Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 20, 2009

Is Britain Target No. 1?

Newspapers around the world are reporting that an Islamist Internet site affiliated with supporters of Abdullah al-Faisal—Jamaican-born Trevor William Forest, who was deported from Britain in 2007 after serving a jail sentence for soliciting the murder of Jews, Americans, and Hindus—is promising “spectacular attacks” in Britain, to be launched by “home-grown terrorists.”

By itself, this is hardly the “astounding revelation” that the newspapers suggest: home-grown terror in the UK is sadly nothing new. And, though MI-5 is undoubtedly paying attention, these reports say nothing particularly useful about the threat of terrorism in Britain in the near future: Islamist sites have predicted 50 of the last three attacks.

But I am interested to read that, at least on this particular site, Islamists are now arguing that Britain and Europe pose a more serious threat to their future prospects than the United States. Perhaps that reflects nothing more than pique at al-Faisal’s deportation: it is certainly hard to think of much that continental Europe has done recently to merit the honor of being Islamism’s worst enemy.

On the other hand, the contention does have a logic. The Islamist thesis—most closely associated, for obvious reasons, with Osama bin Laden—that they should attack the U.S. first never made much sense, based as it was on a feeble analogy between the U.S. and the USSR’s defeat in Afghanistan.

Attacks on targets in Europe, though less damaging than 9/11, have been more politically fruitful, as illustrated by the impact of the Madrid bombings. An Islamist focus on Europe, and on Britain in particular, might open up extremely painful gaps between the U.S. and its NATO allies about the conduct and continuance of the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, unless the terrorists acquire WMDs, this is probably the best way for them to achieve a political victory that would be out of all proportion to their actual strength. Let us hope that they are not as strategically minded as these reports suggest.

Newspapers around the world are reporting that an Islamist Internet site affiliated with supporters of Abdullah al-Faisal—Jamaican-born Trevor William Forest, who was deported from Britain in 2007 after serving a jail sentence for soliciting the murder of Jews, Americans, and Hindus—is promising “spectacular attacks” in Britain, to be launched by “home-grown terrorists.”

By itself, this is hardly the “astounding revelation” that the newspapers suggest: home-grown terror in the UK is sadly nothing new. And, though MI-5 is undoubtedly paying attention, these reports say nothing particularly useful about the threat of terrorism in Britain in the near future: Islamist sites have predicted 50 of the last three attacks.

But I am interested to read that, at least on this particular site, Islamists are now arguing that Britain and Europe pose a more serious threat to their future prospects than the United States. Perhaps that reflects nothing more than pique at al-Faisal’s deportation: it is certainly hard to think of much that continental Europe has done recently to merit the honor of being Islamism’s worst enemy.

On the other hand, the contention does have a logic. The Islamist thesis—most closely associated, for obvious reasons, with Osama bin Laden—that they should attack the U.S. first never made much sense, based as it was on a feeble analogy between the U.S. and the USSR’s defeat in Afghanistan.

Attacks on targets in Europe, though less damaging than 9/11, have been more politically fruitful, as illustrated by the impact of the Madrid bombings. An Islamist focus on Europe, and on Britain in particular, might open up extremely painful gaps between the U.S. and its NATO allies about the conduct and continuance of the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, unless the terrorists acquire WMDs, this is probably the best way for them to achieve a political victory that would be out of all proportion to their actual strength. Let us hope that they are not as strategically minded as these reports suggest.

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Thank You for Your Bravery

Yesterday, as Rick Richman and Pete Wehner have both already noted, Barack Obama shared a conference call with 1,000 rabbis on the subject of health care. It appears the purpose of the call was to get said rabbis to opine on the need for his package in their High Holy Days sermons. Given the Jewish community’s support for the president, one would think such lobbying would be unnecessary, and given the non-Orthodox rabbinate’s general ideological disposition, Obama was surely asking his listeners to do something they would already have done unbidden.

