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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Rounding up opinions on Obama in Cairo

Capitol J, JTA

June 4, 2009

By Eric Fingerhut

Reaction has been pouring in all day from Jewish groups to President Obama's Cairo speech. To sum up in a few sentences: Left-wing Jewish groups applauded the speech as a whole, while more centrist groups or those that tilt more to the right has both praise and some criticism. They all liked Obama's affirmation of the "unbreakable" bonds between the United States and Israel and his denunciation of Holocaust denial, but many thought he missed an opportunity to affirm the Jewish people's 3,000-year-old connection to the land of Israel. There was also wide disappointment with the portion of the speech on Iran, which was seen as not forceful enough in proclaiming U.S. opposition to the Iranian regime acquiring nuclear weapons.

And now -- as Warner Wolf might say if he was a blogger -- let's go to the links!

* The American Jewish Commitee focused on what it liked about the speech and gave much less emphasis to its displeasure about the Iran remarks. In a release entitled "AJC Applauds Obama Cairo Speech," the group emphaized the president's denunciation of anti-Semitism. “In the heart of a region where denial is routine – denial of Israel’s right to exist, denial of the historic link of Jews to their homeland, denial of the Holocaust – President Obama spoke the truth with a clear, unwavering voice," it said. It also praised his language on the "unbreakable" bonds with Israel and his denunciation of Palestinian violence. Not until the eighth paragraph did it mention that it was disappointed by Obama failure to be "more explicit" about "the danger Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons poses to the entire Middle East and to global security."

* The Anti-Defamation League, by contrast, puts both praise and criticism right up top in its release, calling it: "Obama's speech to Muslim world is 'groundbreaking," but misses opportunities on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The group praised Obama for broaching issues that had never really been addressed to the Arab world before now, but said he failed to put the conflict in its proper historical perspective." For example, "while he made strong statements against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, it should have been made clear that Israel's right to statehood is not a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We are disappointed that the President found the need to balance the suffering of the Jewish people in a genocide to the suffering of the Palestinian people resulting from Arab wars." In an interview, ADL national director Abraham Foxman added that the the Iran portion of the speech was "very weak."

* The Conference of Presidents did not put out a statement, but its executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein and chairman Alan Solow, in interviews, both said they were happy the president spoke of the "unbreakable" bonds between the U.S. and Israel and his condemnation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Hoenlein, like the ADL, wished that the president had provided more historical context on the Jewish people's connection to the land of Israel, but noted positively the lack of linkage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to progress on the Iran issue. Both Hoenlein and Solow, though, had hoped for stronger words on Iran, with Solow saying he hoped the president would use "more forceful" language in the future.

* The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism strongly praised the speech, while also briefly pointing out that Israel's claim of legitimacy was rooted in 3,000 years of history. "He made it clear that the United States and Israel have an unbreakable bond and spoke forthrightly about the need for the Palestinians to abandon violence if their hopes for a state are to be achieved," said the group. The RAC, unlike some other Jewish organizations, praised the president's language on Iran, saying "he was clear in recognizing the urgency of addressing Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and his support for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

* B'nai B'rith International emphasized the positive, but also had some problems with the speech. Entitled "Obama Breaks New Ground in Addressing Holocaust Denial, Reinforces Unbreakable U.S.-Israel Ties," it stated "in the heart of the Arab world, the president addressed the issue of Holocaust denial, noting specifically the six million Jews who were murdered. In doing so, President Obama attempted to end an insidious ongoing campaign against Jews." In the second half of its release, it also expressed disappointment about Iran and said he missed an opportunity "to discuss incitement – in mosques, schools, and the media – against the Jewish population, and he did not fully address the long record of Palestinian noncompliance with peace initiatives."

* Concern about Iran was a main focus of The Israel Project, which said there was much to "celebrate" as well. "I am very concerned about President Obama’s comments that Iran has a right to nuclear materials for energy given the dangerous fact that some of those materials could get into the hands of terrorists including Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad," said The Israel Project founder and president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. "President Obama’s speech did not convey a sense of urgency on stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons – although it is clear he does share the goal of preventing a weaponized nuclear Iran."

* The Orthodox Union had five "welcome" and five "worrisome" aspects of the speech. It liked Obama's challenge to Arab states to do more and his denunciation of Holocaust denial, but was concerned by his language on Jerusalem and his reinforcement of Israel "as a modern colonial upstart." It also lamented Obama's lack of a "nuanced approach" on settlements.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism applauded the president for honoring the "strong bonds" between the United States and Israel. The speech was vital to the "future relations between Israel and the Arab world, and to the United States's Middle East policies," said the group.

* J Street was one of a few groups which had universal praise for the speech. It said Obama showed "bold, assertive leadership" in reaffirming the two-state solution while setting out conditions for everyone involved, and said the Jewish community supports him: "President Obama should know that the overwhelming majority of American Jews and other friends of Israel support his active diplomacy, his calls for an end to violence and settlements – and, most important, his intention to work publicly and aggressively to end the conflicts that have plagued the Middle East for far too long."

* Americans for Peace Now also lauds Obama's "determined, praiseworthy leadership" in creating a "historic opportunity" and calls on Israelis, Arabs and Americans to react accordingly. "Israeli and Arab leaders must seize the moment. If they fail to do so, they will be responsible for blood shed in the future in the region. For Americans who support Israel, this is also an important moment in which to stand squarely with a President who is doing his utmost to bring peace to Israel." The group called for its supporters to make their voices heard.

* Israel Policy Forum praised Obama's pledge to "personally pursue" a two-state solution, and lauded his call for all sides to "live up to their respective Roadmap obligations. The group also noted that "the president's message to the Arab states that they 'must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities,' is a welcome sign that the President understands the importance of a regional approach to peacemaking in the region."

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom said the president made a "persuasive case for the common interest in resolving" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and said it stands with the president. "The usual suspects will likely rush to characterize the President's insistence that both Israelis and Palestinians uphold preexisting commitments -- including a complete freeze on all Israeli settlement expansion and a concerted effort by the Palestinians to end all violence and incitement -- as indicative of an historic realignment that threatens Israel's alliance with the United States," said the group. "In truth, the single most pro-Israel thing an American President can do is to actively pursue a negotiated, two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Israel's very future as a democracy and a Jewish homeland depends on it."

The one Jewish group to totally pan the speech is the Zionist Organization of America. ZOA national president Morton Klein says it was a "strongly biased speech, inimical to Israel, supportive of false Palestinian and Arab claims against Israel, blatantly factually inaccurate – inaccuracies that always benefited the anti-Israel Palestinian, Arab and Muslim cause.

As for the partisan Jewish groups, the Democrats liked it, and the Republicans didn't:

* The National Jewish Democratic Council likes that "Obama did not just reiterate what the audience wanted to hear. Instead, Obama was forthright about the necessity for acceptance of the Jewish homeland in Israel and called for Palestinian abandonment of violence."

* The Republican Jewish Coalition, though, thought the speech was too balanced, and that was what was wrong with it: "American policy should not be balanced -- it should side with those who fight terror, not those who either engage in it or are too weak to prevent it." "We urge President Obama to return to the policy of holding the security of Israel as a key American priority and requiring significant, concrete, and verifiable moves toward peace from the Palestinian side.

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