Washington: Wooing the you-know-whos

Beyond the specific concerns, a nameless worry does exist among some people.

hillary debate 224.88 (photo credit: )
hillary debate 224.88
(photo credit: )
Last weekend, seven Democratic senators who haven't endorsed any presidential candidate sent out an unusual letter. They chastised those who were seeking to scare Jews away from Barack Obama by sending "hateful e-mails that use falsehood and innuendo" about his background and religion. The message echoes a similar open letter to the Jewish community sent out by nine heads of major non-partisan Jewish organizations days earlier. "Attempts of this sort to mislead and inflame voters should not be part of our political discourse and should be rebuffed by all who believe in our democracy," they wrote of wrongful accusations that Obama, a Christian, has hidden a Muslim upbringing that includes instruction at a jihadist madrassa. There's little to suggest that these attacks have caused Obama political damage among Democratic Jews as he tries to wrest the nomination from Hillary Clinton, perhaps because of the defense offered by these letters and subsequent media reports in mainstream publications, such as The New York Times. But there's also little to suggest that Obama has picked up significant support from Jewish Democratic activists in the wake of his victory in Iowa and the momentum he has since gained nationally - where he has considerably narrowed the gap in polls with Clinton as the two head into the primaries, when the bulk of the American Jewish population will be voting. At the same time, Obama has been unable to quell doubts about his commitment to Israel in certain quarters of the Jewish community, which some fear Republicans will push and then exploit should the Illinois senator prevail over Clinton. Veteran Democratic political activist Steve Rabinowitz, who is a Clinton supporter involved with the Jewish community, acknowledges that some of the demographic that has been won over by Obama nationally - particularly young, progressive voters - would naturally include Jews. "Just as he was a very exciting phenomenon in the rest of the country," he says, "as there are a lot of young and progressive Jews who are part of that community, that's true for them, too." But Rabinowitz isn't concerned about that trend's threatening his candidate's hold on the wider Jewish community, of which a significant majority tends to vote Democratic. "I have not seen a swing in Jewish votes or Jewish support for Obama," says another Jewish Democratic political operative with no candidate affiliation. But, he notes, "The states where the population is organized the most and matters the most really haven't voted yet." And it is those states - New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts - with their large Jewish populations that will head to the polls (along with 18 smaller ones) February 5, the day that could decide the nomination. THOUGH THERE are few empirical assessments of Jewish support for the presidential candidates, one national American Jewish Committee survey conducted in November showed Clinton enjoying 53 percent favorability ratings from Jews, while Obama had only 38% (or 70%-45% among Jewish Democrats). Those numbers were similar to those in an exit poll of Nevada voters at the caucus there last Saturday. According to the survey (of an admittedly small sample size), Jewish caucus-goers backed Clinton by 67% to Obama's 25%. And when it comes to the Jewish establishment of campaign donors, fundraisers and political players, support for Clinton is estimated to be twice that for Obama (except in his home state of Illinois, where he has deep connections with the Jewish community). Since Obama's win in Iowa on January 3, the only major Jewish endorsement has come from Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada), and she went with Clinton. Rabinowitz says the Jewish community's political involvement favored Clinton: "The Jewish community is a more informed community. It made up its mind earlier, and it enjoyed a unique … emotional bond with the Clintons that it didn't have with Obama because they didn't know him." The unaffiliated operative echoes Rabinowitz. "Many activists were generally picking people well before" Obama picked up steam, and when it comes to Jewish issues, "She has a longer record on this stuff than Obama." In explaining his choice to go with Clinton, major Jewish fundraiser Steve Grossman says, "I'm looking for someone who has a lifetime of leadership on issues that matter to the community, and Hillary has had a lifetime of leadership." Yet Clinton's past has not always been so well-esteemed in the Jewish community. Speaking about the two candidates, one Obama campaigner points out that the New York senator was once known in the Jewish community for being photographed, while First Lady, embracing Suha Arafat. Indeed, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote a story earlier this month titled "Clinton's journey to Jewish favorite." It recalled the opprobrium she received for her perceived support for the Palestinian cause in the 1990s, which since has been largely dispelled by her working with the Jewish community as a New York senator, and by taking strong positions, such as her opposing incitement against Jews in Arab text books and favoring a resolution to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terror group - for which she was pounced on by her Democratic presidential rivals. "There is no daylight between Barack Obama's support for the State of Israel and other Democratic candidates. Full stop," stresses Alan Solomont, a major Jewish fundraiser who backs Obama despite his previous support for the Clintons. It's not without frustration that Solomont says, "I don't question Hillary Clinton's support for the Jewish community … but clearly she's pandering to her constituents, and Barack Obama doesn't do things like that." "Hillary Clinton has a long history of steadfast leadership on behalf of a strong US-Israel relationship, from her first trip to Israel in 1982, to her work in bringing an innovative Israeli preschool education program to Arkansas, to today," counters Nita Lowey, a Jewish Congresswoman who is also from New York. "Supporting a strong US-Israel relationship does not make one a panderer." Regardless, Clinton's stance on Israel hasn't been questioned during the 2008 campaign the way that her rival's has, and it's a vexing circumstance for Obama supporters, who note the general agreement in the pro-Israel community that their candidate "has said and done all the right things on Israel" since taking office and running for president. Two weeks ago, the campaign distributed a message from Jewish