For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Back to ‘kishkes’: Obama defends his Israel commitments, touts his Jewish ties


The so-called “kishkes issue”—what does President Obama, deep down, really feel about Israel—is now being addressed at the highest level by Obama himself.

Obama dropped in on a White House meeting Tuesday of lay and rabbinical leaders of the Conservative Judaism and Jack Lew, the president’s chief of staff. During his 20 minutes at the hourlong meeting, Obama emphasized his affection for Judaism and Israel, and like Vice President Joe Biden last week in a similar meeting with organizational leaders, his frustration with perceptions that he is cool toward the Jewish state.

The tone, coupled with blitzes of Jewish communities by Democratic leaders in recent months, reinforces the impression that the party’s leadership is unsettled by Republican inroads into what for decades has been a Democratic base constituency.

The presidential visit was “informal,” although the group of Jewish leaders knew a drop-by was likely. So when Obama walked into the Roosevelt Room, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, was ready with the traditional blessing for heads of state.

The account of what happened next is based on detailed notes by a person in attendance and confirmed by broader descriptions by others in attendance.

Obama opened by describing what he said was the “overlap” between his priorities and those of the Jewish community, both domestically and abroad. His first question was from Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who asked about the role of religious leaders in the public sphere.

Obama responded by speaking about the need to be part of a community, and he paraphrased a Talmudic injunction about Jews being responsible for one another, applying it to Americans.

Schonfeld then thanked the president for his efforts to revive the economy, as well as for isolating Iran and initiating U.N. Security Council condemnation of Syria’s bloody repression of regime opponents.

She then asked the president how best to convey hope to Americans.

Obama reiterated his thoughts about community and the obligations of Americans for one another, and described Republicans as seeing government as a negative power that unfairly distributes wealth from the hard-working to the lazy.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, then asked the president how the rabbis could push back against perceptions that he was hiding his true feelings about Israel.

“Jack always tells me I’ll get asked the kishkes question,” he said, referring to Lew, who is an Orthodox Jew, and using the Yiddish term for “guts.”

Obama said the question dated back to 2008 and for him was a bizarre reversal: Until then, he said, during his rise as a state politician in Illinois and then as U.S. senator, he had been depicted by some on the left as a “stooge” for Israel because of his close friendship with Jews and others in the pro-Israel community.

The president blamed several elements for the reversal: The reluctance among some Jews to credit someone with the middle name Hussein, and the son of a Muslim, with being pro-Israel; the quirk of history of a center-left government in the U.S. overlapping with a center-right government in Israel, and the resulting perception that Obama was pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too hard to shut down settlement expansion; and the fact that the Republicans seized these elements to advance a narrative that he was unfavorable to Israel.

Obama made clear that he resented the narrative, calling it “unfounded.” He said his support for Israel was evident not just during his administration through enhanced security assistance, but also during his days in the Senate.

Obama also complained that no one questions the pro-Israel bona fides of Mitt Romney, the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee; Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader in the U.S. Senate; or Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The administration’s pushback on this issue was evident as well in a May 21 meeting featuring top White House officials and some 70 Jewish community leaders. Biden took aside Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, and complained about a mutual acquaintance who was writing “scurrilous” emails about Obama’s record, according to Klein. Biden then repeated the complaint in his address to the whole group of Jewish leaders, according to Klein and another participant.

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that Obama’s complaints were disingenuous, noting that until this year a number of Democrats had complained about Obama’s approach to Israel, particularly his call to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiating the future borders of a Palestinian state.

“On the eve of his reelection, he’s engaging in a charm offensive with the Jewish community and has turned down some of the rhetoric,” Brooks told JTA. “But I don’t believe he has changed his fundamental policies in any regard.”

Obama in his talk with the Conservative leaders also said that he had read deeply about Judaism, saying he probably knew more about the topic than any other president. Brooks derided the assertion as “narcissistic.”

Those at the meeting said they were impressed by Obama’s remarks.

“He talked very passionately about his personal sense of commitment to the values that are reflected in the U.S.-Israel relationship and the feelings he shares with the American Jewish community for Israel,” Rabbi Jack Moline, the spiritual leader of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., and the Rabbinical Assembly’s director of public policy, told JTA.

Moline arranged the meeting between Lew and the Conservative leaders.

“My impression is that this was an effort by the White House to reach out to faith leaders of various communities, and we were just fortunate to be among the first,” Moline said.

In a blog post on the JTS website, Eisen said that Obama’s quest for Jewish approval was a positive.

“He clearly cares what the Jews of America think of him,” Eisen wrote. “This has to be a good thing for us and for Israel; I believe it is also a good thing for America.”

(Zach Silberman of the Washington Jewish Week contributed to this report.)

Is Obama’s J-Dar off? Probing, once again, the ‘kishkes question’


Does President Obama need a “Shalom Chaver” moment a la Bill Clinton?

More fraught back-and-forth between the organized Jewish community and the Obama administration again has brought to the fore the question of what the president feels in his gut toward Israel and the Jewish people.

The questions were prompted by the Obama administration’s late and qualified response to last week’s naming of a square for Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist who helped mastermind a 1978 bus attack that killed 37 Israeli civilians, including a dozen children. The hurt feelings were sharpened by the massacre over the previous weekend of an Israeli couple and three of their children in their home in the Itamar settlement in the West Bank.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted the Mughrabi square naming at a Manhattan memorial service for the murdered Fogel family members from Itamar.

