You know the story “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Four blind men each touch a different part of the elephant and report back on what they’ve discovered: A rope. A tree trunk. A spear. A wall.
The folk tale came alive last week after President Obama sat down with 50 delegates from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. According to JTA’s report, the president both reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security and suggested Israel wasn’t serious about peace. One source told JTA that some at the meeting interpreted the president’s comments as “hostile” and “naive”; in response, an official statement from the conference asserted that the “meeting was conducted in an atmosphere of warmth, friendship, and openness, and there was no expression of hostility toward Israel or its government.”
So what really happened? The meeting was off the record, and participants, honoring the leadership’s request, only spoke about the proceedings anonymously. There was no official White House transcript. From the wide range of reactions, this comment from “one longtime Jewish organizational official” seems on target: “The people who loved Obama probably still love him; the people who had big reservations about Obama probably have more reservations than they had before.”
We appreciate the president’s reaching out to Jewish leaders and the need for him to conduct what diplomats call a frank and open dialogue. But the Conference of Presidents, like the Jewish community itself, is a wildly diverse group, with members across the ideological spectrum. Such meetings do less to inform the Jewish community than they do to amplify our differences.
Transcripts of such meetings are very much in order. What participants might lose in discretion they will make up for in transparency. When 50 Jews emerge from a meeting, someone is going to talk. A record of what was really said would allow reporters and readers to judge the participants’ words and deeds for themselves.