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Obama pitch to Reform Jews: Everything but matzo balls and chicken soup

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- President Barack Obama received a rousing reception on Friday at the Union of Reform Judaism conference, whose members make up the backbone of his U.S. Jewish support.

Obama's serial standing ovations came during a speech in this Washington suburb where he talked about his unshakeable support for Israel. "Don't let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact," Obama said.

Obama was alluding to a stepped-up campaign by Republicans, led by the 2012 GOP presidential candidates, to question his backing for Israel -- attacks aimed to drive a wedge between Jewish voters who supported him overwhelmingly in 2008 as well as to appeal to evangelical Christian Zionists.

While the Obama White House has had a few stumbles recently -- Obama was caught on an open microphone with French President Nicolas Sarkozy complaining about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- Republicans have been looking to separate Obama from his Jewish voters for years.

In the speech to thousands of members of the Jewish Reform movement, Obama repeated several times a Hebrew word, "hineni," that was familiar and meaningful to the audience, as it often appears in the Torah. It means, "Here I am."

Obama made references to this week's Torah portion, daughter Malia's attendance at bar and bat mitzvahs, Tikkun Olam (the Jewish concept of repairing the world), and the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis.

In other words, Obama threw in everything but the matzo balls and chicken soup.

The speech was delayed while Obama huddled backstage with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. While the crowd waited, Jewish folk rock singer Josh Nelson filled time with tunes ranging from the Hanukkah standard "Maoz Tsur," also known as "Rock of Ages, to "Great Balls of Fire" to a popular Israeli tune, "Bashana Haba'ah," which means "in the year to come."

The Obama speech-writing team crafted the speech to first address Obama's domestic policies and achievements because the Reform Jewish voter -- which tilts Democratic -- is not just about Israel. Obama talked about the struggles for voting and civil rights the Reform Jewish movement backed to more current-day battles for women's, disabled and gay rights.

In turning to Israel, Obama provided a forceful defense of his policies to the friendly group, seemingly giving them ammunition to go out and help make the case for his re-election.

"As president, I have never wavered in pursuit of a just and lasting peace -- two states for two peoples; an independent Palestine alongside a secure Jewish state of Israel. I have not wavered and will not waver. That is our shared vision," Obama said.

Obama also sided with an Israeli perspective on the peace process: that Israel and the Palestinians have to negotiate and no entity -- especially the United Nations -- can impose a deal.

"There's no question about how lasting peace will be achieved. Peace can't be imposed from the outside. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them," Obama said.

Obama repeated what he has said since he started running for president in 2007: "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable. It is unshakeable. "

On the security side, the Obama administration has bolstered military assistance to Israel. "I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel's security than ours. None. Don't let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact."

And on the threat Iran poses to Israel -- an area where the GOP presidential field has suggested Obama is weak -- Obama said he would do what it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Said Obama, "Rest assured, we will take no options off the table."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on December 17, 2011 6:30 AM.

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