleveland Jewish community. I told Ross I was extremely impressed with the extent of Obama’s Jewish outreach.
Ross told me he had read the transcript of Obama’s remarks at that event, and been blown away. Obama, he said, demonstrated deep familiarity with and uncommon knowledge about wide-ranging, complex issues relating to Israel and the Middle East.
I had returned from that session and sent out an email to family and friends, so that they could gain a better understanding of where Obama stands on Israel. That email went viral. I was receiving responses from people across the country, many of whom I didn’t know, literally months after the Ohio primary.
The vast majority of the responses were overwhelmingly positive, like this one, which I received from a friend of mine in Iowa, a bestselling fiction writer:
Thanks for that great email. You’re preaching to the choir here (we’re serious supporters), but I sent it on to others.
I forgot about you guys in OHIO! Get out the vote.
Man, there hasn’t been a political leader like him in my lifetime. Let us pray that he stays safe. …
Keep up the good work, and stay in touch.
And this one, from a friend of mine in New Jersey:
I just finished reading your absolutely wonderful report. You should be proud of this work. I have forwarded it to several friends and family – including some Bush supporters I know who have speculated that Obama would be weak on Israel policy.
I also received some ugly, angry responses, often anonymous, sometimes personal attacks, like this:
You want to prove you are a liberal? You want CHANGE? Change yourselves first. Go ladle out food in a soup kitchen, or take in a foster child in your home, or go teach as a volunteer in school with a large Afro-American student body, or give of your time to Big Brothers or Big Sisters. Put aside your golf club or tennis racquet, don’t play Bridge, do something for the downtrodden.
But by and large, the response was inspiring, and encouraging. Like this, from someone I’d never met, for example:
I am in receipt of your valuable and much -needed report on the meeting you attended with Barak Obama. I hope that it will receive wide circulation and help to disabuse many of my well-intentioned Jewish friends of their mistaken ideas.
Although I am and have been a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, I have been very distressed by the ugly and clearly racist attacks against Obama and the misrepresentations of his history and positions regarding Israel and Jews.
For some time, I’ve been planning on posting my account of that February meeting with Obama on this blog. Then, Saturday night, a good friend of mine — a reluctant Obama supporter — told me he’d seen a Republican Jewish Committee ad in the Cleveland Jewish News about Obama’s supposed ties to anti-Semitic advisors. My friend wanted to know how Obama would rebut the charge.
That’s when I realized that some might benefit from seeing my account again.
So without further ado, I’ve posted an edited version below. If you know anyone with questions about Obama and his positions on Israel, or the false smears that have been aimed at him, please feel free to direct them here:
Obama took the podium, and … was greeted with a warm ovation. He … spoke generally about issues of importance to him, including health care, the need for an energy policy that “not only creates jobs and secures our planet but also stops sending billions of dollars to dictators and effectively leads us to fund both sides of the war on terror,” and a change in foreign policy, beginning with ending the war in Iraq.
“These changes are founded in a view of the world that I believe is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition,” Obama said, “That all of us have a responsibility to do our part to repair the world. That we can take care of one another and build strong communities grounded in faith and family. That repairing the world is a task that each of us is called upon to take up every single day.”
He then said that he will carry with him to the White House “an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people …I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries.”
Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it “left a lasting impression on me.”
“Seeing the terrain,” Obama said, “experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.
“And I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected with a mandate to pursue it. I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will strengthen Israel’s security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side-by-side in peace and security, with Israel’s status as a Jewish state ensured, so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams.”
He continued: “I also expect to work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies who are intent on its destruction. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes, we saw their intentions with the Katusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006, and we see it today in the Kassams that Hamas fires into Israel every single day from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The defense cooperation between the United States and Israel has been a model of success and I believe it can be deepened and strengthened.”
He went on to say that “the gravest threat … to Israel today I believe is from Iran,” noting that the “radical regime” is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.
“President Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust and disturbing denunciations of Israel,” Obama said. “He recently referred to Israel as a deadly microbe and a savage animal. Threats of Israel’s destruction cannot be dismissed as rhetoric. The threat from Iran is real and my goal as President would be to eliminate that threat.
“Ending the war in Iraq, I believe, will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake: I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that.
“My approach to Iran,” he continued, “will be aggressive diplomacy. I will not take any military options off the table. But I also believe that under this administration we have seen the threat grow worse and I intend to change that course. The time I believe has come to talk directly to the Iranians and to lay out our clear terms: their end of pursuit of nuclear weapons, an end of their support of terrorism, and an end of their threat to Israel and other countries in the region.
