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Behind the Letter on Obama: Why the Jews Entered the Fray

Efforts to turn American Jews against the presidential aspirations of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have elicited a stinging protest from a diverse group of Jewish organizations.

Nine Jewish organizational leaders signed on to a letter last week that addressed rumors about Obama’s upbringing and faith. Several said they were moved to act primarily by the attempt to use smear tactics to swing Jewish votes.

“These tactics attempt to drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion,” the statement said. “We reject these efforts to manipulate members of our community into supporting or opposing candidates.”

Over the weekend, a separate letter signed by seven Jewish U.S. senators echoed the theme.

“We find it particularly abhorrent that these attacks are apparently being sent specifically to the Jewish community,” said the letter, initiated by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

It was signed also by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), Ben. Cardin (D-Md.), Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“Jews, who have historically been the target of such attacks, should be the first to reject these tactics,” the letter said.

Various e-mails circulating for months increased in intensity after Obama won the Iowa caucuses for the Democratic presidential nomination at the beginning of January. No one has tracked the source of the e-mails.

The Jewish organizational letter was unusual in that Jewish groups usually stay out of the fray in election season, not wanting to be seen as endorsing candidates. The sensitivity of the issue was evidenced as well by the reluctance of those involved in the letter to speak publicly about its evolution.

There have been exceptions to the Jewish rule not to delve into the election fray, mostly having to do with issues of faith in presidential politics and usually to admonish candidates for speaking too forcefully about faith in the public square.

The letter defending Obama arose instead out of concerns that faith was being used as a cudgel against a candidate, suggesting a return of bigotry against candidates from non-establishment backgrounds not seen since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960.

The Obama letter was presaged by a quieter campaign late last year by Jewish Republicans to work within the party to roll back evangelical attacks on the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is vying for the Republican nomination.

The e-mails that circulated about Obama mix outright fabrication with distortions of facts about Obama’s upbringing.

An example of an outright lie: Obama was sworn into office on the Koran.

A distortion: Obama’s father and stepfather were part of a Muslim conspiracy to place one of their own in the White House. Both men were Muslims, but nominally so, and Obama is a Christian.

William Daroff, the Washington director of United Jewish Communities, said the Obama e-mails that pop into his inbox three to four times a week remind him of the calumnies he often reads about Jews on community Web sites under the rubric “Watch out for these.”

“It was similar to warnings about falsehoods on the Internet, like ‘Jews stayed home on 9/11,’ ” Daroff said. “It was being used to stir up Jewish sensibilities as they related to Obama’s candidacy.”

On the record, Jewish officials insist the letter originated in the Jewish community. Off the record, at least two figures familiar with its genesis say it originated with the Obama campaign, which has been anxious about efforts to chip away at his Jewish support.

Both figures noted, however, that there was virtually no difference between early drafts originating with the campaign and the final version approved by the Jewish leadership.

Obama has attracted an impressive roster of Jewish leaders and advisers to his campaign. Among the more prominent is Alan Solomont, the Boston philanthropist who leads fund raising for Obama and who was also a chief fund-raiser for the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Still, the Obama campaign is concerned at how far his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), outpaces him among Jewish voters and supporters. Clinton had 53 percent approval ratings among Jewish voters in a November survey while Obama had 38 percent.

That has led Obama to address concerns about some of his affiliations, notably his membership in Trinity United, a Chicago-area church. Its leader, Jeremiah Wright, has embraced some radical black teachings, and a church-affiliated magazine recently lauded Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam.

Some Jewish opinion makers, among them Washington Post columinist Richard Cohen, want Obama to clarify his relationship with Trinity.

Others, including the novelist Michael Chabon, say such demands are overreaching and presumptuous considering Obama’s repeated repudiation of Farrakhan and his ilk.

In an address on the eve of Martin Luther King Day at King’s church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, Obama excoriated black anti-Semitism and other bigotry.

He noted that African Americans “have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man,” then went on to say that the community “has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.”

“We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them,” Obama said. “The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.”

Whatever the origins of the communal letter, Jewish organization leaders said the insinuations about Obama’s faith prompted them to rally the way they would expect non-Jews to rally if a Jewish candidate were similarly targeted.

“We saw a greater frequency of them in the Jewish community,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union. “A couple of us started talking about doing something in response.”

In addition to the UJC and Orthodox Union, signatories to the letter included the top executives of the American Jewish Committee, the Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Council of Public Affairs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Drafters of the letter reached out to the Conservative movement as well, but did not reach them in time for the letter’s publication on Jan. 15.

An early version unequivocally said, “The facts are clear. Barack Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim. He’s certainly not a racist.”

That sentence was removed, a participant said, because it was believed to be presumptuous for Jews to confirm Obama’s Christianity.

“It wasn’t our role or appropriate,” said the participant, who asked not to be named, “anymore than we want the Southern Baptist Convention vouching for Lieberman,” referring to one-time vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.)

Obama directly addressed those issues himself the same week the letter was published during a Nevada debate.

“I am a Christian, I was sworn in with a Bible,” he said. “In the Internet age, there are lies that are going to be spread all over the place. I have been victimized by these lies. Fortunately the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for.”

In e-mail exchanges, Jewish organizational leaders considered expanding its message to address knocks on Romney’s Mormon faith.

Ultimately, those involved said, It was felt that it would be more effective to narrowly address the Obama issue because that was the only smear campaign focusing on Jewish interest.

The letter did address the deterioration in the political discourse.

“Attempts of this sort to mislead and inflame voters should not be part of our political discourse and should be rebuffed by all who believe in our democracy,” it said. “Jewish voters, like all voters, should support whichever candidate they believe would make the best president. We urge everyone to make that decision based on the factual records of these candidates, and nothing less.”

The Obama campaign welcomed the final draft of the Jewish letter, its officials said. No one believed the e-mail campaign posed a real challenge to Obama’s chances, said one Obama campaigner who asked not to be identified, but “we were surprised by the intensity of it.”

The e-mails often are preceded by long “forwarding” chains. One version has been translated into Hebrew and is circulating in Israel.

Daroff said the people clicking “forward” were not necessarily malicious.

“They find the information interesting, they’re scared,” he said. At the core, Daroff said, “you have 20 people who try and manipulate things. It’s a byproduct of Internet cowboys who are unregulated and oftentimes without the knowledge to know better.”

Republican Jewish organizational professionals repudiated the e-mails, saying Obama’s actual record in the Senate would be enough to chip away at the traditional Jewish preference for Democrats should the Illinois senator get the nomination.

“There’s more than enough legitimate concern in Obama’s candidacy and the factual record,” said Suzanne Kurtz of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, saw the e-mails as part of a trend, laying the groundwork for insinuations against Obama should he win the nomination. He pointed to an analysis of Obama’s Israel record appearing this week in the American Thinker, a neconseravtive online magazine.

The analysis by Ed Lasky insinuates the Muslim rumors while denying them.

“When Obama moved to Chicago and became a community organizer, he found it expedient to choose a Christian church to join,” Lasky wrote. “Even though his father and stepfather were both Muslims and he attended a Muslim school while living in Indonesia, suspicions based on his days as a child are overheated and unfair.

“Still, his full name alone conveys the biographical fact that he has some elements of a Muslim background,” Lasky said, referring to Obama’s middle name, Hussein. Obama, in fact, attended a state-run secular school in Indonesia.

Forman said such insinuations are “one step above on the evolutionary scale” from the e-mails. They are the rumors, he said, “with a thin veneer of respectability.”

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