March 20, 2008
Dear Senator Obama
Twelve-hundred Jews booed you last month.
This happened at the "Live for Sderot" concert at the Wilshire Theatre on Feb 27. All three presidential candidates each appeared on screen to deliver a videotaped statement of support for the Israelis undergoing a brutal campaign of terror in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared first, spoke clearly and decisively and received a smattering of applause. Then you came on. The crowd jeered throughout your brief statement and booed and hissed at the end of it. I didn't have the opposite of an applause meter with me, but I'd say the reaction hit a low point when you said we must all look forward to a day when "Israeli and Palestinian children can live in peace."
Jimmy Delshad, the Persian Jewish mayor of Beverly Hills, bristled. "Palestinian?" he told me. "It's like he has to throw that in our face."
Then Sen. John McCain appeared on screen, and the place exploded. Applause, cheers, standing ovations. McCain spoke with utter conviction of Israel's right to live in peace, and when he was through, even more cheers.
That brief audition was as clear a demonstration as any of something I've noticed happening over the last few months: the giant sucking sound of Jewish support for the leading Democratic candidate.
This isn't normal. Sen. John Kerry received 76 percent of the Jewish vote against President Bush, and no one even liked him. People say you may make history as the first black president, but it's possible you might also make history as the first Democrat to lose the Jewish vote since 1920, when Warren G. Harding was elected president. (But that doesn't really count, since a good portion of the Jews then, including my grandmother, Leah Fink, voted for the socialist, Eugene Debs.) Can you survive without the Jews? Sure, but in a general election their activism, money, influence and actual votes can make the difference in swing states like Ohio and Florida.
If the reaction of the crowd at that concert provided any guide, McCain could reap 40 percent to 50 percent with nary a socialist in sight. Granted, the "Live for Sderot" concert drew an intensely pro-Israel crowd, including many Israelis, and it was not a scientific sampling. In the California primary, for instance, Jews voted 49 to 47 percent for you over Clinton.
But there are plenty of signs that if you indeed become the Democratic nominee, you will have a lot of explaining to do between now and November. Why is this happening to you among a constituency that has voted reliably Democratic?
My friend Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of The New Jersey Jewish News, has a few ideas on this. Latent racism is one. The black- Jewish comity of the civil rights movement gave way to mutual distrust beginning with the urban riots, black nationalism and putative leaders like Louis Farrakhan, who thought the best way to raise black America up was to put Jewish Americans down. Those wounds left scars -- which your relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. tore wide open.
Then there is the lack of a track record. Yes, you received a perfect score from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. You have longtime Jewish supporters, some of whom, like campaign manager David Axelrod, have been integral to your campaign. Your record on Israel and other Jewish issues is solid -- but not long. "We know Hillary; we know McCain," a Washington pro-Israel activist told me last week. "Obama -- we don't know him."
With Israel facing Hamas to the south, Hezbollah to the north and Iranian nukes further east, it's hard to blame Jews for being hesitant to cast their lot with an unknown. Finally, there is what Carroll calls the "kishkas factor," the lingering question among less partisan Jews whether you feel for Israel in your guts, or kishkas.
Your speech last Tuesday sought to address those concerns. You distanced yourself from the political outlook of your pastor, saying it is "a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." That's a good sign.
But in the interest of making this a fair fight, let me offer you some more advice: Read the story of Purim. That's right, the way into understanding us is to read the 2,300-year-old Book of Esther, which Jews read every Purim. It's the story of a Jewish woman who, despite her acceptance into the upper reaches of non-Jewish society, retains her devotion to her people. And it's the story of a people who, despite their acceptance into the king's court, even into the king's bed, must always be prepared to confront and defeat their mortal enemies.
One can read the Purim story at many levels, but for your purposes, understand what it says about Jewish insecurity, about the nagging sense that no matter how powerful and wealthy and popular we are -- and we are all those things -- we never feel truly secure.
Yes, sometimes our insecurity gets a leg up on our good sense -- one can cherish Israeli children and still sympathize with Palestinian children, for example. But, as Leon Wieseltier recently wrote, "The political exploitation of fear notwithstanding, fear is not always a fantasy."
If you don't have time to read the Book of Esther, check out YouTube. There's a video floating around of a ceremony held earlier this year. As Israelis sing "Hatikva" on the grounds of Auschwitz, three Israeli fighter jets scream through the sky above the former death camp. Those two impossibly paradoxical images are us, circa 2008.
Yes, we want to be inspired -- we are suckers for the next JFK, the next Rabin. But we also want to rest assured, and you'll need to work harder on helping us feel secure, in our kishkas.
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