“To prepare this goal I believe that we need to present incentives, carrots, like the prospect of better relations and integration into the national community, as well as disincentives like the prospect of increased sanctions. I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN, and I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States has shown itself to be willing to come to the table.”
He added: “We have not pursued the kind of aggressive and direct diplomacy that could yield results to both Israel and the United States. The current policy of not talking is not working.”
All told, he spoke for about ten minutes. Then, he opened the floor to questions …
[A] questioner asked Obama about emails that have circulated, suggesting he’s Muslim.
Obama called the emails “virulent;” they started early in the campaign, he said, and have come out in waves, “magically appear[ing]” in states before primaries and caucuses. They contend that Obama is Muslim, that he went to a madrassa, that he used a Koran to swear himself into the Senate, that he doesn’t pledge allegiance to the flag.
“If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim,” he said. “We had to send CNN to look at the school that I attended in Indonesia where kids were wearing short pants and listening to iPods to indicate that this was not a madrassa but was a secular school in Indonesia.”
The next questioner asked about the reports that Obama’s advisors included Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor) and several others perceived as anti-Israel.
“There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the US and Israel should be interacting,” Obama said. “It has evolved over time.” Obama said that when Brzezinksi was national security advisor, he would not have been considered outside the mainstream of that spectrum. Noting that Brzezinski “is now considered by many in the Jewish community anathema,” Obama said: “I know Brzezinski. He’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce me for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan … I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally.”
He went on to say that the other advisors who he’s been criticized for having on his staff are former members of the Clinton administration. He mentioned Tony Lake, the former national security adviser, and Susan Rice, the former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.
“These are people who strongly believe in Israel’s right to exist. Strongly believe in a two-state solution. Strongly believe that the Palestinians have been irresponsible and have been strongly critical of them. [They] share my view that Israel has to remain a Jewish state, that the US has a special relationship with the Jewish state.”
He then departed, a bit, from the topic of his advisors, and spoke more generally. “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here,” he said. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likkud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”
He took issue with commentators who suggest that talk of anything less than “crushing the opposition” is “being soft or anti-Israel.”
“[If] we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel” in ways that are “non-military,” he said, then “I think we’re going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about.”
He pointed out that none of the emails about his advisors mention people on the other side such as Chicago businessman, global nonprofit activist, and philanthropist Lester Crown, a member of Obama’s national finance committee, “considered about as hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country.”
“So, there’s got to be some balance here,” he said. “I’ve got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bi-partisan consensus … in terms of being pro-Israel. There’s never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two-state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think it’s important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people’s concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israel lobby has raised, but he’s not one of my central advisers.”
The next question was sort of a follow-up. “Given your range of advisors,” the questioner asked, “how would you approach foreign policy decision-making on Israel and the Middle East?”
“Well here’s my starting orientation,” Obama said: “A) Israel’s security is sacrosanct, is non-negotiable. That’s point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we’re going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we’re in. Number three, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn’t mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It’s going to have to be contiguous, it’s going to have to work – it’s going to have to function in some way.
“That’s in Israel’s interest by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat. So those are the starting points of my orientation. My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we’re going to move forward on an improvement of relations and a sustainable peace. The question that I will be askingany advisor is how does it achieve the goal of Israel’s security and how does it achieve the goal of sustainability over the long term and I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we’re goingto achieve that.”
He added that when he was in Ramallah, he told the Palestinians “you can’t fault Israel for being concerned about any peace agreement if the Palestinian state or Palestinian Authority or Palestinian leadership does not seem to be able to follow through on its commitments.”
With respect to negotiations, he said, “you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through and that’s a position that I have consistently taken and the one I will take with me to the White House.”
“One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel,” Obama continued, “was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It’s very ironic. I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he’s dealing with these people every day. There’s good and there’s bad, and he was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and we made this miscalculation and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that’s not good for our security situation. There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I’m sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the US pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I’m saying though is that, ultimately, should be our goal — to have that same clear-eyed view about how we approach these issues.”
The next questioner asked what Obama would say to the Jewish community about George Bush and his support for Israel.
Obama noted straight off that the Jewish community is “diverse” and “has interests beyond Israel.” He said the Jewish community in America has a tradition as a “progressive force” concerned with children, civil rights, and civil liberties.
“Those are values … much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can’t be forgotten.”
He said that to the extent some Jews have gone over to the GOP, it’s been because of Israel. “And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences of George Bush’s policies. The proof is in the point. I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel’s security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush’s foreign policy. It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq. We have spent what will soon be close to a trillion dollars strengthening Iran, expanding their influence. How is that helpful to Israel? … You can’t make that argument.