“If governments, even our own, do not stand out and shriek and condemn and take action when they see this kind of action by the Palestinian Authority and their representatives”—and the incitement continues despite repeated promises—then “we must make sure that our voices are heard,” Hoenlein said. “We have to demand accountability and that there will be consequences.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, asked what the president feels “in his soul”—a reference to disputed reports that in a meeting with Jewish leaders last month, Obama asked them to “search their souls” regarding their desire for peace.

“In light of what President Obama said to us at the White House and in light of this present episode, the ZOA asks a simple question: What does President Obama’s shocking, unbelievable and frightening refusal to condemn the honoring and glorifying of a major Jew-killer by [President Mahmoud] Abbas’ P.A., a day after an anti-Israel massacre, tell us about Obama’s true feelings about Jews and Israel?” Klein asked. “Mr. Obama, we respectfully ask you, sir, to ‘search your soul’ to evaluate your feelings and actions and policies toward the Jewish state of Israel.”

President Clinton set the high mark for connecting with Israelis and Jews in his 1995 eulogy at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral when he encapsulated worldwide Jewish grief in a simple Hebrew phrase: “Shalom chaver,” “Farewell friend.” The second President Bush also made clear his affection for the Jewish state, both supporters and detractors agree.

Speaking on the record, most Jewish community leaders dismiss talk about Obama’s “kishkes factor”—what he feels in his gut—as overly focused on the ephemera of emotions and beside the point: The lines of communication with the White House are open, they say, and the president and his staff are responsive to their overtures.

“I would say we have a good line of communication with them,” said Alan Solow, the Presidents Conference chairman and a fundraiser for Obama in 2008. “Our access is both appropriate and excellent. There’s not a problem of communication issue between the Jewish leadership and the White House.”

Solow would not address the kishkes factor, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

Speaking on background, however, a number of Jewish community figures—among them those who generally sympathize with the administration’s outlook on Israel—say Obama just doesn’t get it.

“His J-Dar is off,” said one dovish figure who recalled Obama’s first meeting with Jewish leaders in the summer of 2009, when he told them that previous administrations’ policy of not being public about policy disputes with Israel was unproductive.

“It may have been true, but it was not the right thing to say” to Jewish leaders, the official told JTA. “What it implies is that you’re trying to drive a wedge between them and the government of Israel—but you should know that rarely, rarely works because the organized Jewish community supports Israeli governments. He doesn’t get the emotional issue, and maybe even the structural issue.”

Obama’s missed opportunity was not visiting Israel after his June 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, a number of officials have said.

A conservative who has tried to make the case for this White House among like-minded friends and colleagues says Obama’s aloof personality is a problem.

“With Clinton, when he talked to you, it was like you were the most important person in the world,” the official said. “With Obama, it’s like he’s the most important person in the world.”

A prominent Democrat and a Clinton administration veteran said the problem was not confined to the Jews: This White House had made the rookie mistake of believing its resounding victory gave it a license to ignore special interests.

“It’s frustrating for every community, not just the Jewish community,” the Democrat said. “They have turned up their nose at constituency politics—labor, Hispanics, blacks, gays and lesbians also don’t get courted. They think they can go past affinity groups, and they can in some instances, but they still have to court the groups.”

White House officials tend to audibly sigh when the question arises. They especially chafe at the notion, raised by a number of Israeli and pro-Israeli officials, that there is no immediate “hotline” official in the White House—someone like Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration’s top Middle East staffer, who could be reached at a moment’s notice.

That person in this White House has been Dan Shapiro, who has Abrams’ job, and he has been responsive, according to friends of the White House.

One sympathetic pro-Israel official said that expecting microscopic attention to square namings by West Bank Palestinians was demanding too much of Shapiro.

“He’s just been dealing with that small problem of Libya,” the official commented dryly.

Obama announced recently that Shapiro would be his nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

White House officials say they have tried to be responsive and have engaged with Jewish leaders, and they say it’s a no-win situation: When they do not respond to a given event, like the Mughrabi square naming, they get into trouble, but when they do respond, the response is picked apart for inadequacies.

That damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t-prickliness characterized Jewish reaction to Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in 2009, when he went out of his way to condemn Holocaust denial among Arabs—and was slammed by some Jewish groups for seeming to draw moral equivalence with Palestinian suffering and for neglecting to mention the Jewish people’s biblical roots case for Israel.

The more recent episode, over the Mughrabi square, showed how an administration could stumble. The first response, days after the naming, came from relatively low-level officials and in response to a JTA inquiry, and said the administration was seeking “clarification” on an event that had been widely reported. The Palestinian Authority did not officially sponsor the event, nor did its officials attend it, but officials of Abbas’ Fatah Party were in attendance and Abbas did not reprimand them.

A day later, the State Department’s top spokesman, Mark Toner, explicitly condemned the naming and said the United States “urged” Abbas to address it.

Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, suggested such reactions were overwrought.

“Obama does not seem to have internalized yet, or does not seem cognizant yet of the fact that most American Jewish voters are progressive—they support his general agenda,” Nir said. “They typically don’t vote first and foremost on Israel and will probably overwhelmingly vote for him again.”