2008-01-06 20:06:34 UTC
Obama and the Jews
Ron Kampeas - The Canadian Jewish News January 4, 2007
Ask about Barack Obama's natural constituencies, and you might hear
that he's the first black with a viable shot at the White House; or
about his Kenyan father and his childhood in Indonesia; or the
youthfulness of his followers; or the millions of Oprah junkies
swooning over his candidacy. What you might not hear is that the
Illinois senator, who made history Thursday by winning the Democratic
caucus in Iowa, has made Jewish leaders an early stop at every stage
in his political career.
In his first run for the Illinois Senate in 1996, he sought the
backing of Alan Solow, a top Chicago lawyer. Eight years later,
running for the U.S. Senate -- long before he became the shoo-in, when
he was running in a Democratic field packed with a dozen candidates,
including some Jews -- one of his first meetings was with Robert
Schrayer,a top Jewish philanthropist in Chicago.
When he launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential
nomination in late 2006, he named as his fund-raising chief Alan
Solomont, the Boston Jewish philanthropist who helped shepherd Sen.
John Kerry (D-Mass.) to the Democratic candidacy in 2004.
And he chose a gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, last March to deliver his presidential
candidacy's first foreign policy speech.
"Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish
community in Chicago," Obama told JTA in 2004, after his keynote
speech galvanized the Democratic convention in Boston.
Three years later, addressing the National Jewish Democratic Council's
candidate's forum, he made the same point when he was asked about his
ties with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in Chicago.
"My support within in the Jewish community has been much more
significant than my support within the Muslim community," Obama said
at the April forum, adding: "I welcome and seek the support of the
Muslim and Arab communities."
His Jewish followers are fervent, distributing "Obama '08" yarmulkes
early in his campaign.
His rock-star status as well as the relationships Obama has built in
the community have helped avoided murmurings about his otherwise
notable divergences from pro-Israel orthodoxies.
In his AIPAC speech, for example, Obama favored diplomacy as a means
of confronting Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. "While we
should take no option, including military action, off the table,
sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions
should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear
weapons," he said.
AIPAC does not oppose diplomacy in engaging Iran, but dislikes it as
an emphasis, believing that talks could buy the Iranian regime bomb-
making time. But his words did not stop the Chicago hotel ballroom
packed with 800 AIPAC members from cheering Obama on.
A few weeks later, Obama drew more rubberneckers than any other
candidate attending AIPAC's policy forum in Washington -- drawing away
onlookers from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) although she
outpolls Obama among Jewish voters. No one winced when he said that
Palestinian needs must be considered in working out a peace deal,
although that's hardly standard AIPAC pep talk.
He made the same point at the NJDC event.
"It is in the interests of Israel to establish peace in the Middle
East," he said. "It cannot be done at the price of compromising
Israel's security, and the United States government and an Obama
presidency cannot ask Israel to take risks with respect to its
security. But it can ask Israel to say that it is still possible for
us to allow more than just this status quo of fear, terror, division.
That can't be our long-term aspiration."
Early in his campaign, he handily killed an Israel-related controversy
in its early stages. At a chat he had said that "no one has suffered
more than the Palestinians."
Blame the leadership was what he meant, he later explained: "What I
said was, nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from
the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to
renounce violence and to get serious about negotiating peace and
security for the region," Obama said during an MSNBC debate.
Obama tempers his deviations from pro-Israel orthodoxy by going an
extra mile in areas where he agrees with groups such as AIPAC.
He has led the effort in the Senate to pass legislation that would
assist U.S. states that choose to divest from Iran. His top Middle
East adviser is Dennis Ross, who had the job during the Clinton
administration and who has since principally blamed the Palestinian
leadership for the failure of the Oslo peace process.
And in recent speeches, Obama tweaked his pro-Israel rhetoric to echo
the recent drive by the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups to
insist on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
"I think everyone knows what the basic outlines of an agreement would
look like," he said in a speech redistributed by his campaign. "It
would mean that the Palestinians would have to reinterpret the notion
of right of return in a way that would preserve Israel as a Jewish
state. It might involve compensation and other concessions from the
Israelis, but ultimately Israel is not going to give up its state."
On domestic issues, Obama is savvy about Jewish social justice
commitments, and is on a first name basis with two of the top Jewish
religious lobbyists in Washington -- Rabbi David Saperstein of the
Reform movement and Nathan Diament, who represents the Orthodox Union.
But that connection is not enough to supplant Clinton among Jewish
voters. In a recent American Jewish Committee poll, his favorable
rating was 38 percent, while hers was 53 percent.
Clinton also has most of the Jewish congressional delegation backing
her. Her years as first lady and as senator have made her a more
familiar presence among Jews. Public policy groups are likelier to
favor her uncompromising approach to pushing universal health care, as
opposed to Obama's appeal to build consensus on the issue.
Obama's appeal is in his broader vision, according to Solomont.
"This election will be about change: a change in government and the
way politics is conducted," he told JTA last May. "There is a
connection between gridlock and the smallness of our politics."