In what was supposed to be a speech emphasizing anti-Semitism and at event for American Jewish Heritage Month and Solidarity Shabbath, President Barack Obama spent more time trying to sell his impending nuclear deal with Iran and a Palestinian state to Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue on Friday morning, May 22, 2015. Although Obama spoke of the his “unshakeable” commitment to Israel his speech still included elements and support for policies countering Israel’s best interests.
President Obama delivered his speech to an audience of approximately 1,000 trying to reassure an American Jewish community growing increasingly skeptical with Obama’s hostile rhetoric to Israel. Many of Obama remarks echoed an interview he gave with Adas Israel member and Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic that was published the day before on Thursday, May 21, which has highly critical of Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Obama appeared as if he wanted to appease the American Jewish community in speech at Congregation Adas Israel, wearing a white yarmulke, sprinkling his speech with Hebrew phrases such as “tikkun olam” and “slightly early Shabbat Shalom,” calling himself “an honorary member of the tribe.”
Obama attempted to reassure the community of his and the US’s commitment to Israel, stating, “Those enduring bonds, that friendship, cannot be broken. Those values compel us to say that our commitment to Israel’s security and my commitment to Israel’s security is and always will be unshakeable…. The people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.” Though the president also indicated in his speech, “Yes, I have high expectations for Israel, the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America.”
President Obama emphasized the Iran nuclear deal, trying to garner support from the Jewish community. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes the deal and the Israeli government. The already difficult rapport between the two leaders has grown over this issue. Netanyahu has insisted the deal is bad for Israel’s national security, because it does not completely close down Iran’s nuclear program. Obama is looking for support for the Iran nuclear weapons deal, the framework was reached in early April, but a final deal deadline is set for June 30.
The president tried to convince the audience that his legacy is on the line and he would agree to a deal that does not prevent Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons. Obama echoed what he said in his interview in the Atlantic, saying, “This deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.” Obama indicated, “I’m interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon — every single path.”
The president promised the deal would be good one, and he would not accept a “bad deal,” explaining, “The deal that we already reached with Iran has already halted or rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program. Now we’re seeking a comprehensive solution. I will not accept a bad deal. In other words, a deal that makes the world and the region — including Israel — more secure. That’s how I define a good deal.”
President Obama tried to make it seem that some of his questionable policies towards Israel are in the country’s best interest, “I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.”
Besides the Iran deal Obama believes the two-state solution is beneficial to Israel, “And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well.” The president did however, acknowledge that “any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.”
The day before President gave an interview in the Atlantic where he again chastised Netanyahu for his two missteps right during the last days of Israel’s election in March. Netanyahu promised voters there would be no Palestinian state under his watch; the president took that as a clear indication that Netanyahu does not support a two-state solution even after he backtracked on his remarks after the election and ever since. Netanyahu also scared right leaning voters that all the Arabs are out voting “in droves” for the left parties, which the Obama administration deemed as racist, and is still not satisfied with Netanyahu’s public apology.
President Obama pointed out that those remarks have “consequences” and affect “credibility” “When something like that happens, that has foreign-policy consequences, and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues.”
Continuing, Obama indicated how important that is when he has to defend Israel on the world stage. The president explained, “When I am then required to come to Israel’s defense internationally, when there is anti-Semitism out there, when there is anti-Israeli policy that is based not on the particulars of the Palestinian cause but based simply on hostility, I have to make sure that I am entirely credible in speaking out against those things, and that requires me then to also be honest with friends about how I view these issues.”
President Obama’s speech was not only about the Iran deal and the Palestinians, the president discussed the continuing troubles of anti-Semitism, and American Jewry’s contribution to the country. President Obama’s speech was in honor of “Jewish American Heritage Month and the Lantos Foundation’s annual Solidarity Sabbath.”
The Solidarity Shabbath honors former California Congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos and his “championing” of human rights. The initiative fights anti-Semitism and “promotes the fundamental right of religious freedom.” Each year, European and North American government heads “visit synagogues” “to highlight their commitment to combating anti-Semitism.” Obama noted, “Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire.”
The president as he often does made a direct connection between Jewish history and African American history, the close relationship between the two groups and the struggle for civil rights. President Obama also praised, American Jewry’s “contributions,” expressing, “American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect, and as a community American Jews have helped to make our union more perfect. Me standing here before you in this congregation is a testament to the power of hope. It is a rebuke to cynicism and to nihilism.”
The audience may have applauded the president during his speech, but not all American Jews were satisfied with his remarks. Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks said one speech does not alter President Obama’s continued hostility towards Israel, “President Obama and his administration have attempted to isolate Israel by badgering and berating its democratically-elected Prime Minister in public. At the same time, they appease Islamist Iran – on its way to a nuclear arsenal – and threaten retribution for those who oppose these efforts. One speech will not change this.”
Remarks by the President Barack Obama on Jewish American Heritage Month, May 22, 2015
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.