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Which way will we vote? The Jewish community is split as campaign tactics intensify division

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 15, 2008 | 11:53 pm

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.

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