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At pricey Chicago fundraiser, Obama calls three leaders of J Street his ‘cabal’

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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.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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14 Responses

  1. Henry Norr on May 30, 2013, 2:48 pm

    Peter Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism” also has a chapter called “The Jewish President” with lot of info about the Saltzman and the rest of the rich liberal Chicago Jews who adopted and promoted Obama. Most interesting part of the book, IMO.

    • David Doppler on May 30, 2013, 3:46 pm

      So Obama is referred to as the first Jewish President, while Clinton, raised by a single mom on welfare, was called the first Black President. What other minority will the first Jew to be elected President be seen as representing?

    • on May 31, 2013, 7:22 am

      By what standard would anyone call these extremely rich, ethnocentric, racists liberal?

  2. W.Jones on May 30, 2013, 3:15 pm

    Wouldn’t groups like the Freemasons be much more powerful than open members of a religion?

  3. radii on May 30, 2013, 3:35 pm

    investors only invest to get a return on their investment

  4. maz on May 30, 2013, 4:02 pm

    The definition of “cabal” doesn’t just have Jewish connotations, it’s literally derived from the Cabala (alternately Kabbala(h) or Qabala(h).

    It’s wholly Jewish. So when people use the term to describe a Jewish conspiracy, they’re not being anti-Semitic, they’re probably just telling the truth as they see it.

    So it seems like Obama, like his vice president Biden, are admitting to, at least in part, a Jewish conspiracy…no?

    • Nevada Ned on May 30, 2013, 6:18 pm

      Oh, the Kaballah! That noted scholar, Madonna, is into that. And so are a bunch of other Hollywood types. You can get into it also, if you buy a plastic bottle of Kaballah water at the synagogue in Beverly Hills. [I am not being sarcastic. I’m being factual].

      The Kaballah is medieval Jewish mysticism. As far as I know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we shouldn’t be too critical. After all, according to the (Christian) Bible, Jesus is the son of God. But the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are just three different aspects of the same supernatural thing, the Holy Trinity. So God the Father is really the same as Jesus. The Father is the same Supreme Being as his own son.
      The takehome lesson to all Mondoweissers out there, is that no religion really makes a lot of sense, when judged by the standards of modern critical thinking.

    • bilal a on May 30, 2013, 11:46 pm

      The Kabbalah had a major influence on European civilization through Frankism (of Jacob Frank) whose anti-law (torah) ‘cabals’ most certainly became the roots of Reform Judaism , and Reform Christianity , though some doubt whether the Jacobins were indeed followers of Masonic Frankism.

  5. seafoid on May 30, 2013, 5:07 pm

    Like Mikva, he sees what he called Obama’s “Jewish side.”

    The droning.

    • Citizen on May 31, 2013, 7:17 am

      @ seafoid

      Some other candidates:
      The militarization of the police.
      The government snooping esacalation.
      The lean toward preemptive/premptive war.

  6. DICKERSON3870 on May 30, 2013, 5:27 pm

    RE: “As Jews got to know him, they recognized a kindred spirit, not someone who came down from Mars,” Mikva said. ~ from Phil’s Chicago Tribune excerpt (above)

    CHICAGO TIMES, 12/12/08:

    Writer Toni Morrison famously dubbed Bill Clinton “the first black president” — a title he fervently embraced.
    Abner Mikva, the Chicago Democratic Party stalwart and former Clinton White House counsel, offers a variation on that theme. “If Clinton was our first black president, then Barack Obama is our first Jewish president,” says Mikva, who was among the first to spot the potential of the skinny young law school graduate with the odd name.

    SOURCE –

    P.S. “[C]reating legislation is, like making sausages, a
    process no one wants to witness.”
    ~ Abner Mikva (using an aphorism most often attributed to Otto von Bismarck)
    SOURCE –

  7. hammersmith on May 31, 2013, 9:47 am

    i loved this article. it helps explain how a been nowhere done nothing guy like BO can get to be prez w/o being rich as was the case w/ GWB.

  8. Citizen on May 31, 2013, 1:41 pm

    At the Hilton, about 100 supporters were on hand at a reception where tickets started at $1,000 each and topped out at $5,000 for two tickets and a photo.

    From there, Obama headed to the Streeterville home of longtime supporters Bettylu and Paul Saltzman. Tickets there ran from $10,000 for dinner and photo to $50,000 for a table, photo and preferred seating.

    Speaking to about 60 supporters there, Obama kept up his criticism of Republicans during his speech but also acknowledged how tough it will be to retake the House.

    “Frankly, the way gerrymandering now works, and the geographical distribution of the population, makes winning back the House a challenge. But, know what? Me winning the presidency was a challenge.”

  9. clenchner on June 1, 2013, 12:34 am

    If Rabbi Wolf is an example of these Jewish backers of Obama, then good for him.

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