Obama tries to reassure Jewish voters in Florida

"If my policies are wrong, vote against me because my policies are wrong."

obama points 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama points 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Leading Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama attempted to reassure Jewish voters during a speech at a Florida synagogue Thursday addressing Israel, Iran and black-Jewish relations. He reiterated his strong support for Israel and his willingness to speak to Iranian leaders to try to prevent them from obtaining nuclear weapons, but beyond policy outlines, the event was aimed at countering rumors and innuendo about Obama that have circulated in some circles of the Jewish community. Obama, whose middle name is Hussein, has been the subject of persistent but erroneous e-mails claiming that he is a Muslim, while some people have criticized his choice of campaign advisors and associations with controversial figures like his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. "If my policies are wrong, vote against me because my policies are wrong," Obama said to the hundreds-strong crowd at Boca Raton's B'nai Torah Congregation, which ran out of tickets well ahead of the event. "Don't vote against me because of who I am." During his nearly two-hour appearance, he urged the crowd, "Judge me by what I say and what I've done. Don't judge me because I've got a funny name. Don't judge me because I'm African-American and people are concerned about memories of the past." Obama, though, did seek to use his background to appeal to the Jewish community, suggesting that he could repair some of the breach between blacks and Jews in America, two groups "who have been uprooted and been on the outside." Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been able to accomplish so much in the battle for civil rights without help from Jewish supporters, he said. "I want to make sure that I am one of the vehicles by which we can rebuild those bonds." While Obama has done well among Jews according to exit polls in primary contests, in some of which he has even bested his rival for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton among the community, he still lags nationally when it comes to support from the stalwart Democratic constituency, according to a recent Gallup poll. The survey found that Jews preferred Clinton to McCain 66-27, while Obama's numbers were only 61-32. In certain areas, including Florida, worry and skepticism about his candidacy have been voiced by many Jewish voters. Obama's comments Thursday were generally greeted warmly, frequently with applause. At one point an audience member was booed when he asked about the Illinois senator's connection to Palestinian advocate Rashid Khalidi, with whom he had socialized in Chicago, according to an account in the New York Times. "I have to be very cautious about this," Obama was quoted as saying, "because you remember the old stereotype, 'I'm not prejudiced, some of my best friends are Jewish,' right? 'I'm not prejudiced, some of my best friends are black.'" Later, he said, "We've got to be careful about guilt by association. The tradition of the Jewish people is to judge me by what I say and what I've done." Obama also laid out his positions on the Middle East and some domestic issues, stressing that he wouldn't talk to terrorist groups Hamas or Hizbullah despite his willingness to engage with Iran and Syria. Obama attacked current US President George W. Bush for allowing Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah to grow more powerful under his watch and used that to lash out at the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. "How is it that the Bush-Cheney-McCain policy has been good for Israel?" he asked. In response, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama's proposals are "naive and weak leadership." "It's weak judgment for Barack Obama to believe that an unconditional summit with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not strengthen the worst elements in Iran, embolden the tyrant's standing in the region and put the world's security at risk," Bounds said in an e-mail. AP contributed to this report