WASHINGTON, D.C. —
President Barack Obama wore a skullcap and danced to Hebrew songs with Jewish preschoolers during a visit to a major Washington synagogue that is being seen as an effort to reassure American Jews that he feels the way they do about Israel and anti-Semitism.
Obama's approval rating among Jews is higher than among Americans in general. But it's been slipping lately among this key Democratic constituency, amid concerns about his negotiations with Iran, whose leaders have denied the Holocaust and threatened to wipe Israel from the map.
In what is being seen as his most forceful defense of a preliminary nuclear deal reached last month with Iran, the president, addressing a crowd of about 1,200 gathered at Congregation Adas Israel, said he welcomed a “healthy debate” about the best strategy to follow.
But he added: “When I hear some people say that disagreements over policy belie a general lack of support of Israel, I must object, and I object forcefully.”
Negotiators from Iran and a group that includes Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany have been working on the details of a final agreement to scale back Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. They are facing a June 30 deadline for a final deal.
"Now we are seeking a comprehensive solution,” the president told the crowd of nearly 1,200 synagogue members gathered in the sanctuary. “I will not accept a bad deal. This deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise."
Obama also said he recognized that the Middle East is a “dangerous” neighborhood, and that the “Palestinians are not the easiest of partners.”
But he said his recent differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were born of a love for his country.
“And it is precisely because I care so deeply about the state of Israel — it’s precisely because, yes, I have high expectations for Israel the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America — that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.”
Obama also addressed what he called a “deeply disturbing rise” in anti-Semitism around the world. He said the world knows from history that this is “not some passing fad” and should not be ignored.
The speech coincided with "Solidarity Sabbath," in which government officials in the U.S. and Europe visit synagogues to show support for Jewish communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, a number of Jews have left or are considering leaving Europe because they fear for their safety; Jews were targets of murder in the recent attacks by Islamist militants in Paris and Copenhagen.
After listening to the half-hour speech, 19-year-old Julia Fine said she better understands Obama's predicament.
“I think it’s a hard time to be president, and it’s a hard political climate, and I think he’s doing the best he can, even though I don’t agree with him on all his policies,” she said.
Regarding his views on a critical dialogue with Israel's leadership, however, Fine said “I think that at least in this congregation, people support that.”
Sabrina Sojourner expressed confidence in the president's negotiations with Iran.
“I think it's really important for people to understand that if it's not a good deal, then it's not good for any of us,” she said. “It's not good for anybody in the world.”
Sojourner, who is Jewish and black, said she liked Obama's praise for rabbis who strongly supported the African American civil rights movement in the 1960s.
“Just like I find it appalling when there are people in the Jewish community who are racist, I find it equally appalling when there are people in any community of color who are anti-Semitic,” she said.
After the speech, Obama made an unannounced visit to a pre-school classroom, where danced and clapped his hands as students sang Jewish songs.
“They look like a pretty well-behaved group," the president said. "Before nap time, anyway,”
Obama's visit was also intended to mark Jewish Heritage Month, which honors the contributions of Jews to American society and culture.