However, according to Washington Jewish Week, the rabbis on the call actually thought for a moment of using their time with the president on a matter relating to the Jewish community and its concerns: the recent Medal of Freedom award given to Mary Robinson, the architect of the anti-Zionist Durban conference:

In the lead up to the president’s address, as the rabbis waited on hold, “there was a lot of chatter” among some participants who felt that the call should be seen as an opportunity “to instruct the President about [Presidential Medal of Freedom selection] Mary Robinson” and about the peace process in the Middle East.

“It was the subject of a good deal of conversation whether anyone was going to challenge him on that,” in particular Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, who has publicly chided Obama for his administration’s stance on settlements.

But then they . . . didn’t.

When the issues failed to come up during the health care call, [Rabbi Jack] Moline pithily tweeted: “Yoffie praises President and does not raise any other issue. Good for him.”

What courage! What candor! What bravery! Good for them indeed! This reminds me of the old Jackie Mason routine: “In this country, Jews don’t fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll all tell you, ‘If he said one more word, he’d be DEAD today.’ What’s that word? Nobody knows what that word is.”

Oh, and as Tevi Troy notes, Obama wished the rabbis a “shanah tovah”—happy New Year—when Rosh Hashanah is almost a month away: “This is kind of like wishing someone ‘Merry Christmas’ on Thanksgiving.” No matter. They received their marching orders, and I’m sure in lockstep they will go.

Yesterday, as Rick Richman and Pete Wehner have both already noted, Barack Obama shared a conference call with 1,000 rabbis on the subject of health care. It appears the purpose of the call was to get said rabbis to opine on the need for his package in their High Holy Days sermons. Given the Jewish community’s support for the president, one would think such lobbying would be unnecessary, and given the non-Orthodox rabbinate’s general ideological disposition, Obama was surely asking his listeners to do something they would already have done unbidden.

However, according to Washington Jewish Week, the rabbis on the call actually thought for a moment of using their time with the president on a matter relating to the Jewish community and its concerns: the recent Medal of Freedom award given to Mary Robinson, the architect of the anti-Zionist Durban conference:

In the lead up to the president’s address, as the rabbis waited on hold, “there was a lot of chatter” among some participants who felt that the call should be seen as an opportunity “to instruct the President about [Presidential Medal of Freedom selection] Mary Robinson” and about the peace process in the Middle East.

“It was the subject of a good deal of conversation whether anyone was going to challenge him on that,” in particular Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, who has publicly chided Obama for his administration’s stance on settlements.

But then they . . . didn’t.

When the issues failed to come up during the health care call, [Rabbi Jack] Moline pithily tweeted: “Yoffie praises President and does not raise any other issue. Good for him.”

What courage! What candor! What bravery! Good for them indeed! This reminds me of the old Jackie Mason routine: “In this country, Jews don’t fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll all tell you, ‘If he said one more word, he’d be DEAD today.’ What’s that word? Nobody knows what that word is.”

Oh, and as Tevi Troy notes, Obama wished the rabbis a “shanah tovah”—happy New Year—when Rosh Hashanah is almost a month away: “This is kind of like wishing someone ‘Merry Christmas’ on Thanksgiving.” No matter. They received their marching orders, and I’m sure in lockstep they will go.

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Barack Obama Once Again Bearing False Witness

In a conference call with a multidenominational group of pastors, rabbis, and other liberal religious leaders who support his plan to reinvent American health care, President Obama said:

I know there’s been a lot of misinformation in this debate and there are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness. I need you to spread the facts and speak the truth.

In fact, the number of examples in which Obama himself has borne “false witness” is itself staggering—on everything from the cost of his plan, to its effects, to the endorsements he claims he has received, to the agreements he claims he has made. One reason support for ObamaCare is collapsing is that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has blown apart various false claims made by Obama about his plans. And in the call yesterday, Mr. Obama once again was, well, bearing false witness. “Many of you have older members of your congregations. They’re all now scared to death that somehow we’re talking about cutting Medicare benefits,” he said. “That is, again, simply not true.”

The president’s statement is what’s simply not true. President Obama announced on Saturday, in fact, that he was proposing an additional $313 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts—which the White House euphemistically refers to as “savings”—over 10 years, on top of the $309 billion in his 2010 budget. (My colleague James Capretta writes about it here.)

