Good For the Jews?
by a long shot was Barack Obama the first choice of Jewish Democrats this
primary season. That honor belonged to Hillary Clinton, who had one big
thing going for her: She was Bill Clinton’s wife.
cannot underestimate the visceral warmth and goodwill felt by American Jews
for the last president of the 20th century—the one who hosted the signing of
the Oslo accords on the White House lawn; who flew to Israel on a moment’s
notice to utter the words Shalom, chaver (“Goodbye, friend”) at Yitzhak
Rabin’s funeral; who tried, through a mastery of mind-numbing detail, to
bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians; and who, when it all fell apart,
didn’t hesitate to blame the diplomatic fiasco squarely on the bumbling,
duplicitous, narrow-minded leadership of Yasser Arafat.
Jewish affection for Bill Clinton was effortlessly transferred to his wife,
even as she clearly seemed to be made of different stuff. Hillary’s worst
“Jewish” moment came in 1999, when as First Lady she hugged Arafat’s wife
Suha at a health care function on the West Bank, just before Mrs. Arafat
accused the Israeli army of using cancer-inducing poison gas to murder
Palestinian women and children.
even that sequence of events, caught on tape, did not cost her with New
York’s Jewish voters, who, in the absence of Rudy Giuliani, resoundingly
supported Clinton in her victorious 2000 senatorial campaign. Hillary’s
proximity to Bill was her rabbinic seal of approval, her hekhsher.
for Obama, he has struggled from the beginning of his campaign to make up
the Jewish gap.
January of 2006, a full year into his service on the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, Obama took his first congressional junket to the Middle
East. It was an important trip not only because it gave him his first
eyes-on experience with Iraq. It was also his first visit ever to Israel and
arrived in Israel just days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s debilitating
second stroke. He met with Palestine’s president and Israel’s foreign
minister (acting Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was preoccupied with more pressing
problems). He went to the Israeli Arab village of Fassouta and the Israeli
Jewish town of Qiryat Shemona on the northern border. He met with
Palestinian college students in Ramallah, where he called the security
barrier erected by Israel “an obstacle to peace,” and urged the students to
follow Martin Luther King’s path of non-violence.
During his two days in Israel, where he was accompanied by a Chicago
television news team and the national treasurer of American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a Chicagoan, Obama told audiences he was
surprised by the cold and wet weather of the Middle Eastern winter.
week after he returned, the Chicago Sun-Times observed: “His first visit to
Israel and the West Bank was long overdue, with members of Chicago’s Jewish
community having wanted Obama to travel there since he was a state senator.”
Apparently, Obama had been identified for some time by the local Jewish
community as an up-and-comer, and had been offered many an opportunity to
make the pilgrimage. Only now, as a senator on the FRC, had he gotten around
fact, the trip did provide Obama with some needed shul cred. When he stood
before the national gathering of AIPAC in Washington in March of last year,
he referred back to his trip to Israel and proceeded to declare his
unqualified support for the Jewish State in terms that were no less emphatic
than Hillary Clinton’s.
then all hell broke loose.
one knows where the e-mail began. But sometime in early 2006, before Obama’s
decisive AIPAC speech, it started making the rounds in a variety of guises
and permutations, often within networks of Jewish and Christian evangelical
recipients. Its main claims were that Obama was a Muslim, had been educated
overseas in a madrasa or radical Islamic school, had sworn himself into the
Senate on a Qur’an, and was therefore a dangerous Manchurian candidate for
president of the United States. According to one version, “The Muslims have
said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to
start than at the highest level—through the President of the United States,
one of their own!”
was the beginning of a smear campaign that has never been fully tamped down,
despite enormous effort. When by January it became clear that Obama was
supplanting John Edwards as Hillary Clinton’s principal contender for the
nomination, nine national Jewish leaders (some of whom were decidedly not
Obama supporters) went so far as to issue a joint letter condemning the
“hateful e-mails.” Initially, the Obama campaign and the candidate himself
were slow to address the charge, but as the campaign wore on and persistent
questions were put before the candidate, the campaign confronted the charge
quasi-erudite form of this slur came from the right-wing ideologues Daniel
Pipes and Edward Luttwak, who while poo-pooing the obvious falsehood of
these insipid charges, yet reminded readers that under Islamic law Obama
might be judged by the Muslim world to be a murtadd (apostate) regardless of
what religious identity he might claim for himself today.
citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator
Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known—as it would,
no doubt, should he win the White House,” Luttwak wrote in a May 12 New
York Times op-ed piece entitled “President Apostate?” “This would
compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with
the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American
efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.”
