President Barack Obama delivered an impassioned speech to the 6,700 people gathered at a suburban Maryland hotel last Friday for the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention.
“Even though it is a few hours early,” the president began, “I’d like to wish all of you Shabbat shalom,” Obama began. “I want to give a shout-out, NFTY I understand is in the house,” he went on, earning a raucous cheer from the National Federation of Temple Youth.
Throwing in a joke about his daughter Malia being in the midst of bar mitzvah season, he borrowed from her resulting Jewish knowledge to begin with a Torah portion, and based the rest of his speech on Joseph’s words, “Hineni,” or “Here I am.”
The words were taken from the Saturday, Dec. 17, Torah portion. “It never hurts to begin a speech by discussing the Torah portion,” Obama said.
“Today we’re beginning to see what change looks like,” he said to repeated applause as he recounted his record, including the nomination of two female Supreme Court justices, health care reform, improving gay rights in the military, ending the war in Iraq, and raising fuel efficiency standards as examples.
“I laid out a vision in our country where everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share,” Obama said, appealing to the social action consciousness of his audience. “This is not just a political debate, this is a moral debate, this is an ethical debate, it’s a values debate, it’s the defining issue of our time, a make or break moment for the middle class, and for everyone fighting to get in.”
The United States is at a crossroads, he said, and the people must make critical decisions about the country’s direction.
“Is this a place where everyone is left to fend for themselves, or do we come together to make sure that working people can make enough to raise their family…, buy their own home?” He continued, “I won’t be afraid to ask the most well-off among us to pay their fair share so that everybody’s got a shot.”
As expected, Obama reaffirmed his support of Israel. He also urged the crowd to doubt claims that other administrations had a stronger record, noting how he has upgraded military support to israel from what previous administrations provided.
“No U.S. administration has done more in support to Israel’s security than ours,” he said. “None. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. It’s a fact.”
He mentioned U.S. aid to Israel, a missile defense system that was an Israel-U.S. collaboration, “hard-hitting sanctions” against Iran, and his position that “no options [are] off the table” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat as examples of this support.
Republicans have scored Obama for his at-times tense relations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, particularly over the peace process. Obama said he was still dedicated to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, but did not allude at all to his differences with Israel over settlement building in the west bank.
The Republican National Committee published data last Friday showing Obama vulnerable to losses among Jewish voters in key states, particularly Florida.
“The truth is, America’s security interests are intertwined with Israel’s, and when President Obama does a disservice to Israel, he does a disservice to our country, as well,” RNC Chairman Reince Preibus said in an Op-Ed in the conservative Human Events magazine.
William Kristol, chairman of the Emergency Committee on Israel, who attended parts of the biennial, challenged the president’s assertions. “It is not a fact that [Obama’s] administration has been strong in support of Israel,” he insisted. “It is a fact that in the past month alone, Obama administration officials have blamed Israel for the failure of the peace process, blamed Israel for fraying relations with the increasingly Islamist governments in Egypt and Turkey, compared Israel to Iran, and blamed Israel for Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe. The president hasn’t clarified or repudiated any of these remarks.”
The president concluded his speech by returning to the Joseph quote from that week’s Torah portion. “Here I am,” the president said, echoing Joseph’s “hineni” to his father. “I’m ready to keep alive our country’s promise, I am ready to do what needs to be done. The work might not be finished in a day…, in a term, but I’m ready to do my part.”
He walked off the stage to thunderous applause and an electrified crowd.
JointMedia News Service
Ron Kampeas of the JTA Wire Service contributed to this report.