President Obama has developed a nasty little habit. It is not enough for him to spread false and misleading information on an almost daily basis; he has taken to portraying himself as America’s intrepid truth teller. He really should stop doing so. And since Mr. Obama appears to be fond of quoting Scripture to advance his liberal policy aims, he might consult Matthew 7:5 before he speaks again. In that passage, Jesus warns, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

In a conference call with a multidenominational group of pastors, rabbis, and other liberal religious leaders who support his plan to reinvent American health care, President Obama said:

I know there’s been a lot of misinformation in this debate and there are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness. I need you to spread the facts and speak the truth.

In fact, the number of examples in which Obama himself has borne “false witness” is itself staggering—on everything from the cost of his plan, to its effects, to the endorsements he claims he has received, to the agreements he claims he has made. One reason support for ObamaCare is collapsing is that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has blown apart various false claims made by Obama about his plans. And in the call yesterday, Mr. Obama once again was, well, bearing false witness. “Many of you have older members of your congregations. They’re all now scared to death that somehow we’re talking about cutting Medicare benefits,” he said. “That is, again, simply not true.”

The president’s statement is what’s simply not true. President Obama announced on Saturday, in fact, that he was proposing an additional $313 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts—which the White House euphemistically refers to as “savings”—over 10 years, on top of the $309 billion in his 2010 budget. (My colleague James Capretta writes about it here.)

President Obama has developed a nasty little habit. It is not enough for him to spread false and misleading information on an almost daily basis; he has taken to portraying himself as America’s intrepid truth teller. He really should stop doing so. And since Mr. Obama appears to be fond of quoting Scripture to advance his liberal policy aims, he might consult Matthew 7:5 before he speaks again. In that passage, Jesus warns, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

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Swedish Anti-Semites Dig Up a Blood Libel

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post reported that the popular Swedish daily tabloid Aftonbladet had published a story alleging that Israeli soldiers were not only killing Palestinians but also harvesting their organs for use by sick Jews. The piece by one Donald Bostrom repeated some wild and unsubstantiated tales of atrocities told by Palestinians and then attempted to connect them with a recent story of how some Jews in America were behind the illegal trafficking of organs.

According to Bostrom:

We know that the need for organs in Israel is large, that an extensive illegal organ moving is ongoing and has been for a long time, that it is done with the blessing of the authorities, the senior doctor at the major hospital is involved, as well as officials at various levels. And we know that the Palestinian young men disappeared, they were back five days later in secrecy at night, sewn up.

This is nothing but a modern version of medieval Jewish blood-libel myths. Whereas in the past, the object of these hate-inspired canards were helpless Diaspora Jewish communities, now it’s the state of Israel. Though Bostrom disingenuously claimed that he was not promoting the tale but merely repeating what others had told him, the ultimate purpose of such libels is to delegitimize the Jewish people and to exculpate the violence committed against them.

The reaction to this story in Israel was predictably angry. Equally predictable but quite appropriate was an attempt to quiet the furor by Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, Sweden’s ambassador to Israel. She distanced her nation from the article, calling the Aftonbladet piece “shocking and appalling.”

But the response to Borsiin Bonnier’s statement was in some ways just as shocking and appalling as Bostrom’s anti-Semitism. Opposition leaders in the Swedish Parliament attacked their ambassador for condemning the libel against Israel. Green-party spokesman Per Gahrton says Borsiin Bonnier should be recalled and taught “the basics of Swedish freedom of speech.” Even more appalling is the fact that, when asked about the controversy, the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm distanced itself from her statement, saying it had no comment.

What does it say about a country when one of its leading newspapers deems a wild blood libel against Israel and Jews worthy of publication? And what it does it say about a government and its opposition when they view efforts to condemn this vicious lie as itself worthy of condemnation? What must be understood is that this episode would not be possible outside the context of anti-Israel propaganda that permeates Europe.