Iowa and New Hampshire had too few
Jews to register in the exit polls, but after Floridians voted in their
problematic primary January 29, it became clear that Barack Obama was not
Jewish Democrats’ first choice. In the only three-way Democratic primary
with a large Jewish population, Clinton won 58 percent of the Jewish vote,
Obama 26 percent, and Edwards 13 percent.
the time Super Tuesday rolled around in the first week of February, it was a
two-person race and the Democratic vote in five of the Super Tuesday states
(New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California) had large
Jewish components. Among Jews, Clinton handily beat Obama in New York, New
Jersey, and California; in Connecticut and Massachusetts the Jews went with
Obama. For the night, and for the entire primary season, Clinton won the
“national” Jewish vote.
the results came in, pundits in both the Jewish and the national press
wondered aloud whether Obama, the emerging frontrunner, had a “Jewish
problem.” An explanation was needed.
was unlikely that the Muslim/madrasa/Qur’an charges played a significant
part in American Jewish deliberations. What had far more traction with
American Jews was the suspicion that Obama was not sincere in his
pronouncements of support for Israel, and the guilt by association that
accrued from his highly influential minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
was Wright’s “God damn America” and his “chickens coming home to roost”
remarks that plagued Obama in the American public at large. But for
pro-Israel American Jews, what mattered was Wright’s equating of Israel to
South Africa’s former apartheid regime. In one sermon caught on video,
Wright mockingly referred to Israel as the “dirty word” of American
politics. Indeed, one week he gave over his weekly “Pastor’s Page” space in
the church newsletter to a reprinted article by a spokesman for the
Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
his 2007 AIPAC speech, Obama said what Israel’s supporters wanted to
hear—but some of Obama’s long-time acquaintances in Chicago claimed it was a
complete betrayal of his prior view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Two days
after Obama’s AIPAC speech, one of the founders of the web site
slammed his former state senator in an
article entitled “How Barack Obama learned to love Israel.” Wrote Ali
Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a
dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in
Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said
was the keynote speaker. In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for
Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a
University of Chicago professor. On that occasion and others Obama was
forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed
approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering
in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary
campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States
Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.
As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet
him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t
said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race.
I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front.” He referred to
my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago
Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, “Keep up the good work!”
week after his AIPAC speech, Obama told a group of Democratic activists in
Iowa that he supported relaxing restrictions on aid to the Palestinians.
According to a March 13 in the Des Moines Register he said, “Nobody is
suffering more than the Palestinian people….If we could get some movement
among Palestinian leadership, what I’d like to see is a loosening up of some
of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people.”
had uttered a statement that would haunt him with Jewish voters through the
primary campaign. In a televised debate a few days later, he tried to
explain: “I said that no one suffers more than the Palestinian people
because of their leadership's failure to recognize Israel, denounce
violence, and be serious about peace negotiations and regional security.”
Between the two statements there was a substantial difference in meaning and
tone. For Obama supporters, the second try was simply consistent with the
public record. For Obama detractors, it was not where his heart lay.
April 10 story, Los Angeles Times national political reporter Peter
Wallsten described Obama as having a close social relationship with
Chicago-area supporters of the Palestinian cause going back to the late
1990s, while at the same time pursuing a pro-Israel policy when he ran first
for a seat in Congress and then for the U.S. Senate. Wallsten, who cited
Abuminah as a source, seemed to confirm his recollection.
Obama also pointed to his long-standing friendship with academic Rashid
Khalidi as evidence of a secret anti-Israel agenda. Supporters responded
that he was a classic “pro-Israel” Democrat—that his acceptance of friends
and associates with whom he disagreed was merely an indication of his “new
style” inclusive politics.
there was the issue of Barack Obama’s team of Middle East advisors.
the late winter and spring of 2008, the Internet swirled with e-mails and
e-journalism that Obama’s Middle East policy advisors were uniformly
“anti-Israel.” Leading the charge was the conservative website American
Thinker (often cited by Rush Limbaugh), where, in
January, Ed Lasky published a set of interrelated reports stressing the role
in Obama’s campaign of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s
National Security Advisor, and Robert Malley, a former Clinton
administration diplomat who worked on the Camp David 2000 negotiations. Both
men have been highly critical of Israeli policy over the past two decades.
claims were regarded as significant enough by the Obama campaign to require
a series of responses. Brzezinski was eventually described as having been
consulted on only one occasion, and more on Iraq than Israel-Palestine. In
early May, after a dustup with the McCain campaign over the support Obama
received from a spokesman for Hamas, Malley was summarily dismissed from
Obama’s Middle East consultation group in the wake of a London Times
revelation that Malley had been in regular contact with Hamas.
counter these negative associations, Obama solicited and received the
support of prominent Democratic diplomats, including former U.S. ambassador
to Israel Daniel Kurtzer and former special envoy to the Middle East Dennis
all is said and done, however, the question of Obama’s “Jewish problem” must
be viewed within the context of an apparent decline in the significance of
Israel for American Jews. In its 2008 poll of American Jewish public
opinion, the American Jewish Committee found that only six percent
considered “support for Israel” as the most important issue for selecting a
president. Particularly among Jews younger than 35 there is strong evidence
of growing detachment from Israel.
recent inauguration of J-Street, a Jewish lobbying group with an avowedly
anti - AIPAC stance, indicates that American Jews are increasingly willing to
ponder a more nuanced position on U.S.- Israel relations.
possible that the Obama stance—supportive of the Democratic Party’s
traditional pro-Israel values while listening to alternative voices—will
strike the right balance to preserve the Jewish vote in proportions
approaching the two-to-one Democratic margins of the 1980s. But the whispers
and associations may take enough of a toll to enable John McCain, the
scourge of Islamic terrorism, to carve out the biggest slice of the Jewish
pie since 1920, when Warren Harding won a plurality of 43 percent.