Jewish Journal

Obama campaign halts debates with RJC

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Oct. 15, 2008 at 11:50 pm

Barack Obama’s campaign has decided advisers and representatives of the Democratic nominee for president will no longer debate officials from the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).

This prohibition led Wednesday to the canceling of a debate scheduled for Sunday at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys organized by the Council of Israeli Community in Los Angeles. Larry Greenfield, California director of the RJC, said he still plans to show up. His counterpart, former Rep. Mel Levine, who is a Middle East adviser for Obama, will not participate in what would have been his fourth debate with Greenfield.

“My appearing with him gives him a prominence that he doesn’t deserve,” Levine said when asked about the cancellation Wednesday afternoon by the Journal. “The RJC’s tactics have been continually dishonest, and the campaign has made a decision to not keep getting on the same stage with them.”

Levine pointed specifically to the RJC’s constant attacks on Israel-critic Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is an Obama foreign policy adviser but not concerning Obama’s Israel policy, and its claims that Obama would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Indeed, Obama has said he would meet with leaders of rogue nations, but Ahmadinejad, a rabid anti-Semite, isn’t the head of Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei is.

Greenfield defended the RJC ads, which recently have carried headlines like: “Barack Obama’s Friends: Pro-Palestinian. Anti-Israel. Hostile to America.”

“Everything in our ads is sourced and cited,” Greenfield said. “We’ve never been involved in smears or talking about Obama’s religion or his middle name.”

Greenfield called the decision by the Obama campaign, “huge blunder.”  The campaign’s Jewish liason did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“No one is going to respect canceling a debate at the last minute. People are still going to show up; I’m going to be there,” Greenfield said. “It is just not the way you do business. You don’t avoid Jewish conversation.”

Levine said Obama advisers will continue debating surrogates for the McCain campaign—he’s scheduled to face-off against Sen. Orrin Hatch in Las Vegas tomorrow—as long as they are not affiliated with the RJC. It’s unclear what this means for Obama representatives holding elected office; Rep. Howard Berman’s chief of staff said Berman still plans to participate in upcoming debates with Greenfield at Stephen S. Wise Temple and Valley Beth Shalom.

The prohibition is a surprising one.

Only one Democratic presidential candidate since the 1920s has received less than 60 percent of the Jewish vote—President Carter in 1980—and polls from the American Jewish Committee and Gallup show Obama grasping for that minimum mark of support. Obama has struggled particularly with Israel-first voters, many of whom see in his opponent, John McCain, a long record of support for the Jewish state unfettered by the kind of e-mail smears alleging he is a Muslim or a foe of Israel that have been circulated about Obama.

Such rumors continue to plague the Obama campaign, despite months of outreach to the Jewish community, including The Great Schlep, which sent younger Jews to Florida last weekend to persuade their grandparents to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Haim Linder, vice president of the Council of Israeli Community, said the campaign’s decision to back out of scheduled debates will only make Obama’s Jewish problem worse.

“It will be preceived as they are chickening out from a debate and they are ignoring the Israeli community and don’t want to face the truth that the McCain campaign is putting out,” Linder said. “You are leaving Larry on a stage to put out the information he wants without being rebutted. The Israeli community needs to hear, face to face, both sides, so that people can decide who they want to vote for.”

By contrast, Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said it’s unlikely the Obama campaign made a rash move.

“I think you could make justifications both ways as to whether this was a wise move or not,” Windmueller said. “The Obama campaign certainly knows where they stand with the Jewish community, especially in California, and probably don’t feel they have must more to gain.”

Indeed, California’s support for Obama is all but wrapped up, and, at this point, the candidate is focused on extending his national lead over McCain—a New York Times/CBS poll published this week showed Obama up 14 percentage points. Nevertheless, Israeli Americans have been among the most susceptible to the viral e-mails that falsely claiming Obama is a Muslim or an Arab or opposed to continued support for Israel. And, if the election season thus far can be a guide, stories giving Jews reason to doubt Obama’s commitment to Israel have a way of getting around.

In the meantime, Linder is hoping to convince the Obama campaign to reconsider and is looking for a replacement for Levine.

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