Gov. Sarah Palin was effusive during the vice presidential debate when given the chance to express her affinity for Israel. Given the chance, Sen. Joe Biden, her Democratic counterpart, pointed to his long record of love for Israel, too. In American politics, most people do.
But in this presidential election, American Jews have not been convinced that Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, the Democrat and Republican headliners, are equal when it comes to the future of Israel. McCain has been painted as a hawk willing to wage war with Israel's enemies, Obama a naïve peacemaker who would rather talk things out.
Viral e-mails, based on half-truths and un-truths, have furthered fears about Obama. They claim he's a Muslim; he Hamas' choice; he's not who he claims to be. (He's not; he isn't; and who is?) Recently, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has aimed attack ads -- including "Barack Obama's Friends: Pro-Palestinian. Anti-Israel. Hostile to America." -- at Israel-first voters.
The combination has taken its toll.
Jewish voters are the evangelicals of 2008, the holy grail of the electorate, and an ungodly amount of news ink has been spilled on Obama's "Jewish problem."
Back in the spring, it seemed more like media groupthink than plausible pitfall. But the reality is that only one Democratic nominee since the Jewish political realignment under FDR has received less than 60 percent of the Jewish vote (President Jimmy Carter in 1980) -- and polls from Gallup and the American Jewish Committee show Obama struggling to achieve even that minimum level of support.
"If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the United States, I'm gonna blame the Jews," comedian Sarah Silverman says in a public service announcement for The Great Schlep, which last weekend sent about 100 Jews from around the country to Florida to convince their bubbes and zadies to vote for Obama. (See story page 18.)
While oddsmakers say they expect Obama to be at least on par on Election Day with past Democratic candidates -- if not receiving the 80 percent of the Jewish vote of Gore-Lieberman, certainly 70 percent or above -- many Jews, Republicans and Democrats, leaders and laypeople, remain unconvinced.
"It terrifies me," said Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR and one of the 300 members of Rabbis for Obama.
Brous' fear is shared by many Obama supporters. Talk with the candidate's backers about the election, and you hear optimism tinged with terror, their hope for a new American future bridled by a tight presidential race and anxiety at the possibility of another four years with a Republican in the White House. Many of McCain's supporters, by contrast, can't imagine a United States led by a liberal who would, as Palin repeated several times recently, "pal around with terrorists."
The contest has split the country and the Jewish community. Feelings of anger and division have only intensified as the tactics of the campaigns, and their proxies, have gotten nastier.
"One of the most depressing developments from the past months has been the barrage of negative information I am getting from both sides of the Jewish community," a middle-age man said during a town hall discussion of the election at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Yom Kippur. "It's just which hot-button issue is going to scare people to action. Not only is this not enlightening, but it speaks incredibly poorly to what the Jewish strategists think of the Jewish community."
To be sure, the Jewish vote, like any other group, cannot be counted on to vote as a bloc, but reading the tea leaves this year has become more difficult because of the unknowns of race, let alone the economy.
Obama supporters have said that at least some Jews supporting McCain do so because they can't bring themselves to vote for a black man. McCain backers have said their liberal co-religionists are putting domestic issues, on which McCain is to the right of the non-Orthodox Jewish community, ahead of Israel and, by extension, national security.
"This is not an election where Jews feel they can wholeheartedly embrace either candidate," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "I've had this conversation numerous times, particularly with older people. But at some point you have to make a decision, and I doubt Jews will sit out this election."
So how will they vote? Plenty of predictions have been made -- Sarna anticipates Obama getting a "strong majority"; Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University, guarantees 70-30 favoring the Democrat, at worst. A few doubt the incumbent Republican Party can escape the election without losing voters angry about the plummeting economy, and even Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol has said McCain's presidential hopes are probably doomed.
But, of course, it's all a betting game until Nov. 4.
Shelly Mandell's endorsement was a surprising one. Mandell, a Westside attorney, is the Los Angeles president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the leader in feminist activism, and there she was at a Carson rally on Oct. 4, introducing Republican vice presidential nominee Palin.
"This," Mandell said, "is what a feminist looks like."
Booed when she identified herself as a lifelong Democrat, Mandell continued by stating that Palin "is a reformer who will break up that ol' boys network" and expressing hope that she might be able to change Palin's mind regarding Roe v. Wade.
The move was not appreciated by NOW's national office. Its political action committee had endorsed Obama a few weeks before. Mandell's endorsement, though, was indicative of the traditionally Democratic voters who aren't inspired by their party's candidate this year.
For her part, Palin really didn't need an introduction.
Few people had heard of the Alaskan governor when McCain tapped her to be his running mate Aug. 29. But she immediately became a preferred story subject, from her teenage daughter's pregnancy and conservative Christian worldview to her political experience and press-shy blunders. She also breathed new life into "Saturday Night Live," bringing her doppleganger, Tina Fey, back to that show's cast.
