Scintillating Chutzpah: Obama at Reform Judaism's Confab
President Obama Friday went before the General Assembly for Reform Judaism's bienneal conference -- probably the biggest annual meeting of American Jews in the nation's capital -- to pledge his undying support of Israel. Speaking (text) to a liberal audience, he dwelled in great detail on Jewish support for his agenda and for progressive causes dating back to FDR -- from Social Security to the Civil Rights Act to the Voting Rights Act and to Obama's own domestic priorities.
But he really pumped up his oratory when he pledged that his commitment to Israel is "unshakable." And then repeated for good measure, "It is unshakable."
Reprising familiar pro-Israel themes that he outlined in his earlier address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared: "No nation can tolerate terror. No nation can accept rockets targeting innocent men, women and children. No nation can yield to suicide bombers."
With Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the audience, Obama cited him as a witness for the proposition that no U.S. administration" has done more for Israel's security than ours. None."
And topping his pro-Israel credentials, he added: "We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; we will take no options off the table."
Not surprisingly, his remarks drew repeated applause. Obama knows that the 78 percent support of American Jews in 2008 has been slipping and that his policies toward Israel haven't been uniformly positive. So there was a clear tinge of damage control in his speech.
But let me inject a couple of other observations in order to strike a bit of balance in assessing Obama's pro-Israel speech.
First, while pledging total fealty to Israel's security needs, Obama - as he often does - proceeded to burnish his own image more than anyone else's. It always comes down to Obama.
In a display of scintillating chutzpah, after bidding everybody "Shabbat Shalom," Obama linked himself to the biblical Joseph -- the chief character in this week's Torah portion. When Joseph's father Jacob told him to join his brothers in their pasturelands, Obama pointed out, Joseph stepped forward and obediently said one word, "Hineni" - " Here I am."
And, with his own spin on this week's biblical liturgy, Obama went on to note that "Hineni" was also the response of Abraham to God in the binding of Isaac, and of Moses when summoned by God from the burning bush.
At that point in his speech, you knew what was coming next: Obama assured his audience that he also was ready to declare "Hineni" in responding to Israel's struggles and other parts of his agenda. Quite an oratorical feat to put oneself in the same company as Joseph, Abraham and Moses. But Obama never opts for a bit of humility.
Second, there was one important name missing from Obama's speech when he lavished praise on worthy U.S. and Israeli companions in his efforts to make a better world: the name of Benjamin Netanyahu. Not once did Obama refer to Israel's democratically elected leader. While he threw a bouquet to Ehud Barak, Israel's more dovish defense minister, the president's lips were sealed about Israel's head of government.
Obama may depict himself as an unassailable friend of Israel, but don't assume this includes Bibi. And with Bibi relegated to the wings by the president of the United States, one can't help but wonder how solid the U.S.-Israel relationship really is.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers