White House liaison held session at Temple Beth El

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Hills — The White House liaison to the American Jewish community fielded tough questions Sunday from audience members at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, who grilled him about what some described as the strained relationship between President Barack Obama and Israel, the Iran nuclear deal and Syrian refugees.

The session with Matt Nosanchuk, Obama’s associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, “Inside the White House: A Jewish Detroiter’s Perspective,” was attended by about 300 people who filled the synagogue.

Rabbi Mark Miller, who emceed the event, asked Nosanchuk light questions about his upbringing in Detroit, and what it’s like working in the White House. Miller also tackled controversial issues, probing Nosanchuk about the July nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers including the United States.

The pact, which Miller called “incredibly divisive in the American Jewish community,” allows Iran to enrich uranium, but only to 3.67 percent, which is needed for civilian purposes, but less than needed to build weapons.

“It’s almost become a wedge issue in our community,” Miller said.

Nosanchuk replied: “I think it’s beginning to heal. When this deal was announced in July, it was clear this would be a divisive debate. We understood there were a lot of concerns. The opposition was based on concerns about the safety of Israel.

“There was also a great deal of support from the Jewish community as well. We wanted to make sure those voices were amplified, while making sure the opposition’s questions were answered.”

Responding to Miller’s comment about a “perception of a strained relationship between Washington and Israel,” Nosanchuk insisted “there’s always been a strong relationship between our countries.”

“Despite what policy differences have occurred, that’s not the core of the relationship,” Nosanchuk said. “The president and Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) have met 16 times; this is more than any other foreign leader.”

He also pointed out that the United States during Obama’s administration has provided $29.5 billion in military aid. “At the end of the day, it’s a level of cooperation and assistance that’s unprecedented,” he said.

Nosanchuk, who was born in Windsor before moving to Detroit in 1971, discussed his record as a civil rights advocate. He joined the Obama administration in 2009 as senior counselor to Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez in the Civil Rights Division.

The Stanford University graduate oversaw the Justice Department’s implementation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and played a key role on the department’s Defense of Marriage Act litigation team, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage.

Nosanchuk, who described himself as openly gay, worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign heading the LGBT Policy Committee. He said he was in the Supreme Court chambers in June, when the marriage decision was announced, calling it his most memorable day working for the White House.

“The courtroom was electrified,” he said. “There were tears.”

He also worked on pending criminal justice reform legislation. “The Jewish community has a long tradition in championing civil rights, and I can trace my interest and actions to my roots in this community,” he said.

The grilling about Obama’s policies on Israel and the Middle East came after the session with Miller, when the audience could ask questions.

“In the Iran deal, it says the United States will defend Iran if it’s attacked. How can you say you’re defending Israel?” one woman said.

“The Iran deal does not say that,” Nosanchuk said. “That’s a gross misinterpretation.”

The woman handed Nosanchuk a piece of paper, which she said contained language of the deal outlying that provision. After scanning it for a moment, he said: “Iran is going to retain a civilian nuclear power. If you’re going to have those facilities, you need to protect them. This says that we’ll train them — not that we’ll step in if they’re attacked.”

Another man criticized Obama’s call to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States over the next year.

“How do you comport that policy with what the FBI said — that it’s impossible to vet them all?” he said.

“They are fully vetted,” Nosanchuk said, which drew laughter from the crowd. “You can laugh, but it’s true.”

The man shot back: “So the FBI is wrong?”

Nosanchuk replied: “If you want to be a country that closes its doors to Syrian refugees ... it’s not a policy that’s reflective of who we are.”

After the session, attendees said they understood that Nosanchuk was doing his job by defending Obama’s policies.

“He works for the president, so he’s doing what he has to do,” West Bloomfield resident Simon Rozencweig, 88, said. “But I’d like to know why Obama wants to make peace with people who say Israel doesn’t exist?”

Shoshana Janer of Commerce Township said audience members posed “honest questions we have about the president’s commitments to our community.”

“He’s come out and made statements condemning hate crimes against other ethnic groups, but Jews face the most hate crimes in this country, and he’s said nothing,” Janer said. “The silence is ringing in my ears.”

Regarding questions about the Iran nuclear deal, Janer said, “He’s not being truthful. We have the intelligence to be able to read these details for ourselves. He’s just putting out the official White House statement. That’s his job.”

As he left the synagogue, Nosanchuk said he wasn’t surprised by the tough questioning.

“I expected it,” he said. “But I also know there’s great support among American Jews for things like the Iran deal. Sometimes, the critical voices are the loudest.

“Given the values this community holds, I feel comfortable that I represent both the president and the Jewish community, and that more often than not, there’s convergence, not differences.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

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