WASHINGTON (JTA) — Fred Zeidman is a longtime Republican Jewish Committee leader who has been deeply critical of Joe Biden. He is backing Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, in her bid to unseat him.
So it was uncharacteristic when he praised a speech Biden gave before flying to Israel this week.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to say one thing bad about this guy,’” Zeidman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think this is probably the most genuine impassioned speech I have ever heard from a sitting American president.”
Zeidman was far from the only right-wing Jew to be won over by Biden during the last two weeks, as the president has delivered unqualified support for Israel’s war against Hamas, launched in response to the terror group’s deadly invasion on Oct. 7.
“While I have been, and remain, deeply critical of the Biden Administration, the moral, tactical, diplomatic and military support that it has provided Israel over the past few days has been exceptional,” David Friedman, Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
In Israel, where Trump was popular, Biden’s approval rating has shot up. A commentator on Israel’s Channel 14, a right-wing outlet that has lacerated Biden since his election, addressed him directly four days after the attack.
“Forgive us, for all that hard things that we said, and all that we thought,” said the commentator, Shay Golden. “Thank you, Mr. President, truly, thank you, thank you.”
For those who have long been on Biden’s side, his support for Israel comes as little surprise. His diplomatic ties to the country are longstanding, his affection frequently expressed.
“He gets the DNA of Zionism,” David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was a staffer in the Obama administration working on Israeli-Palestinian peace. “He just gets the idea of Israel. He has said no Jew is safe if there’s no Israel and basically, that’s what Zionism says, which is that stateless Jews are defenseless.”
Yet in a polarized political climate, even Biden’s pro-Israel bona fides have been dismissed by many on the right. The pro-Israel community in the United States and Israeli officials disdained the Middle East policy of President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president; in particular, they felt that Obama’s deal with Iran put Israel at risk. Many Republicans have mocked Biden’s age and foibles, saying they are evidence of his inability to serve at 80. And even those who might not have quarreled with Biden himself have worried that the Democratic Party is coming under the sway of progressives who are deeply critical of Israel.
Biden’s actions since Oct. 7 appear to have put all of those concerns to rest. Immediately after the attack, he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned Israel’s enemies not to exploit its vulnerability. Two days later, he draped the White House in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag, saying “this is not some distant tragedy.” The next day, he addressed the nation, calling the attack “pure, unadulterated evil”.
Biden instructed his Jewish liaisons to brief the Jewish community, including on the measures he was taking to protect American Jews. He personally dropped by a White House briefing for Jewish leaders and said he was doing everything he could to release hostages.
He sent his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on an extended Middle East tour to show support for Israel and garner backing from regional allies. He also ordered two aircraft carriers to the region.
“My message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago: Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said on Wednesday.
The comment came during Biden’s lightning trip to Israel, where in less than 24 hours he sat in on a government meeting, met with and hugged survivors of the attack and delivered a searing speech in which he described the stages of Jewish mourning.
The visit came amid surging calls for Israel to cease bombing Gaza in its effort to quash Hamas. Seth Mandel, writing in the conservative Commentary magazine, praised Biden for resisting those calls from within his own party. “Everything in Biden’s speech today and his general demeanor … suggest he takes the inevitability of a ground incursion for granted and is uninterested in saving Hamas,” Mandel said.
Rejecting widespread criticism of Israel, Biden said upon his arrival in Tel Aviv that he believed Israeli claims that an explosion at a Gaza City hospital was the fault of Islamist terrorists.
He repeated that insistence during his Oval Office address on Thursday night, a rare step signifying special concern. “I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of Palestinian life, including the explosion at a hospital in Gaza — which was not done by the Israelis,” he said.
In his speech, he said attacks on Israel (and Ukraine) amounted to an attack on democracy and appealed to Congress for billions in additional defense assistance for Israel.
“He has absolutely come through in the clutch,” Zeidman said.
A photo of Biden’s face, with the massive caption, “Thank you, Mr. President,” newly graces a billboard overlooking Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway. Moshe Lion, the mayor of Jerusalem and a member of the right-wing Likud Party, draped Jerusalem monuments with coupled Israeli and U.S. flags, and in a statement said the display was to honor Biden’s visit, although the president did not come to Jerusalem.
