Spring 2008, Vol. 11, No. 1

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From the Editor:

Sally Gets Religion

God and Mammon on the Web

Off with their Head Scarves

Playing Godless

Letter to the Editor



Good For the Jews?

by Ron Kiener

Not 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.

One 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.

But 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.

As for Obama, he has struggled from the beginning of his campaign to make up the Jewish gap.

In 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 Palestine.

He 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.

A 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 to it.

In 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.

And then all hell broke loose.

No 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!”

It 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 explicitly.

A 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.

“Most 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.

By 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.

As 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.

It 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.

It 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.

In 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 Abunimah:

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!”

 A 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.”

Obama 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.

In an 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.

Critics of 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.

Then there was the issue of Barack Obama’s team of Middle East advisors.

In 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.

The 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.

To 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 Ross.

When 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.

The 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.

It is 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.


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