As Gerald Steinberg writes in a sharp column in today’s Jerusalem Post, the source of many of the lies spread about Israel is the international nongovernmental organizations that specialize in repeating Palestinian slanders and giving them the imprimatur of an NGO. This pattern was established at Durban, the United Nations–sponsored anti-Israel hatefest, in 2001 and continues to this day. But as Steinberg notes, much of the funding for many of these anti-Zionist groups comes from European governments. The Swedish government is a particular offender. Anti-Israel incitement is no longer the province of neo-Nazi nutcases or marginalized extremists of the Left but of Europe’s ruling elites.

Fortunately, the voices of reason in Europe are not completely silent: according to the Post, a competing newspaper, Sydsvenskan, ran an op-ed on the story under the headline “Antisemitbladet,” in an obvious reference to Aftonbladet’s name:

“Whispers in the dark. Anonymous sources. Rumors,” wrote Swedish columnist Mats Skogkär. “That is all it takes. After all, we all know what they [the Jews] are like, don’t we: inhuman, hardened. Capable of anything. Now all that remains is the defense, equally predictable: ‘Anti-Semitism? No, no, just criticism of Israel.’ ”

This story is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of European-funded and promoted anti-Israel hate. The official toleration, even the subsidization of such lies, can have only one end. Jewish history teaches us that blood libels lead inevitably to violence against Jews. Though hiding behind a thin veil of anti-Zionism, more than six decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is very much back in fashion on the Continent.

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post reported that the popular Swedish daily tabloid Aftonbladet had published a story alleging that Israeli soldiers were not only killing Palestinians but also harvesting their organs for use by sick Jews. The piece by one Donald Bostrom repeated some wild and unsubstantiated tales of atrocities told by Palestinians and then attempted to connect them with a recent story of how some Jews in America were behind the illegal trafficking of organs.

According to Bostrom:

We know that the need for organs in Israel is large, that an extensive illegal organ moving is ongoing and has been for a long time, that it is done with the blessing of the authorities, the senior doctor at the major hospital is involved, as well as officials at various levels. And we know that the Palestinian young men disappeared, they were back five days later in secrecy at night, sewn up.

This is nothing but a modern version of medieval Jewish blood-libel myths. Whereas in the past, the object of these hate-inspired canards were helpless Diaspora Jewish communities, now it’s the state of Israel. Though Bostrom disingenuously claimed that he was not promoting the tale but merely repeating what others had told him, the ultimate purpose of such libels is to delegitimize the Jewish people and to exculpate the violence committed against them.

The reaction to this story in Israel was predictably angry. Equally predictable but quite appropriate was an attempt to quiet the furor by Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, Sweden’s ambassador to Israel. She distanced her nation from the article, calling the Aftonbladet piece “shocking and appalling.”

But the response to Borsiin Bonnier’s statement was in some ways just as shocking and appalling as Bostrom’s anti-Semitism. Opposition leaders in the Swedish Parliament attacked their ambassador for condemning the libel against Israel. Green-party spokesman Per Gahrton says Borsiin Bonnier should be recalled and taught “the basics of Swedish freedom of speech.” Even more appalling is the fact that, when asked about the controversy, the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm distanced itself from her statement, saying it had no comment.

What does it say about a country when one of its leading newspapers deems a wild blood libel against Israel and Jews worthy of publication? And what it does it say about a government and its opposition when they view efforts to condemn this vicious lie as itself worthy of condemnation? What must be understood is that this episode would not be possible outside the context of anti-Israel propaganda that permeates Europe.

As Gerald Steinberg writes in a sharp column in today’s Jerusalem Post, the source of many of the lies spread about Israel is the international nongovernmental organizations that specialize in repeating Palestinian slanders and giving them the imprimatur of an NGO. This pattern was established at Durban, the United Nations–sponsored anti-Israel hatefest, in 2001 and continues to this day. But as Steinberg notes, much of the funding for many of these anti-Zionist groups comes from European governments. The Swedish government is a particular offender. Anti-Israel incitement is no longer the province of neo-Nazi nutcases or marginalized extremists of the Left but of Europe’s ruling elites.