There has been hand-wringing since the get-go about whether she would be good for the Jews, not least because Palin is a self-styled Mrs. Joe Six-Pack.
Officials with the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) spoke glowingly of Palin, noting that the only flag in her governor's office is a small Israeli flag.
"She keeps that flag in her office because she keeps Israel in her heart," said Matthew Brooks, RJC executive director. "She, like John McCain, understands how to stand by Israel and support Israel and get a comprehensive peace agreement in the region."
But questions persisted.
Palin had been in the audience of her church only two weeks before joining McCain, when the national director of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner, said terrorist attacks in Israel were God's "judgment of unbelief."
"When a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people," Brickner said, "judgment -- you can't miss it."
And people began to wonder about Palin's real view of the Jews. (She hasn't spoken about Jews, only Israel, though Larry Greenfield, RJC's California director, asserted the day Palin was selected that she was "close to the Frozen Chosen!")
The McCain campaign responded by saying Palin did not agree with Brickner's remarks. But that brouhaha was quickly followed by news that Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention used direct passages from the writings of the notorious anti-Semite, Westbrook Pegler, a mid-century columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain who once wished, in print, for the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Like Obama, Palin also was immediately plagued by a handful of untrue rumors: That she backed Pat Buchanan for president in 2000 (she supported Steve Forbes); that she moved to ban books from the Wasilla library (she asked "what if?"); and that she is a secret secessionist (she was never a member of the Alaskan Independent Party).
Amid all this noise, a few people also raised concerns about Palin's politics.
"Some of the hostility and mocking of Gov. Palin," Greenfield said, "is simply anti-Christian bigotry and discomfort with this common sense sort of Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington kind of leadership that she offers."
The acrimony surrounding Sen. Hillary Clinton's long goodbye from the Democratic presidential primary left a terribly sour taste in her supporters' mouths. This, in turn, led to much worrying that these folks would, in anger, vote for McCain. And that was before he picked a woman as his running mate.
One of Clinton's biggest backers, Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, made the move last month.
"I believe that Barack Obama, with MoveOn.org and Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean, has taken the Democratic Party -- and they will continue to -- too far to the left," she told the Associated Press. "I'm not comfortable there."
Rothschild, who has resigned from the Democratic National Committee's planning committee, said she feels McCain would run a "centrist" government.
But Rothschild has been the exception to the rule. For an indication of just how difficult it's been for Clinton supporters, look to Daphna Ziman.
Ziman was one of Clinton's bundlers here in California. She and her husband, Richard, hosted several fundraisers for Clinton at their Beverly Hills home. And Ziman was terrified about what Obama might mean for her native Israel.
"I don't really know what he is going to do for Israel. It is a big question mark," she said in a January interview. "And we can't afford the risk."
But Ziman recently changed her tune, and this month she co-hosted with Clinton a fundraiser for Obama in downtown Los Angeles.
Why? Reproductive rights.
McCain has expressed a desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned; Palin is even more passionately pro-life. For Ziman, who founded the charity, Children Uniting Nations, which mentors inner-city kids, voting for a conservative who would likely replace at least three Supreme Court justices was out of the question.
"When I look at Islamofascism across the Muslim world, it is based on the lack of women's rights, and the ability to sacrifice that in an election is not an option for me," Ziman said.
As for Israel, Obama's selection of Biden as a running mate calmed, though it did not allay, those fears. Other prominent Los Angeles Jews have felt no discomfort regarding Obama and Israel.
Stanley P. Gold, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a substantial giver to the Democratic Party, had backed Clinton. Now, he's known to be supporting Obama. (Gold declined to comment because of his role as the Federation's lay leader.)
Additionally, several luminaries in the L.A. rabbinate are among the leaders of Rabbis for Obama -- the first time rabbis have banded together to endorse a candidate. The organization's co-chair is Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University.
"Sen. McCain has voted for President Bush's policies 95 percent of the time, and he promises to continue those policies if elected president," Dorff said when he introduced Obama in a conference call last month with 900 rabbis. "That, though, is disastrous. Absolutely nothing is better now for our country than it was eight years ago."
"Obama, by contrast," Dorff continued, "offers us intelligence, caring, individual rights; well thought out programs for improvement in education and health care; programs to stimulate American productivity and to develop alternative sources of energy; respect and honesty in dealing with our fellow citizens and our allies -- and, yes, wise and firm support for Israel and for peace in the Middle East."
Like many, Carmen Warschaw, a matriarch of L.A. Jewry, needed no convincing. She's been in Obama's camp all along.
Back in June, her home was filled with a coterie of Hollywood's who's who -- including Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures. The mission of the Obama Los Angeles Jewish Community Leadership Committee, organized by the campaign, was to convince Jews that Obama should get their vote.
But other well-known L.A. Jews, like Ozzie Goren, the 86-year-old former Federation president, haven't been moved by Obama's message.
