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Obama’s Jewish Pitch: Liberal, Not Israel

On Friday afternoon, President Obama received a hero’s welcome when he spoke to the biennial convention of the Union of Reform Judaism. Approximately 5,000 Reform Jews gave Obama almost as many standing ovations as Congress gave Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu this past spring. But though the coverage of the speech has focused primarily on the president’s repeat of his boasts that he is the most pro-Israel president in history, it should be understood that the bulk of the address did not touch on the Middle East. Rather, the main focus of his remarks was a compendium of liberal positions on domestic issues intended to draw cheers from an audience that, while still concerned with Israel’s security, was far happier hearing talk about higher taxes, defense of entitlements and the class warfare rhetoric Obama has been rehearsing since the start of the debt-ceiling crisis this past summer.

Those seeking to analyze the possibility of a shift in the Jewish vote as Obama seeks re-election know that the president’s often-antagonistic relationship with the State of Israel could cost him next November. Polls and special elections such as the one in New York’s 9th Congressional district last September have showed that there are enough swing Jewish voters who will be influenced by this issue to give Democrats something to worry about. But though the minority of Jews who can be swayed by concerns about Israel is not inconsiderable, it is nonetheless true that Obama is almost certain to win a majority of the Jewish vote in 2012 no matter what happens to Israel on his watch. And the applause Obama garnered on Friday afternoon when speaking to this conclave of the largest Jewish denomination in this country provides the evidence for that conclusion.

That Obama’s speech followed a lengthy tribute at the event on the 50th anniversary of Reform’s Religious Action Center was not exactly a coincidence. The RAC is the embodiment of the belief by some that the liberal political stands are indistinguishable from Judaism. Much of the RAC’s agenda: support for abortion, Obamacare, “economic justice” (so defined as to encompass support for higher taxes and more entitlement spending) and gay marriage are not Jewish issues even if they are ideas that many Jews support.

And it is to those concerns that Obama spoke with passion on Friday as he bragged that “the change we needed and voted for” had satisfied much of the laundry list of the RAC’s political wish list. The old quip that Reform Judaism consists of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in never seemed more true as thousands yelled their approval when Obama let loose with class warfare rhetoric. By casting the political debate as a “moral issue” of the interests of “working people” against “the powerful,” the president played to the desire of liberal Jews to interpret their own partisanship as somehow being part of their religious tradition. Indeed, so deeply entrenched are such attitudes among liberals that it never occurred to the cheering throng that letting a candidate for public office — even an incumbent president — use a religious gathering for partisan political purposes was inappropriate. Though Obama’s pitch certainly appealed to the sensibilities of most Reform Jews, the notion that there was any connection between Judaism and his political agenda is a myth.

I’ll discuss Obama’s defense of his stance on Israel in my next post.


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