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1. Biden goes back to the basics in first High Holiday call as president
Following a long-standing tradition of speaking to Jewish communal leaders on the eve of the High Holidays, President Joe Biden made his first such call last Thursday, with more than a thousand Jewish activists, communal leaders and pretty much whoever wanted to join, on a video call.
Though he touched on many issues, Biden focused his message to the Jewish community on battling antisemitism in America, a centerpiece of his presidential race. Biden has pointed many times to the Unite the Right rally—and the images of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets of Charlottesville—as the event that triggered his decision to run for office in 2020.
Recalling the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which left 11 members of the Jewish community dead, Biden said that “all antisemitic attacks aren’t just a strike against the Jewish community; they’re a strike against the soul of our nation and the values which we say we stand for. No matter its source or stated rationale, we have to, and will, condemn this prejudice at every turn, alongside other forms of hate.”
On a more practical level, the president called for a quick confirmation of Deborah Lipstadt, his choice for special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, and he pointed to his Justice Department’s work cracking down on hate crimes.
Biden also provided an unvarnished account of his recent White House meeting with Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett. He described the new Israeli leader as a “gentleman,” but at the same time acknowledged their differences regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying Bennett “has much more conservative views on matters in the Middle East than I do.”
(And not to worry: Biden did not miss out on his Golda story, just in case there is an American Jewish leader out there that hasn’t heard this anecdote a million times by now. “It’s a true story,” Biden added, for those in doubt.)
On a lighter note, the president apologized for not hosting, due to COVID-19, a Rosh Hashanah reception, as he used to do while serving as Barack Obama’s vice president. “Next year at the White House, God willing,” he promised.
Wait, does that mean there will be two White House Jewish receptions, one for Hanukkah and one for the new year? This could throw the entire organized Jewish world into disarray. Better start jockeying for invitations now.
2. He’s running: Trump gets on the line with Jewish (and non-Jewish) supporters
Former president Donald Trump also hopped on the phone last Thursday to talk with supporters who are people of faith. On the line, at the inaugural virtual meeting of the National Faith Advisory Board, were Christian and Jewish leaders who gathered to listen to Trump and to Pastor Paula White, who heads the new initiative.
The tone of the call was quite different from that of Biden’s Rosh Hashanah meeting.
True to form, Trump chose to speak to his followers of faith about politics—blasting Biden’s policies, praising his own actions on issues dear to the hearts of his listeners (abortion, preaching from the pulpit, opening houses of worship during COVID-19), and breaking down the vote of religious Americans, especially Catholic Americans, who, according to Trump, have not given their full support to Biden, America’s second Catholic president.
And then came his rant about the Jewish vote.
As he has in the past, the former president expressed his frustration with the lack of support from American Jewish voters in the 2020 elections. Once again conflating policy regarding Israel with American Jewish interests, Trump referenced his decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, wondering aloud, “yet I got 25 percent of the vote,” according to the Religion News Service. “I think they have to get together. There has to be a little bit more unity with the religious groups all represented on this call.”
3. And Bennett, too
It’s been a busy week for Jewish leaders, having to make time for all these high-level Rosh Hashanah calls while also getting ready for the holiday, but when the new Israeli prime minister is on the line, you can’t really say no.
Bennett, perhaps setting a new tradition, held a Zoom call with leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
There was no big news there (although, according to The Forward, Bennett did tell his counterparts that he “loves” them). He reported on his recent meeting with Biden, talked about the Israeli government’s priorities and smoothly bypassed the contentious issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
But there actually was some news, lying there in plain sight: The prime minister of Israel took time to speak to the American Jewish community. Add this to the open call by Israel’s new minister of diaspora affairs Nachman Shai to rabbis and Jews overseas to “wrestle” together with the issues that separate Israel and diaspora Jews, and you might just be witnessing a new page in relations between Israel and American Jews.
4. Does Jewish outreach matter?
Why do politicians bother making these kinds of holiday appeals?
It’s hard to believe Biden won over a single Jewish voter with a half-hour conversation on Rosh Hashanah. It’s just as hard to see a world in which undecided Jewish voters chose to join the Trump camp after hearing the former president recite his actions relating to Israel and scold other Jews who didn’t vote for him.
Voters’ minds are pretty much set, and those who actually view their faith as an important factor when going to the polls have probably chosen sides long before hearing these holiday pitches.
But there is a good reason any political adviser would make sure their boss reaches out to communities of faith, even in the form of a run-of-the-mill statement for Passover or a Yom Kippur tweet: It trickles down. It gives activists and mid-level organizers who do the real work of engaging with the community something to draw from. Where ordinary members of the community may see a cliché-ridden speech, organizers see an opportunity. Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone say, “Just as President Biden said in his Rosh Hashanah address…” or “As President Trump noted when speaking to Jewish leaders…” or “I just got off a call with the vice president.”
5. Top issues for 5782?
Ready for a new year of Jewish political activism? There’s a lot to do.
Here’s a very basic list of topics that Jewish Americans will likely engage in this year:
Abortion, voting rights, climate change, rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, fighting antisemitism, and fighting for and against expanding the definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel.
What’s not on the table (at least for now)?
Fighting for and against American involvement on the Palestinian issue (since Biden has made clear he has no intention of going there), and going back to old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) battles (still recovering from the Ben & Jerry’s debate).