Fortunately, the voices of reason in Europe are not completely silent: according to the Post, a competing newspaper, Sydsvenskan, ran an op-ed on the story under the headline “Antisemitbladet,” in an obvious reference to Aftonbladet’s name:

“Whispers in the dark. Anonymous sources. Rumors,” wrote Swedish columnist Mats Skogkär. “That is all it takes. After all, we all know what they [the Jews] are like, don’t we: inhuman, hardened. Capable of anything. Now all that remains is the defense, equally predictable: ‘Anti-Semitism? No, no, just criticism of Israel.’ ”

This story is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of European-funded and promoted anti-Israel hate. The official toleration, even the subsidization of such lies, can have only one end. Jewish history teaches us that blood libels lead inevitably to violence against Jews. Though hiding behind a thin veil of anti-Zionism, more than six decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is very much back in fashion on the Continent.

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Afghanistan and the Polls

The war in Afghanistan is shaping up as an important test of whether President Obama craves popularity above all or whether he is willing to make the tough, sometimes unpopular decisions that being commander in chief require. A new Washington Post–ABC News poll finds sharply declining levels of support for the war effort, especially among the president’s Democratic constituency. By 51-47 percent, a majority of those surveyed now find the war “not worth fighting.” That represents a gain of six points for the antiwar side since last month. Only 24 percent believe that troop numbers should be increased, while 45 percent think they should be decreased.

Within those numbers lies a sharp partisan divide. As the Post account notes:

Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels. Nearly two-thirds of the most committed Democrats now feel “strongly” that the war was not worth fighting. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, a slim majority say the United States is losing in Afghanistan.

Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war’s strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama’s policies. A narrow majority of conservatives approve of Obama’s handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent).

In other words, Democrats are bailing out on the Afghanistan war as they previously bailed out on the Iraq war. Actually, by 2007 even many Republicans were turning against that war. But President Bush ignored the public and surged anyway. That was the best decision of his entire presidency and one that may save his historical reputation despite all the other blunders he committed. Will President Obama have the gumption to be equally steadfast if Gen. Stan McChrystal requests more troops (as is widely rumored)? Who knows? So far he has shown himself to be pretty staunch on Afghanistan, but administration officials such as National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates seem to be signaling that troop requests would be unwelcome. If they are in fact trying to discourage McChrystal from asking for more resources (and it’s not clear that’s the case), they would be making a grave mistake.

For the Washington Post–ABC News poll confirms that in Afghanistan the same dynamic applies as that which held in Iraq and in most of our other wars: the public is skeptical because they don’t see enough signs of progress. Only 42 percent think we’re winning in Afghanistan, 32 percent think we’re losing, and 22 percent aren’t sure. Fully 62 percent say they are “not confident” that the newly elected Afghan government “can rule the country effectively.”

What this suggests is that if we can regain momentum—if our forces can provide palpable evidence that the war is not only winnable but that we are in fact winning it—then public opinion can be brought back around. And the surest way to achieve the progress the American people rightly expect is to send more troops.

Yes, the number of U.S. troops has already more than doubled over the past year—from 33,000 to 68,000. And, yes, there are 33,000 other troops in Afghanistan from our NATO partners. But Afghanistan is a big country—bigger than Iraq in both area and population—and yet the size of its security forces is less than a third of that in Iraq. Iraq has more than 600,000 security personnel; Afghanistan, fewer than 170,000; and based on current projections, it will take years to substantially increase that number.

That means that for the near term, the bulk of the fighting required to wrest parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan out of Taliban control will have to be done by coalition troops, and specifically by American troops, since most of our allies are unwilling either to fight or to provide the resources for fighting effectively. Only by adequately resourcing the war effort and pursuing an effective counterinsurgency strategy can the U.S. armed forces make the progress necessary to raise public support for the war effort and win what President Obama has just described as a “war of necessity.”

The war in Afghanistan is shaping up as an important test of whether President Obama craves popularity above all or whether he is willing to make the tough, sometimes unpopular decisions that being commander in chief require. A new Washington Post–ABC News poll finds sharply declining levels of support for the war effort, especially among the president’s Democratic constituency. By 51-47 percent, a majority of those surveyed now find the war “not worth fighting.” That represents a gain of six points for the antiwar side since last month. Only 24 percent believe that troop numbers should be increased, while 45 percent think they should be decreased.

