Obama camp addresses Jewish voters' questions on Israel

"I would not endorse Barack Obama if he were not in my mind 100 percent behind Israel."

Obama great 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama great 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
When surrogates for Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain began their shpiels at a synagogue forum here on Monday night, eight days ahead of the crucial Pennsylvania primary, they listed strings of policy positions showing off their candidates' Israel bona fides.
But when Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's representative took his turn, he started with something different: a list of his own Israel bona fides, beginning with having put his daughter on the bus to Jewish day school that morning.
"I would not endorse Barack Obama if he were not in my mind 100 percent behind Israel," said Josh Shapiro, deputy speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and a key Obama backer in the state.
Shapiro's opening statement also included a reference to "judging the man on his actions and words," in a subtle effort to neutralize the criticism from parts of the Jewish community about certain Obama backers, including the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Shapiro's comments were an indication that the Obama campaign hasn't been able to quell doubts in some quarters of the community over the candidate's commitment to Israel and his ties to some endorsers and a spiritual mentor who have had hostile things to say about the Jewish state.
The Obama campaign has been trying to overcome those qualms at events such as Monday night's forum in Philadelphia, which contains the state's largest Jewish population. While Pennsylvania has been seen as a Clinton stronghold going into the Democratic primary, Obama has been creeping toward her in some polls, though recently his momentum has slowed. The Obama campaign is hoping to narrow the margin of any loss next Tuesday enough to blunt its impact and is looking to constituencies such as the Jewish community to trend its way.
When Shapiro did speak about Obama's policies on Israel, the Pennsylvania state representative staked out positions similar to the other surrogates. He noted Obama has voted "100%" of the time with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's positions, and stressed that the Illinois senator believed that Israel's security is "sacrosanct" and that Palestinian refugees would not be able to return to Israel, a line that drew applause. But despite a healthy contingent of Obama supporters in the audience who welcomed what he said, many of the skeptics in the crowd left unconvinced.
"[Shapiro] is obviously a fabulous speaker. If anybody could have swayed me a bit, he could have," said Leslie Marantz as she was leaving the forum, citing her concerns about Obama's stance on Israel and his advisers. "I can't quite put my finger on it, but I have questions [about Obama]. I just don't know if we know who the real Obama is."
She said she would be voting for Clinton next Tuesday.
Her husband, Mitch Marantz, said he planned to vote for McCain because he believed the former navy officer would be the strongest supporter of Israel and he objected to Obama's willingness to talk to the leaders of Iran and other rogue states.
"We need somebody who without question is not going to be talking to terrorists," he said, adding that Shapiro's arguments for Obama didn't move him.
"I didn't buy it. It doesn't pass the smell test," he said. "I was very troubled by all of it. I'm very troubled about his support for Israel."
The other surrogates tried to take advantage of these feelings to help their candidates.
Democratic Pennsylvania state Representative Dan Frankel, speaking on behalf of Clinton, agreed with Shapiro that the candidates should be assessed according their own actions. But he continued by saying that when he pictured Obama listening to Wright's rhetoric in church, "It troubles me that a [political leader] would tolerate that type of speech."
Meanwhile, Scott Feigelstein, the Republican Jewish coalition area regional director, repeatedly referred to Obama endorsers and advisers who have raised the hackles of many in the pro-Israel community while advocating for McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.
Shapiro countered that many of these references were inaccurate, clarifying that former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had endorsed Obama but wasn't a foreign policy adviser, and that former US Air Force chief of staff Gen. (ret.) Merrill "Tony" McPeak was consulting with Obama on defense issues but not on the Middle East.
Despite their resonance with some members of the audience, others felt the attacks on figures associated with Obama were misplaced.
"It's a shame" that these endorsers and their Israel postures were frequently referenced at the forum, according to Obama supporter Ann Frumpkin. "To me, they're irrelevant because he has not internalized them. He has fought against them, in his own inimitable way," she said.
Even if much of the crowd disagreed with Frumpkin, Shapiro said he wasn't troubled by the response.
"There are eight days to go before the election and this is the time to ask questions," he said. "Jewish voters, like Pennsylvania voters, are undecided. This is a very close election and there are good reasons to support Senator Obama, and there are good reasons to support Senator Clinton. The issue in the Jewish community is simply providing information and getting voters all the facts before they make a decision on Tuesday."