“And so the problem that we’ve seen in US foreign policy generally has been this notion that being full of bluster and rattling sabers and being quick on the draw somehow makes you more secure.
“And keep in mind that I don’t know anybody in the Democratic Party, and I will say this for Hillary Clinton and I will say this for myself, who has indicated in any way that we would tolerate and allow to fester terrorist threats, that we wouldn’t hunt down, capture, or kill terrorists, that haven’t been supportive of Israel capturing or killing terrorists. So it’s not like we’re a bunch of folks asking to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbiya.’
“When Israel launched its counterattack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, I was in South Africa at the time, a place that was not particularly friendly to Israel at the time and I was asked by the press, what did you think? And I said, if somebody invades my country or is firing rockets into my country or kidnapping my soldiers, I will not tolerate that. And there’s no nation in the world that would.”
At this point, one of Obama’s aides told him he had time for one more question. A questioner asked him about press reports that he would consider Sen. Dick Lugar for his administration, given, again, his lack of friendliness toward Israel.
Obama said he was good friends with Lugar, and that Lugar “represents old school bi-partisan foreign policy.” He said that, among Republicans, Lugar was less ideologically driven, more driven by facts on the ground. After characterizing Lugar, he said he would “not be so presumptuous” to start talking about his cabinet, given that he is not yet the Democratic nominee.
Obama then decided, since his answer was relatively short, that he would take more questions. I raised my hand, and Obama called on me. I told him that I thought his approach to foreign policy — negotiating with your enemies – could be powerful strategically. I said that a few days earlier, I had met with my rabbi in Akron, and mentioned to him that I was going to be here this morning.
“The rabbi asked me to ask you whether you would meet with Hamas,” I said.
“The answer is no,” Obama said.
“What’s the distinction, then,” I asked, “between Hamas and Iran?”
“The distinction would be that … they’re not the head of state,” he said. “They are not a recognized government … There is a distinction to be drawn there and a legitimate distinction to be drawn.”
“Now, again,” he continued, “going back to my experiences in Israel and the discussions I’ve had with security officials there, I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what’s going on and the point is that, with respect to Hamas, you can’t have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not goingto be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort[ing] to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That’s not the circumstance that we’re in right now.”
He then turned to the audience to take one more question, about Indonesia (where Obama lived as a child) and the United States’ approach to the Muslim world.
Obama said Indonesia represented a good case study. He said Indonesia actually had a very mild, tolerant brand of Islam when he was living there. In 1997, he said, the Asian financial crisis hit very hard, and Indonesia’s GDP contracted by 30 percent. Essentially, a poor country had been hit with a Great Depression.
“There was a direct correlation between the collapse of that economy and the rise of fundamentalist Islam inside of Indonesia,” he said.
Obama said there is a hard-core group of jihadist fundamentalists in the Islamic world who “we can’t negotiate with.” He said Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism advisor in the Bush administration, estimates that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 jihadists worldwide — “the hard core jihadists [who] would gladly blow up this room.” He added, though, that it’s a “finite number.”
“We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them. That’s the military aspects of dealing with this phenomenon … and that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed.”
“The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims who are along a spectrum of belief? Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last seven years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women’s rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrassas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable.”
Obama closed with this: “Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril.”
(After the event, the Obama campaign released a partial transcript to the press. You can find it here.)
Again, Obama received an extended standing ovation. He had spoken for about 45 minutes. And he was mobbed by well-wishers at the podium. One woman asked him why he was not nearly as specific in the debates. “We have 30 seconds!” Obama said. Another woman said: “It is so refreshing to hear someone think.”
When it was my turn, I shook his hand, introduced myself, and told him I had been working hard to defuse the smear campaigns directed at him. “It means a lot,” he said. “Thank you.”
I asked him if he could give me an autograph for my sons, Meyer and Heshel, and handed him a piece of paper and pen. As he began to write, I started spelling the names. “M-E-Y-E-R,” I said, “and Heshel, H-”
But Obama cut me off: “Like Abraham?” he asked.
I was surprised that Obama knew Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. After all, Heschel had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and had been an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War; Heschel was a pious, pluralistic Jew committed to social action. But so few Jews today are even aware of Heschel and his legacy.
I nodded — Heschel had inspired the naming of our son — though we spelled it without the “c,” something that I forgot, in that moment, to add.
“To Meyer and Heschel,” he wrote. “Dream Big Dreams. Barack Obama.”