Within those numbers lies a sharp partisan divide. As the Post account notes:

Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels. Nearly two-thirds of the most committed Democrats now feel “strongly” that the war was not worth fighting. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, a slim majority say the United States is losing in Afghanistan.

Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war’s strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama’s policies. A narrow majority of conservatives approve of Obama’s handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent).

In other words, Democrats are bailing out on the Afghanistan war as they previously bailed out on the Iraq war. Actually, by 2007 even many Republicans were turning against that war. But President Bush ignored the public and surged anyway. That was the best decision of his entire presidency and one that may save his historical reputation despite all the other blunders he committed. Will President Obama have the gumption to be equally steadfast if Gen. Stan McChrystal requests more troops (as is widely rumored)? Who knows? So far he has shown himself to be pretty staunch on Afghanistan, but administration officials such as National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates seem to be signaling that troop requests would be unwelcome. If they are in fact trying to discourage McChrystal from asking for more resources (and it’s not clear that’s the case), they would be making a grave mistake.

For the Washington Post–ABC News poll confirms that in Afghanistan the same dynamic applies as that which held in Iraq and in most of our other wars: the public is skeptical because they don’t see enough signs of progress. Only 42 percent think we’re winning in Afghanistan, 32 percent think we’re losing, and 22 percent aren’t sure. Fully 62 percent say they are “not confident” that the newly elected Afghan government “can rule the country effectively.”

What this suggests is that if we can regain momentum—if our forces can provide palpable evidence that the war is not only winnable but that we are in fact winning it—then public opinion can be brought back around. And the surest way to achieve the progress the American people rightly expect is to send more troops.

Yes, the number of U.S. troops has already more than doubled over the past year—from 33,000 to 68,000. And, yes, there are 33,000 other troops in Afghanistan from our NATO partners. But Afghanistan is a big country—bigger than Iraq in both area and population—and yet the size of its security forces is less than a third of that in Iraq. Iraq has more than 600,000 security personnel; Afghanistan, fewer than 170,000; and based on current projections, it will take years to substantially increase that number.

That means that for the near term, the bulk of the fighting required to wrest parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan out of Taliban control will have to be done by coalition troops, and specifically by American troops, since most of our allies are unwilling either to fight or to provide the resources for fighting effectively. Only by adequately resourcing the war effort and pursuing an effective counterinsurgency strategy can the U.S. armed forces make the progress necessary to raise public support for the war effort and win what President Obama has just described as a “war of necessity.”

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Coming on the High Holidays: Sermons on ObamaCare

Yesterday, President Obama participated in a conference call with about 1,000 rabbis in anticipation of the High Holy Days next month—and the sermons the rabbis will give. The purpose of the call was, apparently, to urge the rabbis to support ObamaCare, or something like it, from the pulpit.

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times writes that the call was left off the Obama schedule—an interesting note, she writes, on “Obama White House selective transparency.” Jodi Kantor of the New York Times cites a participant’s tweet that the president told the rabbis “I am going to need your help.”

The call was a joint effort of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The URJ invitation read, in part, as follows:

This year, the debate over health care reform dominates public discourse, and the conference call will explore the Jewish textual and historical imperative for universal, affordable health care.

We are pleased to announce that President Barack Obama will participate in a High Holy Day conference call exclusively for rabbis. . . .

This call can provide valuable information when you decide to preach on this issue whether on the High Holy Days, during the August 28-30 national health care sermon weekend (more info at FaithforHealth.org), or whenever is appropriate for you.

A rabbinic student who received the URJ invitation and participated in the call sent me an e-mail about it that read, in part:

President Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, then got off the call and we listened to three other rabbis who had prepared discussions about “helpful” Torah and Talmud texts, and how to craft a “non-political” (that is, pro-Democratic Party but wouldn’t be able to get into legal trouble) sermon. . . .

