'If he's not an anti-Semite, he certainly will be by the end of the campaign'

The effort to portray Obama as anti-Israel concerns some about its effect on his attitude towards Israel.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
A briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on US President George W. Bush's trip to the Middle East this week eventually turned, as most things do here in Washington these days, to the upcoming elections. One journalist wanted to know whether Israeli officials have a preference as to who becomes president. So Jon Alterman, director of the CSIS Middle East Program, replied, "There has been a sustained campaign against [Barack] Obama in the Jewish community, which I think has at least made Israelis take pause at what an Obama presidency might look like." It is somewhat debatable whether a "sustained campaign" has indeed taken place, but not so debatable that it's kept the following joke from making the rounds: "If Obama's not an anti-Semite, he certainly will be by the end of the campaign." The one-liner skewers Obama's detractors, some of whom have spent a good deal of time circulating e-mails accusing the leading Democratic presidential candidate of being a secret Muslim, or raising questions about campaign endorsers and putative advisers who have taken anti-Israel positions. But it also raises a more serious concern about what the volume of such efforts could do to the relationship the Jewish community has with Obama, an issue that becomes ever more pertinent as Obama moves closer to the Democratic nomination. As one Washington-based Jewish leader put it, "There has been concern that the continuing effort by the Jewish community to make Obama jump through hoops - to continuously prove his pro-Israel fealty - will make him resentful of the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community." "Anybody who's on a Jewish e-mail list or has an aunt or uncle in Florida has seen these e-mails," said Ken Goldstein, a university of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who studies the Jewish vote. "[But] I don't buy the premise that there's been this big, orchestrated campaign against Barack Obama … There've been rumors, there's been innuendo, but nothing too huge." At the same time, he said, "[Just because] I don't think there's an orchestrated campaign doesn't mean I don't think there is some angst among significant numbers of people." He explained, "You don't need much to sow concern among many elements of the Jewish community about Israel." But more partisan observers beg to differ. "Of course there has been a concerted effort to delegitimize Obama in Israel and in the eyes of Israel's supporters. It's indisputable," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic operative allied with Obama's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. He laid the blame for the attacks squarely at the feet of Republicans and Conservatives. But a Jewish former Republican party official speaking anonymously countered that, "The campaign against Obama in the Jewish community has been waged primarily by pro-Israel Democrats who are Clinton supporters. Only since it has become evident that Obama is the nominee have Republican Jews started piling on." Now, though, he said, attacking Obama for weakness on Israel, for the praise his candidacy received from Hamas and other similar charges have the potential to make a real difference in the fall. "The Israel critique, the Hamas endorsement, etc. play into the GOP case that Obama is out of the mainstream and too inexperienced and naive to be president. That line of argument could keep him from being elected," the former official said. WHATEVER THE potential effect on the general election, Goldstein said that when it came to the Jewish vote, he didn't expect to see much of an impact. "Jewish voters are going to support Obama whether it's 70 or 80 percent," he calculated, citing their historic ties to the Democratic party, among other factors. Obama's campaign argues that all the hoopla hasn't really hurt him with Jews so far, pointing to exit polls from primaries showing that he won the Jewish vote in some key states, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as a recent Gallup poll in which he bested [presumptive Republican nominee John] McCain among Jewish voters 61-32. While that figure is relatively low in terms of Jewish support - around 75% of which is estimated to have gone to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 - it isn't that different from Clinton's numbers (66-27). It's also a result that comes in the midst of a divisive primary campaign, when steep percentages of Clinton voters have vowed to vote for McCain rather than Obama and vice versa - a claim that could well prove false. And if Obama gets the nomination, as increasingly seems likely, he'll have a while to win over Clinton holdovers. Even though he didn't think that the campaign against Obama had made a difference at the ballot box, he did concede it was having an effect. "It hasn't worked, but it's taken its toll," he said. "It's forced Obama to work extremely hard in the Jewish community and pro-Israel community." And the campaign staff acknowledge they still have their work cut out for them. "There are very few people who buy what's being said once they know the facts, and that's our job - to get the facts out," said one adviser. The question is whether the need for all the effort will leave a bad taste in their mouths. "Is there a price to pay for criticizing Obama so harshly during the elections that he would remember it in the White House?" Rabinowitz poses of a hypothetical scenario in which Obama beats out first Clinton and then McCain. "I think the good news is that he wouldn't, but who could blame him if he did?" Still, the Obama adviser stressed that there wouldn't be any lingering ill-will. "Much of this is a strictly partisan exercise, and it would be silly to hold that against the community as a whole," he said. "And that's just not his way of operating. He has a long-standing relationship with the Jewish community, and nothing about that is going to change based on this campaign." To some extent it's politics as usual, he noted, as Kerry faced similar attacks in 2004 - though Obama has some "unique features," including the middle name Hussein, that "might make him an easier target." Even so, Goldstein said he doesn't see the anti-Obama efforts having a lasting effect. "For all of the things that are going to affect the way Barack Obama treats Israel, anything that's gone on in the primary campaign is going to be very small potatoes," he said. "He's going to be too busy being annoyed with Hillary Clinton to be annoyed with the Jews." Goldstein added that he had a lot of Jewish supporters, donors and advisers close to him who would balance out the reaction from other Jewish quarters. "It's not like he never met a Jew before," he said. Even in past rocky relationships, such as that between the Jewish community and US President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, Jim Baker, Goldstein didn't attribute the bad feeling to campaign issues - or believe that it affected policy. "I don't think the fact that Jim Baker and George Bush were annoyed with Jewish groups changed anything they did," he said. "I think it's more the opposite - that what they did annoyed Jewish groups." Maybe so. But one key Jewish Obama backer thought the attacks on his candidate amounted to playing with fire. "They have been serving the community really poorly," he said, adding that the Jewish community was "lucky" that Obama wasn't the type to hold grudges. "If a [presidential candidate] has his hand outstretched to you, don't slap it away." Still, for many Republicans, risking that relationship is worth it. "Those who see Obama as a threat to a solid US-Israel relationship will do whatever it takes to prevent him from becoming president," said the former Republican party official. "In the heat of a campaign, post-election consequences are often ignored." Anyway, the Washington Jewish leader said, this gives Obama a chance to prove he's as pro-Israel as he says. "If Obama is the true friend of Israel that he and his Jewish supporters say he is, he will not let these political antics affect his support for a strong US-Israel relationship."