A pre-holiday message

A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

Obviously this week was also dominated by international affairs; we need to do what's right at home, we need to do what's right abroad.

The issue of peace in the Middle East during these tumultuous times is on everybody's minds. I said yesterday in the speech that I delivered to the General Assembly that peace cannot be imposed on parties to a conflict. A vote in the UN will not create a two-state solution in which a Jewish Israel and a sovereign Palestine are living in peace and security...

We will not abandon the pursuit of a just and lasting peace and end to the conflict. It's in the interests of the Palestinians and the Israelis to resolve this conflict. But we have to make sure that it's done in a way that's fair and just for both sides and a way that takes Israel's security into account.

"The bonds between Israel and the United States are unbreakable and our commitment to the security of Israel are ironclad," he said. (He spoke also about how our nation gives military assistance to Israel and how closely our two militaries work together; I didn't take close notes there.)

As we pursue peace between Israel and her neighbors, we are also mindful that the biggest threat Israel faces from a security perspective is Iran's nuclear program. We've imposed the strongest sanctions against Iran, ever... as a result, Iran finds itself increasingly isolated from the international community. The pressure is being applied vigilantly and consistently.

I'm very proud of this record; the United States and Israel have been strong allies since Israel's founding; we're bound by shared interests, shared values, and by our people and our families.... I hope and pray that this year will be a good year for progress and for peace.

After his prepared remarks, there was time for two questions. The first question asked was (in a nutshell): In the aftermath of the Arab spring, Israeli foreign relations are in turmoil. What can be done to help restore peace between Egypt and Israel, and to repair relationships between Israel and Turkey?

The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation is if we can actually resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. That's what feeds so much of the tumult in Egypt; that's what I think has created the deep tensions between Turkey and Israel, and Turkey historically has been a friend and ally of Israel's. That's why we think that direct negotiations are so critical, and we're going to continue to work with both sides to try to initiate those direct negotiations.

In the meantime we're going to continue to put pressure on Egypt and Turkey to be responsible partners and understand that it is in their interests to make sure that they are maintaining a strong diplomatic relationship and open lines of communication with Israel.

The situation in Egypt is obviously still in flux. You have a military council that hasn't really found its footing. The expectations were so high after the overthrow of the Mubarak government; now because they haven't moved as fast as they should have in terms of implementing elections, what you're seeing, I think, is the kind of disorganization and uncertainty in society that can be directed inv ery negative ways.

We're pushing hard to make sure that on the one hand Egypt's democratic processes are moving quickly, that economic opportunities exist in Egypt, but also being clear with them that the US' relationship with Egypt is centered on them retaining strong communications and retaining their peace arrangements with Israel. And they've gotten that message. After the incident at the Israeli embassy, the Egyptian government was very forceful in accepting responsibility, recognizing that it had been a mistake...both governments have handled that properly.

With respect to Turkey and Israel, the key here is to try to get beyond the flotillas. We've been engaged in some intensive diplomacy between those two parties to try to get Turkey to lower the rhetoric and make sure that there's a recognition that each country that has such a strong tradition of friendship stands to lose if there's an irrevocable breach between Turkey and Israel...But again: so much of the kindling for these tensions can be swept away if we can get back to direct negotiations and there's some prospect that that issue can be resolved.

...There's a limited window during which we can hope to get a serious conversation going; the Jewish community in the United States helps shape public opinion...The United States is going to be there no matter what; we will defend and stand with Israel in international forums and also militarily. From that position of strength, we need to recognize that longterm security for Israel will derive out of the kind of peace that is lasting and just.

And the other question was about domestic policy, specifically education. The questioner cited the Talmud in its praise for those who teach the children of the poor as well as of the rich, and asked about the state of the American educational system.

There's a longstanding decline in education in the United States, which predates any [economic] crisis. For the last 30 years we've been talking about how we need to upgrade our educational system...essentially what we say is, we're going to hold schools accountable; we're going to make these decisions based on facts and evidence about what works; we're not going to tolerate school systems that are drop-out factories or that track certain students so that they can't perform. And by the way this is a problem not only for inner-city schools! Even our ordinary suburban schools are falling deeply behind compared to countries like South Korea or China. We're going to be insisting on high accountability, putting money where there's a commitment to reform. So much of this has to do with getting excellent teachers into the classroom.

Reform efforts, he said, have been promising; 40 states have initiated reforms which were previously considered impossible, and teachers' unions have agreed that we need better training and better accountability.

What's happening at the same time is enormous budget pressures. Even during the debt ceiling debate, we've been very protective of federal funding of education It's increased K-12; it's massively increased in terms of Pell grants allowing young people to get back to college. The big problem is at the state and local levels. A lot of states are laying off teachers in droves. No matter how well-intentioned the school is, if they're losing ten percent of their teachers, they're going to have problems. That's part of the reasons why this jobs bill is so important; it says to states, we will help you get through these difficult budget times. Keep your teachers in the classroom.

The President also spoke about schools in disrepair around the country and how that too impacts childrens' learning. "We're going to have to reform our school system, and that has to be an all hands on deck effort," he said: not just government but also parents and teachers. (He also noted that the Jewish community has always valued education and thanked us for reinforcing that attitude and that ethic in our communities.) "There's nothing more valuable than how our young people are performing in school."

And the second part of this, he said, is a straight budget issue. Are we going to pay for what our kids need? He urged us to bear in mind that we need to close corporate loopholes and ask the wealthiest among us to pay more. Schools across the country have eliminated all extracurricular activities; they may have only one science teacher running around to five districts because the schools can't afford to employ one at each place; these are real problems all over the country, and we need to take action.

Rabbi David Sapirstein closed out the call by citing the popular name of President Obama's healthcare program -- Obamacare -- and said that all of us on the call are surely confident, after this call, "that Obama cares."

I'm glad I was on the call. It was pretty neat to spend half an hour listening to the President of the United States speaking to me and to my colleagues.

I wish that the President had urged us to pressure the Israeli government to behave ethically and righteously toward Israel's Arab residents and toward inhabitants of the Territories. I wish he had spoken about the extent to which American support allows the Netanyahu government to sustain the settlements and to maintain an untenable status quo. But I know that the President needs to toe a centrist line on this issue, and I wasn't surprised either by what he did say, or what he chose not to say. I'm glad that his first response to the question of how to repair Israel's relationship with Egypt was that Israel and the Palestinians must reach a just and sustainable peace, because I agree with that one thousand percent.

One way or another, I'm with Rabbi Sapirstein: Obama does care, and I appreciate that a lot.