President Obama’s strongest supporters among Jewish leaders are deeply troubled by his recent Middle East initiatives, and some are questioning what he really believes, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview.
Though Hoenlein says he is only offering his personal views, the conference he represents is a political powerhouse that includes 50 major Jewish groups. Among them are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), B’nai B’rith International, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, and the Anti-Defamation League. Hoenlein has been the professional head of the conference since 1986, overseeing its day-to-day activities as the coordinating body for American Jews on issues of concern in the U.S. and globally.
Jewish leaders “are expressing concern about what was said [in Obama’s Cairo speech],” Hoenlein says. “I’ve heard it from some of his strongest supporters. It’s expected from his detractors. Even people close to him have said to us that there were parts of the speech that bothered them.”
Obama’s speech to a Muslim audience in Cairo in early June was his second effort early in his administration to re-define America’s posture toward the Arab world. In April, Obama traveled to Ankara, Turkey, to offer a similar outreach to the Muslim world.
But many in the Jewish community, including some of Obama’s most ardent supporters, are troubled by his comments in the Middle East, especially his remarks to his Cairo audience. Others are concerned that, facing a multitude of problems on the domestic front, Obama has traveled twice to the Middle East without visiting Israel, America’s stalwart ally in the region for more than a half-century.
“There’s a lot of questioning going on about what he really believes and what does he really stand for,” Hoenlein says of Obama’s outreach.
Reaction to Obama’s speech has drawn a range of reaction from many Jewish leaders. On the right, some have condemned it as a revision of the long and close relationship between the U.S. and Israel. But many on the left who backed Obama were also surprised and dismayed over Obama’s speech. Such reactions from major Jewish leaders have largely remained beneath the surface, exchanged privately among them.
Hoenlein’s comments to Newsmax are his first detailed appraisal of Obama’s speech and represent the first time a major Jewish leader has spoken openly about the erosion of Jewish support for Obama.
According to the exit poll conducted by major press organizations during the 2008 election, Obama captured overwhelming support from American Jews, winning 78 percent of their vote. Despite the fact that Republicans are stronger on national security and the war on terror, Obama also won support from Jewish leaders who have been champions of Israel’s security, such as the former Democratic mayor of New York, Edward I. Koch. Koch crossed party lines in 2004 to back George W. Bush.
Reacting to Obama’s Cairo speech, Hoenlein tells Newsmax, “I have no problem with addressing the Muslim world. I’m in fact in favor of outreach, and we here at the conference have done it for about 12 or 15 years, visiting Muslim countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. But the question is, what is the message they get? It’s not so much what he says, but how do they perceive what he says?”
On the one hand, Hoenlein says, “His reference to Israel and the special relationship being unbreakable is important, and references to persecution and Holocaust denial were important, and some of his references to some human rights issues also were important.”
But Hoenlein notes the speech included a number of troubling references and comparisons. He cites the fact that Obama claimed America has seven million Muslims. That is a figure “Arab propagandists have put out,” he says. “In fact, they say only six million, when in fact there’s no study that shows even half of that.”
In 2007, the Pew Research Center estimated the Muslim American population at 2.35 million.
Hoenlein is disturbed that Obama did not mention the Jewish people’s ancient connection with the land of Israel.
“There was no reference to the 3,000 years of Jewish connection to this land,” Hoenlein says. “And that is again one of the propaganda lines that the Arabs have used: that the Jews are interlopers, that the two temples never existed, that there was never any Jewish history in the land of Israel. Even Yasser Arafat and others have used that argument because they’re trying to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state. I don’t believe that was the president’s intent, but not making those references I think is troubling.”
Jews have claimed a connection to the land of their forefathers since 1400 B.C. Even after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. and the dispersal of many Jews throughout the Roman Empire, many Jews continued to reside in Jerusalem through the centuries, surviving various invasions. An Ottoman census of Jersualem conducted in 1845 showed Jews outnumbered Muslim Arabs by almost to 2 to 1 and were the dominant ethnic group in the region.
Hoenlein believes that the most troubling aspect of Obama’s comments in his Cairo speech was his effort to equate the Nazi killing of more than six million Jews during the Holocaust with Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians over six decades and the suffering caused by the displacement of the Palestinians.
“There’s no comparison between the Holocaust, even if it was an indirect one, and what happened to Palestinians,” Hoenlein declares.
In his speech, President Obama addressed the issue of the Holocaust head-on, saying “Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today.”
But he quickly changed the subject, comparing Hitler’s genocide of the Jews to the Palestinian struggle.
“On the other hand,” Obama said, as he transitioned from the Holocaust to the modern Middle East, “it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”
Hoenlein doesn’t buy Obama’s line of reasoning.
“The Palestinian refugee problem, or dislocation as he said, didn’t come about because of the creation of the Jewish state,” Hoenlein says. “It came about because the Arab states declared war on Israel and warned the Arabs that they would suffer the same fate as the Jews if they didn’t get out. And then they kept them as political pawns.”
Obama made no reference to the fact that “the reason the Palestinians don’t have a state is because their leaders rejected every offer for peace,” Hoenlein says. “Whether it was in 1937 or 1947 or 1967, or later on, up until Ehud Olmert’s offer and Ehud Barak’s offer, they rejected everything, even when they were getting virtually everything they had asked for.”
That is because, “The problem really is not what Israel does, it’s that Israel is,” Hoenlein says. “And they’re not ready to accept the existence of the Jewish state.”
In discussing the Palestinian refugee problem, Obama failed to mention the other refugee problem involving nearly a million Jews, Hoenlein says. At the time of the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, Jews populated all of the major Arab cities from Baghdad in the East to Casablanca in the West.
Hoenlein notes that after modern Israel saw its rebirth, Jews “were driven out of Arab countries penniless, and some of their families had lived there for a thousand years, and yet there was no reference to them.” He adds, “This is not a question of tit for tat. It’s a question of the realities that are communicated to a vast audience in the Arab Muslim world.”
As troubling as Obama’s references to Israel and the Palestinians were, Hoenlein found the president’s failure to mention the radical regime now running Tehran equally disturbing.
”What concerned us, concerned many people, was the message to Iran that we didn’t hear,” Hoenlein says.
Iran, controlled by powerful Shia Mullahs, is set to acquire a nuclear device. Many Sunni Muslim states, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco, are concerned about this prospect.
Hoenlein says these Arab states also wanted to hear “an absolute assurance about the U.S. commitment not to allow Iran to be nuclear, not to allow it to continue to support terrorism, not to allow it to continue being the major state sponsor of terror around the world.”
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared himself the winner in the election in Iran this past weekend, has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction. In 2005, he declared that he is a devout follower of Iran’s late ruler Ayatollah Khomeini. He has vowed to fulfill the Ayatollah’s dream that the “occupying regime [Israel] must be wiped off the map.”
Asked if he sees Obama’s perceived tilt toward the Palestinians as reflecting some of the views of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., Obama’s former pastor who accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “terrorism,” Hoenlein says American Jews are concerned about Obama’s policies today.
“That issue has been discussed and debated, and I don’t know that it’s a relevant concern for right now,” he says. “I do feel strongly about what the [current] policy will be.”
Hoenlein says flatly, “People [Jews] are genuinely very concerned...about President Obama.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. A former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal award-winning reporter, he is the New York Times bestselling author of 18 books. His next book, “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,” will be published Aug. 4 by Crown Publishing and reveals for the first time the secrets of how agents protect the president and what they see behind the scenes, from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson through George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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