Washington — In their first meeting with Jewish leaders Thursday, the Obama transition team proved that change is indeed on its way. For the first time in years, a full spectrum of Jewish groups sat around one table for a lengthy, detailed and civilized discussion about the future.
Representatives of 29 Jewish groups — from the dovish J-Street and Brit-Tzedek to the hawkish ZOA and JINSA — met with members of the Obama transition team in Washington to discuss the community’s priorities and preferences as it readies for the new administration to take office.
The Obama team, which included five senior staff members, listened, wrote down notes and provided little new information about the president-elect’s intentions.
Still, even that was enough to leave Jewish leaders deeply impressed.
“I’ve been working in Washington for 25 years under four presidents, and for me this was the most remarkable event,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women. “The openness and genuine effort to reach out to all sectors is really an important sign.”
Each Jewish representative in attendance was given a chance to talk during the two-hour meeting, which was also videotaped as part of Obama’s promise for transparency in government.
Many of the groups around the table have been shunned by the outgoing Bush administration, which had limited community outreach efforts to like-minded organizations within the community.
Another significant shift from the Bush-era interaction with the Jewish community was the renewed focus on domestic issues. While for the past eight years White House meetings with Jewish leaders focused mainly on foreign policy issues relating to Israel, the discussion with the Obama team this week was evenly divided between foreign and domestic issues and touched upon concerns regarding the economic stimulus plan, poverty, civil liberties, energy and judicial nominations. “It was great that they had real serious domestic policy people at the meeting,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The focus on domestic issues, said one participant in the meeting, reflects not only the great concern in the Jewish community over the financial crisis, but also the broad agreement Jewish groups have with the incoming Democratic administration on social issues.
In accordance with the new spirit of post-partisanship, most Jewish leaders attending the meeting stressed the broad consensus within the community over domestic priorities and foreign policy concerns.
Still, some friction was noticed when the discussion touched on the Israeli–Palestinian issue. Several speakers told the Obama team that both in Israel and within the American Jewish community there is support for the two-state solution. Morton Klein of the ZOA took issue with this claim, arguing that Israelis are actually opposed to a Palestinian state. The debate, however, did not reflect the general spirit of the meeting.
“It was in tandem with president-elect Obama’s wish to move forward from the ideological fissures that sometime paralyze Washington,” said the UJC’s William Daroff, who also attended the meeting.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman