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White House officials meet with rabbis to sooth concerns on Israel

(WJC)–White House officials have met with a group of 15 rabbis from across the country – representing the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative streams – for the second time about the Obama administration’s perceived lack of friendliness toward Israel. The meeting, on 13 May follows a first such encounter which took place in April.

Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., initiated the meetings after a talk he had with his friend Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, about the Obama administration’s perceived lack of friendliness toward Israel.

The two meetings were part of a charm offensive after relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments hit a low in early March, when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration wants Israel to freeze settlement in the West Bank and building in the eastern part of Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently annexed.

In recent weeks, several high-profile Jewish communal figures have slammed the Obama administration over the intensity and public nature of its criticisms of Israeli actions on these fronts. Some of the critics accused the White House of exerting much more pressure on Israel than the Palestinian Authority.

Moline said the rabbis, all of whom attended both of the meetings, were selected because of the high profiles they have in their communities, and because they had concerns about how the Obama administration was conducting Middle East policy — but they had not displayed outright hostility to the president.

“The rabbis who were in this group were chosen because they’re in touch with their different congregations in different parts of the country,” Moline said.

Not all the rabbis came away entirely mollified, but nonetheless they were impressed by the seriousness of the outreach.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida said he left the meeting still wondering if the administration is on the right track, but still “cautiously optimistic” because of the depth of commitment to Israel he heard.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative congregation in suburban Potomac, Md., said he felt it was especially incumbent upon the administration to explain its actions given the misgivings about Obama that had circulated in the Jewish community prior to his election in a rumor campaign driven by e-mail that described him as anti-Israel and sympathetic to Muslims.

The rabbis put questions to the group that ranged from the substantive to repetitions of rumors about the president and how he was perceived to have treated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poorly during a visit to Washington in March.

“There was a lot of highlighting of the actual activities and policies of the administration,” Moline said — “and some frustration that” what the Obama administration has done for Israel “has not been comprehensively and accurately reported. They emphasized that whatever the messaging has been over the past year and a half, the policies have been in place.”

The administration officials “spent a considerable amount of time emphasizing that the United States is addressing Israel’s security concerns in a manner that [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak called better than at any previous time,” Moline reported.

The rabbis in attendance — whose congregations ranged from Florida, the Midwest, Las Vegas, the Northeast and the South — seemed receptive and took the message home.

“Our president is every bit as committed to Israel’s safety and security as any previous administration,” Rabbi Aaron Rubinger said in a May 8 Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Orlando, Fla. “I do not believe the president is abandoning Israel or has any intention of abandoning Israel.”

Rubinger listed what he called “significant” administration talking points: The refusal to participate in the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference against racism last year in Geneva because the president believed Israel would be unfairly criticized; the rejection of Richard Goldstone’s U.N. report on Israel’s actions during last year’s war in Gaza, which pro-Israel advocates called inaccurate and biased; the refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey when Ankara said it would withdraw if Israel were included; the ongoing cooperation between the United States and Israel on missile defense issues; and numerous recent visits to Washington by Barak, Israel’s defense minister.

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress

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