In a possible preview of next year’s presidential election, a Democrat and a Republican squared off at a Highland Park synagogue to debate President Obama’s record.
Representing the Democrats, Rabbi Adam Mintz said he believed the president deserved to be re-elected and — contrary to what some in the Jewish community believe — that he remains a loyal friend to Israel.
On the GOP side, Jonathan Greenspun said Obama sent the wrong message from the beginning, “when he said in effect he was not going to play nicely in the sandbox with the Likud government.”
The two went head to head Dec. 3 at Congregation Ahavas Achim at an event sponsored by the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park.
Their 90-minute debate touched on general issues as well as concerns of particular interest to the Jewish community.
“In terms of policies, I think it can be shown the president is as good as or better than his predecessor,” said Mintz, a former president of the New York Board of Rabbis and a staunch supporter of Obama. “President Obama is the first president since the 1970s not to allow an anti-Israel resolution to pass the [United Nations] Security Council. I think his problem is in his presentation. He has a different personality than President Bush or President Clinton, much more professorial.”
“The substance was wrong,” countered Greenspun, a Republican consultant who has served in the administrations of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former New York Gov. George Pataki. He claimed Obama was the first American president “to put daylight between Israel and the U.S.”
Mintz, who was active in Jews for Obama during the last presidential campaign, said despite the perception, the president’s actions demonstrated an unwavering allegiance to the Jewish state, particularly his efforts to convince world leaders to block the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN.
He dismissed the furor over a private exchange between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in which the two appeared to swap derogatory comments about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mintz likened the open mic exchange to “kiddush club” banter.
“We don’t need for them to be best friends,” said Mintz. “We need them to work together.”
Greenspun said the president’s calls for peace talks based on 1967 borders and initial calls for a freeze on settlements has not helped Israel’s cause in its quest for peace.
No ‘litmus test’
Throughout the program, the two remained civil and even found points of agreement with each other and disagreement with their respective parties. They answered questions from the large audience on the economy and a range of social issues.
Both agreed that as Americans and as Jews, the Orthodox community should look beyond its own parochial needs when casting votes. However, Greenspun said, by the same token, “we should not vote against our self-interest.”
Both said the economy had become so globally intertwined that it was hard to place blame for its dismal condition on any one administration, although Greenspun criticized the current administration for “running up the deficit so our children and grandchildren pay for it.”
Both also agreed there should not be a “litmus test” on social issues and that the Republican candidate facing Obama would be Mitt Romney. They also said that once the Democrats’ and the GOP’s conventions have wrapped up this summer, the political conversation would become more centrist, reflecting the views of much of the country, rather than extremes on the Right or Left.
“One of my contentions with the Tea Party candidates is that they don’t speak to me and my moderate brand of Republicanism,” said Greenspun, who like Mintz lamented the tone of modern political discourse.
Mintz said the night’s forum reinforced his belief that the Orthodox community is by and large keeping an open mind regarding Obama.
“I believe as Jews in America we need to be in play and be open and willing to discuss issues,” he said. “We do not have to agree, but we have to be in play. Some don’t want the Orthodox community to be in play, but I think that would be a mistake. That we disagree is part of the American democratic tradition that we consider ourselves to be a part of.”