“From the beginning of the conflict, the president has stood with us firmly, assisting Israel and providing a powerful and meaningful voice against the terrible acts that have occurred in the South and against the threats from our enemies in the North,” Lion said. (Israeli troops are exchanging fire with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group that, like Hamas, is backed by Iran.)
The Israeli satirical show “Eretz Nehederet” aired a joke similar to the comments that crop up among Israelis on social media: Israelis need a leader, and it is Biden, not Netanyahu.
Biden’s lightning visit, his vivid empathy in his departure speech, and his visits with victims and heroes of the Oct. 7 attacks filled a leadership gap in Israel, said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political journalist who is closely watching the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
“People are in such shock, but they were heartwarmed and they felt embraced and many people said to me, ‘This is the first time that we see a leader,’ because since the war began… they did not hear anything with empathy, “ she said.
“The government here, it seems like they don’t really care,” she said, referring to widespread dissatisfaction with Netanyahu, and the perception that in addition to failing to prevent the attack, he has been absent since it occurred. “People thought that this is our father, you know, what I mean?” she said of Biden. “He came to the rescue, with all the American might.”
The display has rehabilitated Biden’s image in the country, according to Amir Tibon, a journalist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz whose father rescued his family on Oct. 7 and who was among the Israelis to meet with the U.S. president this week.
“Most Israelis heard over the last few years derogatory things about Biden due to his advanced age,” Tibon wrote in Haaretz. “Those who had the honor of meeting him Wednesday afternoon saw his age from another perspective, one of life experience and wisdom.” Tibon called Biden “the most important Zionist leader in the world.”
At home, too, the perception of Biden among many of his critics has shifted.
“In a world that pretends Israel has no right to exist, much less defend itself, Biden has shown tremendous moral courage at a key moment, despite criticism from his own party,” said a statement from Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, the chairman of the Rabbinic Circle of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a right-wing Orthodox group that has also consistently criticized Democratic policies.
“The president’s actions since the massacre reflect the American people’s steadfast support for the Jewish state and underscore the shared Western values that serve as the foundation for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Shari Dollinger, the co-executive director of Christians United for Israel, a group consistently critical of Democratic policies, said in a text message.
And a rabbi from the Orthodox community in Woodmere, New York, a redoubt of Jewish Trump supporters, solicited and delivered 18,000 letters of thanks to Biden.
Non-Jewish right-wing voices have also been won over by Biden. “I think It may be remembered as one of the best, if not the best, speeches of his presidency,” Brit Hume, a commentator on Fox News, said after the Oval Office speech. “He was as strong as he has been, particularly in recent days — before he went to Israel and while he was over there.”
Some Republicans remain skeptical if not hostile. Trump continues to say that he would do better than Biden at protecting Israel (although he alienated Israelis by praising Hezbollah and blaming Israel’s leadership for the Hamas incursion). Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, citing differences of policy with the Biden administration over humanitarian funding for the Palestinians, and an aid-for-hostages deal with Iran, accused Biden of helming the “most consistently and virulently anti-Israel administration America has ever seen.”
And even those Jewish conservatives praising Biden in the moment, including Zeidman, Friedman and Mandel, remain in a watchful wait-and-see mode. Zeidman said he wants Biden to more directly identify Iran as a hostile actor behind the attack.
“If there’s one thing that might have concerned me just a little bit, he has yet to mention Iran,” he said. (Biden’s aides have said that Iran bears some blame to the extent that it funds and trains Hamas, but they have yet to see direct evidence that Iran was involved in the Hamas invasion.)
Republicans have in the past sought fodder to attack Biden on Israel-related policy. One story that persistently crops up describes his encounter with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. According to the story, penned by a Begin confidante just after the former prime minister’s death in 1992, a decade after the fact, Biden had yelled at Begin, and threatened to cut aid to Israel if Begin did not stop settlement building.
“Don’t threaten us with slashing aid,” Begin said in their 1982 meeting in a room in the U.S, Capitol, according to that account. “Do you think that because the U.S. lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.”