"Obama is a brilliant speaker. But does he say anything? Nope," Goren said. "It's just 'hope' and 'change' and 'my time.'"
One media macher you wouldn't have found at Warschaw's Beverly Hills home is Harry Sloan.
As chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Sloan is an anomaly. It's unusual for Jews to be Republicans -- only about 17 percent of Jews identify as such, according to the American Jewish Committee -- but it's almost unheard of for a Hollywood insider.
He twice held fundraisers at his home for McCain, first in January 2007 and again last January. On Oct. 1, he introduced Cindy McCain at a fundraiser at the Century Plaza Hotel that brought in $3.5 million from business folks and a few Hollywood stars, including, Jon Voight and Kelsey Grammer.
Sloan, a lifelong Republican, said in an interview that, like most Americans, he is frustrated with where our country is now and headed in the future. He doesn't lay the blame squarely on the Bush administration but disperses it over all of Washington's insiders. And McCain's willingness to stand his ground when convinced of the correct course -- with unpopular immigration reform or the surge in Iraq, for example -- is exactly what he believes Washington needs.
"He is not Mr. Congeniality because he tries to make changes. We have a country that seems to be on the wrong course," Sloan said. "I don't really think he is afraid to take on anybody."
Certainly not with Iran. That's one distinction between the candidates that has highlighted the differences between hawks and doves, of varying degrees, in the Jewish community.
Both candidates have said Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons; on this there is no disagreement. But Obama seems more interested in talking softly, while McCain wants to wield a big stick.
Contrary to what is commonly repeated, Obama has said he would be willing to talk with leaders of rogue nations but never said he would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust and wants to see Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei is actually the head of Iran .
Not surprisingly, both sides have spun their candidate's position as being in the best interest of Israel.
"I believe that to some degree this election is a referendum on what are the most important issues of our time," said Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid. "To my mind, the security of the State of Israel, the security of our own country, our financial wherewithal, are the major issues of the day."
"Who selects which Supreme Court is less my immediate issue," Jeret continued, "Is the environment our national priority, for many people it is. But I want to be around for many years to address those issues, and there are many existential issues for our country and the State of Israel that are at hand."
About 150 liberal-minded Jews were standing in the backyard of a massive house located just down the street from the mayor's official residence in Windsor Square. Projected onto the side of the house was the world premiere of a pro-Obama video readymade for YouTube that its producers hoped, and likely everyone knew, would soon go viral.
"If you knew that visiting your grandparents could change the world, would you?" Silverman asked in the opening of the video. "Of course you would."
In the four-minute short, Silverman goes on to argue that young Jews have more power to rock the vote in Florida by convincing their grandparents to vote for Obama than by staying home and simply voting for Obama in a blue state like California or New York. And so, she says, they should remember Al Gore's fate in Florida and join The Great Schlep, an effort organized by JewsVote.
Characteristic of the tit-for-tat actions of Republican and Democratic Jews this year, the RJC responded with a two-minute video from Jackie Mason, a Jewish comedian from a very different generation and caste.
Mason took issue with Silverman's insinuation that every Jew who doesn't vote for Obama is a racist -- in the video she uses her characteristic wry humor to explore how much elderly Jews and young black men have in common: they love track suits, Cadillacs, their grandkids and bling, and "all their friends are dying" -- her claim that elderly Jews don't like Obama "because his name sounds scary; it sounds Muslim, which he is obviously not."
To which Mason replied: "You're not a bigot and don't let her convince ya you are. She's a sick yenta for mentioning it."
The schleppers aren't the only Jews heading to battleground states in hopes of making a difference as Nov. 4 gets closer.
Writer Sharon Rosen Leib will head with her friend, Karen Gross, both 45, to West Palm Beach for the final days before the election. With their husbands in charge of their kids back home, they'll be staying at a friend's house and spending every waking minute promoting Obama.
On Election Day, Leib said, they plan to use their rental car as a voting booth shuttle for those who can't or don't want to drive. After all, the election could hinge on Florida, which could swing on the smallest margin of votes, and Leib needs to know she did all she can for her candidate.
"There is just too much at stake this election," Leib said, "and I felt powerless sitting at my computer, watching all the e-mails go back and forth."
Indeed, there seems to be an even greater awareness of what Berenbaum, the adjunct professor of theology, told The Journal in January:
"The last four years of the Bush administration have been disastrous. If we don't get ourselves squared away, it could be the end of the American Century and the end of the way the American Jewish community has been American in this era."
"We are voting as if our lives and futures depend upon it," he continued. "Not because we fear someone is going to come out and kill us, but because we fear that if we don't get this right, our children and their children will not enjoy the privileges this generation has enjoyed as Americans -- the economic opportunity, the prosperity, the education, all of those elements that have characterized our existence and our flourishing.
"After Florida in 2000, everybody knows that every vote absolutely counts."