supporter Lester Crown saying, "I am writing to share with you my confidence that Senator Barack Obama's stellar record on Israel gives me great comfort that, as president, he will be the friend to Israel that we all want to see in the White House - stalwart in his defense of Israel's security, and committed to helping Israel achieve peace with its neighbors." And just Tuesday, Obama sent a letter to US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad, urging that America not endorse a UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Gaza "that does not fully condemn the rocket assault Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel for over two years." "How do you convince somebody?" asks one exasperated Obama campaign adviser, referring to those who criticize the Illinois senator based on "vague associations that they have about him rather than his record and what he's said." The concerns about Obama, though, aren't entirely vague associations. For one thing, there are policy differences between him and Clinton. Obama is more likely to highlight the search for peace in the Middle East and the need to engage the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a two-state solution than his opponent. There are also some specifics critics point to, like a list of foreign policy advisers that includes Zbigniew Bzrezinski, whose positions on Israel are anathema to large parts of the Jewish community, as are those of the man under whom he served as national security adviser, Jimmy Carter. "He's saying a lot of the right things, but the concern is [about] people who are advising him, such as Zbigniew Bzrezinski and the people he would be beholden to … on the extreme left wing of the party," says Morris Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC, who describes himself as a Scoop Jackson Democrat. "I have no reason to doubt that in his mind he [has] no ill will toward Israel. It's just a question of, as president, who he would be listening to and who he would be beholden to." Another Washington-based Jewish leader criticizes Obama for attacking Clinton's IRGC vote, charging, "He chose demagoguery on the issue as a way to try to win votes." The leader, who works for a non-partisan organization and requested anonymity due to that role, coupled the IRGC issue with Obama's sponsorship of Iran divestment legislation that hasn't moved forward. "There's nothing that he said that I don't like. It's the fact that he doesn't do what he says." The Obama campaign has counters to these criticisms. Bzrezinski, the campaign says, offered an endorsement but plays little policy role, particularly when it comes to Israel-related issues; in that realm, Barack's campaign relies on Dennis Ross, former president Bill Clinton's special envoy to the region. The foreign policy team is headed by Tony Lake, a national security adviser to president Clinton, and Susan Rice, who once served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. On the IRGC resolution, a campaign adviser explains, Obama's objections stemmed from language about Iraq, also contained in the measure, not on Iran. BUT BEYOND the specific concerns, a nameless worry does exist among some people. It was evident in one post on Andrew Sullivan's blog - highlighted on Israeli correspondent Shmuel Rosner's own blog - by a Jewish Obama supporter alluding to the past divisions between the African-American and Jewish communities. "Sadly, even my mother, who lives in Florida, says about Obama, 'I just don't trust him.' She can't give any reasons, though she will usually mutter something about Israel." One Democratic Party operative with ties to the Jewish community estimates that some people in this demographic - "older people, security hawks" - might have been affected by the e-mails about Obama's fictitious radical Muslim past in deciding between the two leading Democratic candidates. But he's much more worried about what Republicans might do during the general election if Obama wins the nomination. The New York Post, in a story about Obama on the day of the New Hampshire primary, quoted a "prominent Republican" as saying, "Obama's commitment to Israel is open to question, and that would help us with Jews." Republican Jewish Coalition press secretary Suzanne Kurtz says it's premature and speculative to talk about tactics in a general election campaign. But, she adds, "We have serious concerns about his foreign policy judgment." The Democratic operative points to a lengthy article on the conservative American Thinker site highlighting Obama's ties to anyone holding anti-Israel positions and anything critical of Israel - or suggestive of a willingness to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians - but dismissing any moves he's made in support of Israel. "It's a blueprint for how they will go after Obama," he says. "It's all about fear-mongering. Is this person a Manchurian candidate? It's very crude." He continues, "Does it hurt? Sure. But it's all lies … We'll be able to show it for the lies it is, but it will take a lot of energy." The Obama camp has already been expending some of that energy. After Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (who, incidentally, is no conservative) criticized Obama for not distancing himself from an award the magazine of Trinity United Church of Christ, his Chicago church, bestowed on Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan - famous for his anti-Semitic statements, as well as for rehabilitating people in dire straits - the senator issued a statement condemning Farrakhan's remarks. He also criticized the anti-Semitism that has occasionally reared its head in the African-American community, telling an Atlanta church service ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day that, "The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity." That follows on previous comments from the campaign distancing Obama from anti-Israel statements of the pastor at Trinity United, as spokesmen have noted that Obama doesn't share all of his pastor's positions, particularly not those concerning the Jewish state. Then there is the outside help the campaign has received from unlikely places. The Jewish organizations - who generally refrain from wading into partisan politics - weren't the only ones to refute some of the attacks. And it was the staunchly conservative New York Sun that devoted a lengthy editorial to rebutting the remark reported in the New York Post about Obama's vulnerability on Israel. "We're no shills for Mr. Obama, but these Republicans haven't checked their facts. At least by our lights, Mr. Obama's commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America." And that, according to Solomont, is "absolutely true."