In 2004, President Bush and the Republican party made significant inroads with the Jewish community. Bush won 24 percent of the Jewish vote — up from 19 percent in 2000 — primarily as a result of his staunch commitment to Israel.
Four years later, it looks as though the Jewish vote is again up for grabs. Or, so says a recent Gallup poll, which revealed that in a contest between senators Obama and McCain, nearly a third of the Jewish vote would go to the Republican.
Senator Obama has sailed through this primary season in the wind of his words. That’s not to say he hasn’t encountered some rough seas, but his success has largely been a function of style, not substance. And when it comes to seeking Jewish support, he appears to be saying all the right things.
Since his days in the Illinois state senate he has referred to himself as a “stalwart” supporter of Israel. He has been outspoken about Israel’s right to defend itself and the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. According to the Obama ’08 issue paper on Israel, the senator believes “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state should never be challenged.”
During a recent interview with The Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama offered all the right responses. “My position on Hamas is indistinguishable from the position of Hillary Clinton or John McCain,” he told Goldberg. “I said they are a terrorist organization and I’ve repeatedly condemned them. I’ve repeatedly said, and I mean what I say: Since they are a terrorist organization, we should not be dealing with them until they recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and abide by previous agreements.”
And if what he has said about Israel isn’t sufficient, Obama reminded Jewish voters of the profound effect Jewish culture — especially Jewish literary culture — has had on him. “I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers,” he explained. “Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris.” Obama connects with the Jewish community by drawing comparisons between their experiences and his own.
But with the Democratic nomination all but secured, Jewish voters are likely to start thinking less about the senator’s speeches and more about the company he keeps. As the last two elections reveal, when it comes to the Jewish vote, actions speak louder than words.
While Reverend Wright’s anti-American and anti-Semitic ravings captured the attention of the public for weeks, it’s simply his theatrics that appear to make him the most repellant of Obama’s friends. The senator has tried to dismiss Wright as a “crazy uncle,” but if you take a closer look at the crowd the senator runs with, it appears he has a whole lot of crazy relatives to disinvite from dinner.
It was widely circulated that Wright supported — and even publicly commended — radical black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. Yet little has been said about Sen. Obama’s relationship with Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic pastor at St. Sabina, also on the South Side of Chicago. In 2004, Obama told the Chicago Sun Times that Pfleger was one of his three spiritual mentors.
Pfleger’s name became more widely recognizable two years ago when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed a Farrakhan aide to serve on a hate-crimes commission. When the appointee, Sister Claudette, refused to denounce Farrakhan’s racist and anti-Semitic remarks, three Jewish members on the commission resigned — a situation that prompted Pfleger to respond, “good riddance.”
No less reprehensible than Reverends Wright and Pfleger is the Obama campaign’s national co-chairman, retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, who has made numerous anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments. While the general has a long blame-Israel-first record, the most repugnant remark came during a 2003 interview, when he blamed the Jewish-American community for the failure of the peace process between Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Despite calls on Senator Obama to remove McPeak as a key adviser, the general continues to serve on the campaign.
Obama’s support among radicals in the Palestinian community — and even from Ahmed Yousef of Hamas — has not gone unnoticed. In fact, in 2003 Obama helped honor Rashid Khalidi, a well-known critic of Israel and advocate of Palestinian rights, at a celebration where anti-Israel poetry was read and the United States was sharply criticized.
That evening, Obama told guests stories about his long relationship with the Khalidis, the meals he had shared with Rashid and his wife, Mona, and the effect they had had on his political thinking.
Last month, another concerning relationship came to light between the Obamas and Hatem El-Hady, former chairman of the Toledo-based Islamic organization Kindhearts for Charitable Human Development — a group shut down in 2006 for raising money for Hamas. Until recently, El-Hady had a personal website on the official Obama campaign site and Michelle Obama was listed as one of El-Hady’s three “friends.”
Perhaps the most alarming Obama relationship — and the one his campaign can do the least about — is the marriage of Barack Obama to his wife, Michelle. As women tend to take the lead in directing household religious affairs, children’s education, and community involvement, it is likely — as Christopher Hitchens suggests — Michelle Obama is the reason Wright married the couple, baptized their children, became a recipient of their donations, and remained their spiritual mentor for two decades.
The Obama campaign continues to stress that the senator is open to understanding multiple points of view, even if he doesn’t agree with them. But, after a while, the crowd you run with starts to say a lot about your own perspective.
In the aftermath of President Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset on their 60th anniversary, Obama hopes he can yet again demonstrate his support for Israel simply by saying the right thing. In a statement the Obama campaign issued immediately following the speech, he said, “George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.”
The fact is the Jewish community has heard all of these words before.
Obama’s style may win him the Democratic nomination, but as we head into the general election he would be wise to start thinking about changing course. Because in this election, the company he keeps just might be enough to take the wind out of his sails.
– Sabrina Schaeffer is the managing partner of Evolving Strategies and a writer in Arlington, Va.