• Pres Obama urged us explicitly to discuss healthcare reform in our high holiday sermons. He said repeatedly, “I need your help in getting this information across.” My personal feeling is that it is an abuse of the pulpit to propagate a specific political agenda in that venue. . . .

• The issue was always framed as: we need to care about healthcare reform. And too many people don’t care about it. Our job as rabbis is, apparently, to urge people to care about it. My points would be: (1) of course everyone cares about healthcare reform; we just don’t agree how to fix it; (2) to stand in front of a congregation and imply that members of the congregation do not currently care about the health and treatment of their fellow Americans is insulting and self-aggrandizing. . . .

• Pres Obama repeatedly said that there “are fears” that people who currently have healthcare would lose it, but that’s not the case—that under this bill, you can keep whatever health insurance you currently have. That doesn’t match up with what I’ve read about this bill. But whatever. In any case, I can’t see how this information would be something that rabbis should be saying from the bimah. . . .

The URJ invitation to the call with Obama ended with this suggestion:

Health care reform is a critical issue for all of us. . . . [We] hope you will . . . urge your congregants to contact their elected officials in support of health care reform this year.

In some circles, Obama is a “sort of god,” but a conference call with rabbis to urge them to give sermons relating to contentious pending legislation, on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, seems to me to stretch the bounds of religious and political propriety.

The rabbinic student who sent the e-mail may have had a better sense of the proper rabbinic function than the rabbis who organized the call.

Yesterday, President Obama participated in a conference call with about 1,000 rabbis in anticipation of the High Holy Days next month—and the sermons the rabbis will give. The purpose of the call was, apparently, to urge the rabbis to support ObamaCare, or something like it, from the pulpit.

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times writes that the call was left off the Obama schedule—an interesting note, she writes, on “Obama White House selective transparency.” Jodi Kantor of the New York Times cites a participant’s tweet that the president told the rabbis “I am going to need your help.”

The call was a joint effort of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The URJ invitation read, in part, as follows:

This year, the debate over health care reform dominates public discourse, and the conference call will explore the Jewish textual and historical imperative for universal, affordable health care.

We are pleased to announce that President Barack Obama will participate in a High Holy Day conference call exclusively for rabbis. . . .

This call can provide valuable information when you decide to preach on this issue whether on the High Holy Days, during the August 28-30 national health care sermon weekend (more info at FaithforHealth.org), or whenever is appropriate for you.

A rabbinic student who received the URJ invitation and participated in the call sent me an e-mail about it that read, in part:

President Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, then got off the call and we listened to three other rabbis who had prepared discussions about “helpful” Torah and Talmud texts, and how to craft a “non-political” (that is, pro-Democratic Party but wouldn’t be able to get into legal trouble) sermon. . . .

• Pres Obama urged us explicitly to discuss healthcare reform in our high holiday sermons. He said repeatedly, “I need your help in getting this information across.” My personal feeling is that it is an abuse of the pulpit to propagate a specific political agenda in that venue. . . .

• The issue was always framed as: we need to care about healthcare reform. And too many people don’t care about it. Our job as rabbis is, apparently, to urge people to care about it. My points would be: (1) of course everyone cares about healthcare reform; we just don’t agree how to fix it; (2) to stand in front of a congregation and imply that members of the congregation do not currently care about the health and treatment of their fellow Americans is insulting and self-aggrandizing. . . .

• Pres Obama repeatedly said that there “are fears” that people who currently have healthcare would lose it, but that’s not the case—that under this bill, you can keep whatever health insurance you currently have. That doesn’t match up with what I’ve read about this bill. But whatever. In any case, I can’t see how this information would be something that rabbis should be saying from the bimah. . . .

The URJ invitation to the call with Obama ended with this suggestion:

Health care reform is a critical issue for all of us. . . . [We] hope you will . . . urge your congregants to contact their elected officials in support of health care reform this year.

In some circles, Obama is a “sort of god,” but a conference call with rabbis to urge them to give sermons relating to contentious pending legislation, on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, seems to me to stretch the bounds of religious and political propriety.

The rabbinic student who sent the e-mail may have had a better sense of the proper rabbinic function than the rabbis who organized the call.

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