Except, according to someone in the meeting, that’s not quite how it happened: Biden, who was solidly pro-Israel, asked Begin how he planned to explain controversial Israeli policies. The senator was not criticizing the policies, but Begin, famously prickly, took it as criticism, said Mike Kraft, who at the time was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“It wasn’t a hostile or critical thing, but Begin just kind of let loose on him,” Kraft recalled in an interview this week.
“We’re just like, pretty neutral question,” Kraft said of the people in the room. “And Begin fired back, and I remember a couple other staff who were looking around saying what’s going on?” He chuckled at the recollection.
The Republican Jewish Coalition over the years deployed the purported Begin encounter against Biden, including in a Facebook post in 2019, just after Biden announced his intention to unseat Donald Trump.
Yet last week, its CEO, Matt Brooks, was praising Biden to the New York Times — just two weeks before all the major Republican presidential candidates will speak to RJC donors at its annual conference in Las Vegas.
“This will sound surprising, but by and large, the president has shown tremendous support, unwavering support, for Israel at a critical time,” Brooks told the Times. “Can we quibble on aspects of policy differences, over Iran’s complicity, for instance? Sure. But by and large, the American people and the international community have seen a president who has stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel.” (Brooks declined to comment to JTA, instead referring to his Times interview.)
And then there’s Biden’s famous Golda Meir story. When Joe Biden spoke to an Israeli embassy Independence Day bash in 2015, he knew the anecdote was old hat — he’d been telling versions of it for 42 years — but he wanted to tell it anyway.
“I’ll conclude — and my friends kid me and I imagine Ron does as well,” the then-Vice President said, glancing at the then-Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer. “I’ll tell you the story about my meeting with Golda Meir.”
There was knowing laughter on the balmy April evening in the cavernous Andrew Mellon auditorium across from the National Mall: Jewish media reporters, who had for years covered Biden, glanced at each other and knocked back a little wine. Biden recalling Golda had become a drinking game.
The parameters of the story were familiar: He was a neophyte Delaware senator in the fall of 1973, barely 30 years old. She was the wizened, chain-smoking prime minister. He conveyed to her his sense that Israel’s enemies were about to launch a war. She seemed pessimistic too. (The Yom Kippur War would surprise Israel within days.) She asked him if he wanted to pose for a photograph. They stepped outside of her office.
“She said, ‘Senator, you look so worried,’” he said. “I said, ‘Well, my God, Madame Prime Minister,’ and I turned to look at her. I said, ‘The picture you paint.’ She said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We have’ — I thought she only said this to me. She said, ‘We have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs. You see, we have no place else to go.’”
The 2015 speech was aimed at assuaging tensions between his boss, President Barack Obama, and Dermer’s boss, Netanyahu, over the Iran nuclear deal Obama was brokering that year. That tension was what led the coverage of the speech.
But buried toward the end of the speech was a prophecy, made by a vice president and fulfilled by the same man once he became president: America would bring its military night to bear on Israel’s behalf, if it came to that.
“The most admirable thing about you is you’ve never asked us to fight for you,” he said in 2015. “But I promise you, if you were attacked and overwhelmed, we would fight for you.”
Biden has repeated the Golda story — now 50 years in the telling — more than once since Oct. 7. And now, the quote he attributes to Meir is emblazoned on a cafe wall in Tel Aviv, with his signature and Meir’s.
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Julie Platt, chair of Jewish federations group, is helming Penn’s board amid leadership transition
(JTA) — To steer the university through an unexpected leadership change induced by debate over antisemitism, the board of the University of Pennsylvania turned to their vice chair — who is also one of the most prominent Jewish communal leaders in the country.
Julie Beren Platt, a 1979 Penn graduate, has been on the Penn board of trustees since 2006 and recently started her second stint as vice chair, making her a natural fit to step up when chair Scott Bok resigned from the management body on Saturday, following the resignation of the university’s president, Liz Magill.
Platt is also the chair of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella of 146 local Jewish communal bodies that has collected more than $700 million — and allocated more than $240 — to drive the American Jewish philanthropic response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Platt cited that commitment in emphasizing that her leadership of Penn’s board would last for a short period: She said she will step down in January when a permanent chair is selected.
