By Josh Lederman - 12/16/11 09:16 PM EST
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — President Obama made an impassioned plea for continued support from American Jews on Friday, listing his accomplishments on social issues and touting his record in support of Israel’s security.
Obama’s address before a meeting of about 6,000 Reform Jews formed a counter-narrative to Republican attempts to portray his first term as destructive to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to persuade Jewish voters in swing states that Republicans deserve their electoral support, despite a typical Jewish allegiance to Democrats.
Obama, who has been accused by Republicans of betraying Israel by being openly critical of some of its actions, declared his unequivocal support for a Jewish, democratic Israel — but also for an independent Palestinian state.
“Two states for two peoples,” Obama said. “I have not wavered and will not waver.”
Republicans have spent the past few weeks in overdrive attacking Obama's approach to the Middle East as they work to shore up their own support among among Jews, evangelical Christians and neoconservatives — all of whom place a high priority on Israel’s security, but for different reasons.
Democrats have been pushing back, dispatching their highest-profile Jewish members of Congress to back the president’s record and highlighting the party’s efforts to reach out to communities of faith on issues of economic equality, charity and tolerance.
“President Obama doesn’t have a messaging problem with the Jewish community, he has a policy problem. The reality is that he recognizes that, and so you’re going to see efforts to try and shore up Jewish supporters,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is Jewish, in a conference call organized by the Republican National Committee on Friday to chip away at Obama’s speech.
A day earlier, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), the only Jewish Republican currently in Congress, also addressed the Union of Reform Judaism, delivering a severe rebuke to Palestinian culture and calling for the U.S. commitment to Israel to be reaffirmed.
“If the Palestinians want to live in peace in a state of their own, they must demonstrate that they are worthy of a state,” Cantor said in a speech that some of the conference’s attendees said they were skipping so as not to lend support to his conservative views.
But while some evidence does suggest that Obama’s support has weakened among U.S. Jews — a September survey by the American Jewish Committee found that more than half believe he is getting it wrong on Israel — those who gathered for Obama’s address Friday gave him a warmer welcome than Cantor received.
Audience members chanted, “Yes, we can” as they waited for Obama — whose address started late due to a behind-the-scenes meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, according to conference organizers.
Cheryl Taustin, a cantorial soloist from Berlin, M.D., said she believed the president when he said his support for Israel’s security has exceeded that of other administrations.
“I think the people in Israel do as well,” Taustin said. “I don’t think he was giving us the standard line. I think he addressed the concerns of what I hear from people.”
While Jews make up a fractional portion of the U.S. electorate, they do make up a substantial part of the Democratic base in politically crucial states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. They also make up an important part of the political donor community and could be vital to the Obama campaigns efforts to out-organize Republicans.
And while Republicans have delighted to see some prominent Jewish leaders question Obama’s commitment to the Jewish state, on a catalog of other social issues where the Jewish community tends to be more liberal, Republicans are at a loss when courting their vote.
“We’re not a country that says you’re on your own,” Obama said, adding that Jews, like all Americans, have seen their families and neighbors struggling financially.
“We answer the call. We say, 'Here I am,' ” he said, invoking the biblical story of Joseph.
Obama offered a list of legislative accomplishments under his tenure that he said are in line with Jewish values. He pointed to legislation ensuring equal pay for women, repealing the military's ban on openly gay service members, expanding access to family planning and promoting the development of clean energy.
“You helped draft the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” Obama said. “Without these efforts, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. So thank you.”
Offering a few gallant attempts to pronounce Hebrew words, Obama told of wrangling with his daughter, Malia, over outfits and curfews for the myriad bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs of her Jewish classmates.
“When my Jewish friends tell me about their ancestors, I feel a connection,” Obama said. “I know what it’s like to feel that only in America is my story possible.”