The drumbeat call for “change” coming from the campaign of presidential candidate Barack Obama is generating “legitimate concern over the zeitgeist around the campaign,” the head of American Jewry’s primary umbrella group reportedly said Tuesday.
At a Jerusalem press conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, voiced worry over the mantra of “change” that he said characterized the presidential race, terming the word’s lack of definition “an opening for all kinds of mischief.”
Hoenlein said afterward that he had been referring to all the candidates. He denied the critical, specific reference to Obama’s campaign as was reported by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
“I never said it,” he told The Jewish Week Tuesday from Israel. “I’ve never used that term [zeitgeist] in my life. I have no clue where that sentence came from. People who were there said I never said it.”
But two other reporters at the press conference confirmed the accuracy of Ha’aretz’s quotation of Hoenlein.
“Yes. He did make that statement,” said Aviram Zino, a reporter for the online Israeli news source YNet. “He made it specifically about the Obama campaign in the context of talking about how all this talk of change, when not defined could be a problem.”
It was the Ha’aretz reporter, Anshel Pfeffer, who pressed Hoenlein about what this meant regarding the campaign of Obama, which has made “change” its primary theme, said Zino.
He added that it was Pfeffer who also asked about the Obama’s campaign’s “zeitgeist,” which led Hoenlein to use the word in his reply, as quoted by Pfeffer:
“Of course Obama has plenty of Jewish supporters, and there are many Jews around him,” Ha’aretz reported Hoenlein saying. “But there is a legitimate concern over the zeitgeist around the campaign.”
Dani Abebe, a reporter for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, backed up this account.
By Wednesday, Hoenlein — whose mandate it is to express the consensus views of American Jewry’s major organizations — appeared to be pedaling back from his remarks the day before.
“The Obama campaign is a brilliant campaign,” Hoenlein told the Jerusalem Post in a follow-up interview. “All the candidates are positive about Israel, and pro-Israel people in Chicago who know him well speak highly of Obama.”
Hoenlein’s remarks come on the heels of concerns expressed about Obama on Israel in an internal memo circulated by the American Jewish Committee recently and in a public comment by Danny Ayalon, Israel’s recently departed ambassador to the U.S.
In a Jerusalem Post opinion piece, Ayalon voiced concern about Obama’s lack of an extensive public record on the Middle East, calling him the candidate “who came out from almost nowhere.”
“As international spectators for whom Israeli and global security must be of foremost interest . . . we should look at the Obama candidacy with some degree of concern as we hope to answer that all-important question, ‘Who really is this man, and what policies will he impose?’ wrote Ayalon.
As reported in the weekly Jewish paper The Forward, the AJC internal memo — written by the organization’s counsel, Debra Feuer — stated that Obama “appears to believe the Israelis bear the burden of taking the risky steps for peace, and that the violence Israel has received in return does not shift that burden.”
The memo also noted that the Illinois senator has called for renewed diplomacy with Iran and Syria, two key enemies of Israel. Israel is especially adamant about the threat posed by Iran’s crash program to gain the ability to enrich uranium as part of its nuclear energy program — an ability that Israel, the United States and other countries believe Iran, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, can divert to creating nuclear missiles.
Hoenlein also voiced caution about engaging Iran at his press conference.
As a not-for-profit charity, the Presidents Conference is barred by U.S. law from taking positions on partisan election campaigns.
Some constituent members of the Presidents Conference voiced concern about the Hoenlein remark. “I don’t understand why both Jewish leaders and Israeli leaders find it necessary to make Israel an issue in this race when, in fact, it is not,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith. “There’s very little difference between the candidates on Israel, both within the Democratic Party and between the Democrats and the Republican on this issue.”
Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Presidents Conference, said, “It’s not clear to me what Malcolm said, but he should be very careful of any implication of direct criticism of Obama.”
Pfeffer said he stood by his story.