Platt’s dual roles mean that she has been on the front lines in two of the most prominent organizations reshaped by the Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath. It also suggests, as she acknowledged in a statement, that even the presence of a seasoned Jewish leader in a senior university board position is not sufficient to address antisemitism on college campuses right now.
“I have worked hard from the inside to address the rising issues of antisemitism on campus. Unfortunately, we have not made all the progress that we should have and intend to accomplish,” Platt said in a statement issued by JFNA, adding, “I will continue as a board member of the university to use my knowledge and experience of Jewish life in North America and at Penn to accelerate this critical work.”
A JFNA spokesperson declined to elaborate on how she will balance the two roles.
Platt, 66, is the daughter of Robert Beren, the Kansas City oil magnate and Jewish philanthropist who died in August at 97. She is also the mother of five children — four of them Penn graduates — including the Broadway actor Ben Platt and Jonah Platt, a musician who also sits on the board of 70 Faces Media, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s parent company.
Previously the chair of the Los Angeles federation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Platt also chairs a foundation named for her and her husband, Hollywood producer Marc Platt, and has been involved in an array of Jewish educational initiatives.
She became the second woman to helm JFNA’s board last year, assuming leadership of the fundraising organization at a crucial time. The organization has distributed hundreds of millions to groups providing emergency aid in Israel since Oct. 7. The group has also supported local Jewish communities in the United States in strengthening their own response to antisemitism through an initiative, LiveSecure, created in 2021, that Platt was instrumental in launching.
“We are leading the largest mobilization in our history in support of Israel’s right to protect its citizens and against the rise of antisemitism in North America, including staging the largest Jewish rally in American history on the National Mall,” Platt said in her statement. “We will continue this fight with all our energy.”
Penn was already grappling with a crisis related to antisemitism in the weeks prior to Oct. 7, as a festival featuring Palestinian writers drew criticism. Platt and Bok had issued a statement of confidence in Liz Magill, Penn’s president, in the wake of that crisis and in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, even as some criticized the school’s initially response as tepid.
But last week, Magill was one of three college presidents who declined during a congressional hearing to say that the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ codes of conduct. Her testimony drew criticism from Pennsylvania’s Jewish governor, Josh Shapiro, and even the White House.
Platt said in a statement that she believed Magill had fallen short in the hearing. “In my view, given the opportunity to choose between right and wrong, the three university presidents testifying in the United States House of Representatives failed,” she said. “The leadership change at the university was therefore necessary and appropriate.”
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Thousands of Jews and non-Jews rally against antisemitism in Berlin
BERLIN (JTA) – Several thousand Berliners braved a chilling rain Sunday to demonstrate against antisemitism at an interfaith rally at the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.
The event — which drew a broad coalition of politicians and religious leaders as well as popular stars — was a response to a record increase in reported antisemitic incidents across Germany in the month after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
Dubbed “Never again is now — Germany stands up,” the rally was organized by a Jewish real estate magnate, Nicolai Schwarzer.
In announcing the event, Schwarzer, 48, said he wanted “to send a powerful and unmistakable signal to the world — from the heart of the capital — that no form of antisemitism, hatred or xenophobia will be tolerated in Berlin or anywhere else in Germany.”
The rally joins several others organized in major cities in Europe and the United States to demonstrate opposition to antisemitism. They have been organized in part as a counterpoint to the large pro-Palestinian rallies that have taken place in many of those cities. Such rallies have been relatively muted and heavily monitored by police in Germany, where antisemitic speech and criticism of Israel are circumscribed by laws enacted in part because of the country’s role in perpetrating the Holocaust. Still, pro-Palestinian sentiment, including among Germany’s large immigrant population, is high.
“Sometimes I don’t recognize this country, something has gone out of control,” Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said at the rally.
He described a pro-Hamas protest that took place at Berlin’s University of the Arts on Nov. 13, where he said participants “dressed in black to look like Hamas terrorists. They had painted their hands red — a clear reference to the murder of two Israeli soldiers by an Islamist mob in Gaza more than 20 years ago. The whole thing was orchestrated by visiting professors from the global south – how can that be?” Schuster said the incident was proof of the danger of the movement to boycott Israel, which has been considered officially antisemitic in Germany since 2018.
