This past Sept. 18, AT&T Connect Event Services sent the following confirmation to my inbox: “You have registered to attend Annual POTUS High Holiday Call with Rabbis on Sept. 22, 2014, at 3 p.m. Eastern time.” POTUS: President of the United States. Such power, such potency in the acronym.
On the Monday afternoon before Rosh Hashanah, I was one of about 900 American rabbis who spent 30 minutes on the phone with Barack Obama in what was his sixth annual non-partisan High Holy Day conference call with American rabbis. Once again, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., coordinated the complex logistics.
As was true of a similar POTUS call for which I was registered two years ago, only four rabbis were given the opportunity to speak: leaders of America’s Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements.
Rabbi Jason Klein, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, had the honor of offering our nation’s president a warm welcome and, on behalf of the hundreds of rabbis on the call, a “thank-you-for-taking-the-time-out-of-your-busy-schedule-to-speak-with-us.”
Obama, as in years gone by, extended a Shanah Tovah to all of us and then offered an introductory statement of about 15 minutes; given his audience and the current headlines, he focused almost entirely upon the Middle East. He insisted that “we can’t stand idly by” as ISIL (ISIS) conducts a violent and vicious campaign of destruction throughout Syria and Iraq. Shifting to Iran, Obama made clear that any final agreement regarding their nuclear energy program must be completely verifiable; “we’re not going to accept a bad deal.”
Turning directly to Israel, Obama reiterated the right of Israel to defend itself. In particular, he commented on the manifest success of the Iron Dome defense system and his administration’s continuing funding of the program during the Gaza conflict. He went on to observe that at least some of the rabbis on the call had personally witnessed the Iron Dome in action during this past summer.
Before taking the first of two questions, Obama ended his introductory statement by expressing his deep concern for the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the world – especially in many of the European countries.
Rabbi William Gershon, vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, asked the first question: What is the administration doing to take positive advantage of the shifting alliances in the Middle East in response to the ISIL (ISIS) threat? Obama gave a rather long, thoughtful, but somewhat rambling response to the effect that democracy has not flourished in the wake of the “Arab spring” because most Arab societies have not had the prerequisite experience of government of the people, by the people and for the people. In some areas of the Middle East, the Sunni-Shiite split has become more consequential than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Our president segued into his relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama admits that he and Netanyahu have their disagreements about tactics, but their long-term strategic interests are congruent. Obama clearly sees the “two-state solution” as the vehicle for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. From Obama’s perspective, both sides need to “stretch;” both sides need to make “some difficult compromises.”
The second and final question was asked by Rabbi Leonard Matansky, president of Rabbinical Council of America, a major Orthodox organization: Hamas has grossly misappropriated construction materials for civilian purposes in order to build about 30 tunnels to be used for attacking Israel. In addition, Hamas has been able to smuggle large numbers of rockets from Iran. What is the United States going to do to make sure that Hamas becomes and remains demilitarized?
Obama’s view is that Hamas does not speak for most Gazans. Part of our country’s goal is to help Gaza’s citizens to reject the extremist ideology of Hamas. That is to say, in the long run the solution for Gaza cannot be military; the solution must be political. Israel and her allies need to find a way to provide the Gazans with some sense of hope.
Rabbi Steven A. Fox, chief executive officer of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, concluded the conference call with a brief benediction, ending with the words of Isaiah 11.9: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Given the fact that Commander-in-Chief Obama knew that in about five hours United States warplanes, drones, and Tomahawk missiles would be attacking ISIL (ISIS) positions in Syria, I wonder whether or not he felt the profound irony of Isaiah’s words.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG, rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.