One of the curiosities of the conversation about the Israel lobby in the U.S. is that people sometimes use the word “cabal” when they’re talking about it, even though it has a negative connotation in the annals of anti-Semitism. Mostly I’ve heard it in connection with the neocons; even former Senator Lincoln Chafee called them a cabal.
Well, last night at a fundraiser at the Chicago home of Bettylu Saltzman, a longtime Israel supporter, Obama used the word “cabal” to describe his early supporters– and the three names he mentioned are all on the board of J Street. White House transcript:
I don’t know if Bettylu actually told me that she thought I could be President. (Laughter.) But what I do know is this — that when I had just gotten out of law school and was still finding my way, and I had come back here and I was assigned to work to register voters with Project Vote, Bettylu even then was at the forefront of a nonpartisan effort to get people registered and voting, back in 1992. And right away Bettylu treated me like a son, and with the warmth and concern, and she was somebody who introduced me to so many of the people in this room, and introduced me to so many people here in Chicago. And so when I look around the room and I see folks like Joan Harris and Judy Gaynor and people who have been supporters of mine from the get-go, I can all trace that back to Bettylu. We’ve got kind of a Obama cabal here in this room.
He seems to be referring to three members of the J Street Advisory Council: Joan Harris, chairwoman of the Irving B. Harris Foundation; Judy Gaynor, Founding co-chair, Human Rights Watch Chicago, and Saltzman. Saltzman has been a leading liberal Zionist. She is associated with Peace Now and is formerly an executive of the New Israel Fund. Her father, Philip Klutznick, was rich as all get out and a former Commerce Secretary.
The CBS News report on the Saltzman fundraiser says it was expensive:
But the big bucks awaited Obama and his party at the home of Bettylu Saltzman, whose support for Obama started decades earlier when he was first entering politics in Illinois. Tickets to dinner at Saltzman’s home started at $10,000 and topped out at $32,400 — the legal maximum.
“I can honestly say I probably would not be president today without Bettylu Saltzman,” Obama said. “Love that woman.”
There were many Jewish officials there, including Steve Israel, Jan Schakowsky, and Sandy Levin.
Many of Obama’s early supporters were Jewish. Rashid Khalidi mentions Bettylu Saltzman as an Obama “mentor” in his book, Brokers of Deceit, and notes that Saltzman’s father was a “leading figure in the American Jewish community,” and a big supporter of Israel. Khalidi notes that as Obama went further into electoral politics, he took on financial backers Lester Crown, Alan Solow and Pritzker family members, all of whom “were major financial backers of Israel.”
In “Barack Obama: The first Jewish president,” The Chicago Tribune spoke of the importance of Jews to launching Obama:
Obama’s circle of Jewish patrons and advisers widened further in 1992 when he became involved in a voter registration drive that brought him into contact with Bettylu Saltzman, a liberal activist (and daughter of the late Philip Klutznick, a former commerce secretary and shopping mall developer). Saltzman says she knew from the moment she met Obama that he would someday be president. She introduced him to David Axelrod, who saw something similar.
Axelrod designed the strategy in which Obama first won the backing of white liberals and then reached out to blacks. Jews made up a significant number of the first constituency.
“As Jews got to know him, they recognized a kindred spirit, not someone who came down from Mars,” Mikva said.
Rabbi Arnold Wolf, of KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue across the street from Obama’s Chicago home, was another early backer. Like Mikva, he sees what he called Obama’s “Jewish side.”
Thanks to Peter Voskamp.