Bärbel Bas, the president of Germany’s parliament, read through a litany of antisemitic incidents: “Swastikas and Stars of David have been daubed on synagogues, memorials and even private homes.” In one notable incident on Oct. 18, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Jewish community center that houses a synagogue as well as a kindergarten.
Bas described hearing from a student who was the only child to attend class at her Jewish school on a day when fear reigned about a Hamas call for violence abroad.
“Jews are afraid, and they feel left alone. And it’s not only hate that creates this feeling, but also silence and indifference,” she said. “And that’s why it’s important that we make a powerful, wipeable and loud statement here today. Never again is now.”
Other speakers included Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor; Berlin’s mayor, Kai Wegner; author Michel Friedman; 1990s pop music icon Herbert Grönemeyer; and Hubertus Heil, Germany’s minister of labor and social affairs.
The rally began with the lighting of a Hanukkah menorah by Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal, the head of Berlin’s chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches lit advent candles.
Eren Güvercin, a member of the German Islam Conference — which the German government started as a forum for dialogue in 2006 — delivered a prayer of his own, for “peace for the souls” of the Israelis murdered on Oct. 7 and for the hostages and their families, “who fear for their loved ones.”
“And we pray for peace for the people who are now suffering the consequences of this terrorist organization’s crimes in Gaza,” he added. “Nothing we say here today will solve the Middle East conflict. But we raise our voices to remind everyone who lives together here in this city, in this country: Faith is a source from which we draw to create peace. Faith must not divide us. It must unite us.”
Organizers claimed 11,000 people had taken part in the rally, though police estimated the attendance at 3,000. Those gathered were praised by many speakers for braving the weather to show their support. They included members of Berlin’s Jewish community, estimated at over 30,000, as well as non-Jewish allies.
“This is the third time we have been here in front of the Brandenburg Gate since Oct. 7,” said Berliner Melanie Schmergal, 55. “It upsets me that you don’t see any big demonstrations for Israel’s right to exist and against antisemitism. You see other people screaming quite a bit. [But] I believe… that the others are not in the majority.”
“It is important to take a stand against any kind of extremism,” said Christian Götz, 60. “And that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that we as a population have to show, especially here in Berlin, that we are on Israel’s side.”
The pair, who are not Jewish, said they had met the descendants of Jews who used to live in their building in Berlin, and who were either deported or managed to flee Nazi Germany.
“It’s so incredible that something like this seems possible again,” Schmergal said.
On Dec. 8, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Lower Saxony hosted a public panel discussion marking 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically addressing the issue of antisemitism after the Hamas terrorist attack.
Next week, the Berlin-based Tikvah Institute is co-hosting the presentation of a study on how Russian-speaking Jews in Germany perceive antisemitism after Oct. 7. About 90% of all Jews in Germany today are migrants from the former Soviet Union.
And though not in Germany, the annual Claims Conference International Holocaust Survivors Night on Dec. 11 — a star-studded event whose virtual guests of honor will include German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — “takes on unique significance,” said the organization’s president, Gideon Taylor: “We are reminded that some of the strongest among us survived during the darkest of times.”
Despite the alarming statistics in Germany and elsewhere, Jews are in a better position today in terms of world support than they were in the 1930s-40s, said New Yorker Menachem Rosensaft, who was born at the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen and participated in the recent round table at the memorial.
“President Biden, for one, is the polar opposite of FDR in his unequivocal support for Israel after Oct. 7 and his equally unequivocal repudiation and condemnation of all manifestations of antisemitism,” said Rosensaft, who is also the chair of the Advisory Board of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation.
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Jews don’t count, but do we want to? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on why the Ivy League antisemitism hearings (sort of) matter
Someone clue me in: What’s a “Harvard”? There is but one university in North America that anyone cares about, to the point that if someone at it has a hangnail, it’s front-page news. Only one that gets the euphemistic treatment: I went to school in the Boston area, as though if the H-word were uttered […]