A packed auditorium was waiting for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to receive a pivotal endorsement and his aide was rushing him along, but he had something important to say first — to American Jews.
“Before we go, I’d like to add one last comment,” the Democratic presidential hopeful told the aide in a conference call with the Jewish news media Monday morning, just minutes before being endorsed by U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) at American University here. “My strong and deep commitment and connection to the Jewish community should not be questioned.”
The call was about to end after about 20 minutes of questions, but then Obama (D-Ill.) announced that he wanted to address a series of falsehoods appearing in e-mails aimed at the Jewish community.
The e-mails in question describe the candidate, who was born to a nominally Muslim Kenyan father, as a secret practitioner of Islam.
“There has been a constant and virulent scare campaign via the Internet that has particularly targeted the Jewish community,” he said, calling that focus “interesting.”
“It states that I’m a Muslim, that I was sworn into my Senate office on the Koran and that I do not pledge allegiance. It is very important for everybody to know that it is fake. I never practiced Islam. I was raised by my secular mother. I have been a member of the Christian religion and an active Christian. I was sworn in with my hand on my family Bible and have said the Pledge of Allegiance since I was 3 years old.”
Such refutations are not new. Two open letters issued recently — one from nine Jewish organizational leaders and another from seven Jewish senators — repudiated the e-mails and urged Jewish voters to follow suit.
But Obama’s decision to tackle the issue himself, according to some political observers and Jewish communal insiders, suggests his campaign is concerned that the rumors could hurt him with Jewish voters.
Twenty-two states are scheduled to hold Democratic primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, including several with large Jewish populations: New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Arizona.
Obama is believed to have a lock on Illinois and his main rival for the nomination, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), should win New York handily. But In the other states, Jewish voters could make or break a candidate.
Even before the anti-Obama e-mail campaign picked up steam in recent weeks, one poll found that Clinton commanded a much higher favorable rating among Jewish Democrats.
According to the survey, commissioned by the American Jewish Committee and conducted in November, 70 percent of Jewish Democrats viewed Clinton favorably compared to 45 percent for Obama.
During the conference call, Obama did not press any new policies, opting instead to review the pieties his campaign has proffered to Jewish voters since he delivered his first presidential campaign foreign policy speech at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event in Chicago.
Obama started the call by noting International Holocaust Commemoration Day, held Sunday, and recalling his own visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum when he visited Israel in 2006. He also spoke of Israel’s approaching 60th anniversary.
“As we celebrate Israel’s 60th year, you known I’m reminded of not just Israel’s longstanding role as a democracy in the Middle East and the steadfast friendship between our governments, but also the way in which the Jewish people have been able to transform themselves post-World War II,” he said.
Obama returned to his 2006 visit, and his tour of Israel’s north, noting how he had been affected in his meetings with civilians who had suffered from Hezbollah rocket attacks.
“It drove home for me the vulnerability of so many Israeli residents and stiffened my resolve to ensure that Kassam rockets were not being fired into civilian targets whether from the north or the south,” he said. “We’re going to ensure Israel’s qualitative military superiority in this difficult neighborhood.”
Obama repeated his commitment to Israel as a Jewish state, a sensitive point going into negotiations, with Arab states resisting the term.
Notably, Obama also internalized a truism about Jewish voters that Clinton recognized early in her Jewish campaign: The community is not one note and worries also about domestic concerns.
“Jewish Americans, like all Americans, are hungry for broader changes in this country,” he said, noting the deep support he had in Chicago’s Jewish community. “I expect to do very well among Jewish voters because I think not only are they concerned about issues specific to the Jewish community, but they are concerned with the overall trajectory of American domestic policy and international policy.”
Having laid down the pieties, Obama directly fielded tough questions, the first dealing with the praise that some officials in his church, Trinity United, lavished on Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam.
“My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements, nor have I ever heard my pastor utter anything anti-Semitic,” he said. “If I had, I would have quit the church. What is true is I think they made a mistake in judgment” in praising Farrakhan in a church publication.
That was the result, Obama suggested, of seeing the successes Farrakhan enjoyed locally with rehabilitating drug addicts and not understanding the “pain” his remarks caused nationally.
“I was very clear with my pastor and the public that you cannot excuse such statements,” he said.
On the current peace process, Obama said the Palestinians had to contain terrorism before Israel made substantial concessions.
Palestinian leaders had “to get a hold of their security apparatus, to be able to crack down on terrorist activity, to root out the corruption,” he said. “Until the Israelis have some confidence that whatever is negotiated will actually be followed through on, I think it’s going to be difficult.”
The Illinois senator also addressed concerns about differences he has emphasized between himself and Clinton on Iran policy, particularly his pledge to reach out to the Iranian leadership in his first year in office.
“Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would not only be a threat to U.S. interests and destabilizing to the region but would also be an extraordinary threat to Israel,” he said, noting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and his expressed wish that Israel would not exist.
Obama backed sanctions, but said incentives were key as well.
“I also think we should be presenting carrots,” he said. “The key is to give Iranians incentives to behave differently.” The unwillingness to talk, he said, “empowered extremists like Ahmadinejad.”