Jewish Journal

Will Jews give Obama a chance?

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

Posted on Mar. 13, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Excerpts from Barack Obama's meeting at an Ohio Jewish Community Center on February 24, 2008

If the Democrats decide to sponsor re-votes in Florida and Michigan, we will soon be thinking about how Jewish voters see Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. While most Jewish Democrats voted on Feb. 5, Florida was shut out of the story because its early primary violated party rules. If there is a re-vote in Florida, with the third largest Jewish population after New York and California, another block of Jewish voters will be up for grabs.

I have a prediction, a risky thing in this election year. Once the Florida re-vote is set, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton will narrowcast her general attack on Obama into a version targeted at Jews: "John McCain, a great man and war hero, and Hillary Clinton are sure to protect Israel against all enemies. As to Barack Obama, well, he'll have to speak for himself."

In other words, she will try to deliver a crushing blow to Obama's hopes with Jewish voters.

So far, Clinton has had the edge over Obama among Jews. Ironically, she was once where Obama is today, trying to find a way into a suspicious Jewish community.

Her hard-earned familiarity with the tough New York audience finally overcame years of distrust. Clinton has by now established herself as a solid, even predictable, supporter of Israel. She won a large majority of Jews in the New York primary. But in California, Obama made big strides and actually split the Jewish vote with Clinton.

Florida is closer to her turf than his. It is filled with New York City Jewish expatriates, the kind of Democrats who love Rudy Guiliani and are suspicious of liberalism. The black-Jewish relationship was far more positive in Los Angeles, where African Americans and Jews built the Tom Bradley biracial coalition, than in New York City's poisonous politics, where school strikes split blacks and Jews.

Obama is already facing a withering assault of e-mails -- source unknown -- falsely alleging that he is a Muslim, that he went to school at a madrassa, that he took the Senate oath of office on the Quran and that he refuses to pledge allegiance to the American flag. Jews tend to be very discerning voters and to be exceptionally adept at separating the wheat from the chaff. Yet, worried about the perilous state of Israel under attack from Hamas, concerned about Iran's worsening threat, Jews are unusually susceptible this year to these wild and utterly untrue charges. Many may be amenable to seeing Clinton and McCain as safe, known choices after they close their e-mails for the night.

If it were not for the possible Florida re-vote, Obama would have some time to deal with weakness on his Jewish flank. But the Clinton people are feeling their oats, having thrown Obama on the defensive with an all-out kitchen sink attack. Will Jewish voters give him a chance to join the group of safe, known choices? Is there anything Obama can do?

Obama needs to tell his story about the Jewish community and Israel before his opponents tell their version. If he waits to respond to Clinton's charges, it may already be too late. He needs to discuss his experiences in Chicago's Jewish community, talk about his personal connections to Israel and provide reassurance in his own words.

He has already spoken about reviving the black-Jewish coalition, but he must also recognize that the road to that alliance is harder today than in the past. There is a lot of ill will in the air that will be hard to dispel. On the other hand, he is the only candidate who can credibly address that thorny issue.

I've been reviewing transcripts of Obama's talks with various Jewish groups and with reporters from Jewish newspapers, and it's an interesting, complex portrait. Most is reassuring, while some is challenging. Obama debunks the e-mail charges pretty quickly, discusses what he learned when he went to Israel and states that he opposes a Palestinian right of return.

He identifies Iran as a profound danger to Israel and proposes "aggressive diplomacy," meeting with that nation while keeping military options on the table. He denounces Louis Farrakhan while speaking more carefully about his own church pastor who has spoken more positively of Farrakhan.

Obama talks about a trip to Ramallah during which he told Palestinian leaders that Israel is right to be wary of agreements if its Palestinian partners cannot be trusted to keep their word. He attacks Bush's Iraq War as a disaster for Israel, because it has so strengthened the hand of Iran.

Obama's approach does not sound much like Jimmy Carter's "even-handed" policy, often seen as naïve by Jewish activists. It's much more clearly pro-Israel than that and also more open to military options. Coming from the Georgia governorship, Carter did not have the chance to get to know the Jewish community the way Obama did in Chicago.

At the same time, Obama contests the idea that only the right-wing Likud Party can speak to Israel's interests. Obama's view is challenging to traditional Jewish expectations that while Israelis debate Middle East policy endlessly, the American debate must be very narrow. Obama will need to walk carefully through that particular minefield, because this is a bit of a stretch compared to what politicians usually say.

Obama has to be prepared for some foreign policy hypotheticals. One obvious one is what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions. With all these 3 a.m. red phone commercials on the air, someone is going to ask him what he would do if Iran announces that it has nuclear weapons.

Jewish voters, deeply disturbed by Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric, will be listening closely. The answer must be concise, clear and convincing.

When it comes to Israel and the survival of the Jewish community, Jewish voters are not big risk-takers. Jewish voters worry about any diminution of American support for Israel.

If Obama can get to know more and more Jewish leaders and voters, he may have a chance to show that while he is not entirely predictable and in some ways a bit unorthodox, he is at bottom a solid and reliable friend.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. You can read Sonenshein's blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign, JewsChoose2008.

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