NEW YORK (JTA) – “He doesn’t look like your typical presidential candidate and he is too inexperienced, with only a few years in Congress from Illinois and no track record in foreign affairs.”
Despite these “shortcomings,” an overly tall, lanky, intellectual lawyer from Illinois who had served only two years in the U.S. House of Representatives was elected president in 1860. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
Now, nearly a century and a half later, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is facing some of the same questions – plus a raging e-mail campaign that cites his middle name, Hussein, to paint him as anti-Israel and a radical Muslim who refuses to pledge allegiance to the United States.
Now, with the major primaries rapidly approaching and Obama having won the Iowa caucuses, come in a strong second in the New Hampshire primary, effectively split the Nevada caucuses with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) – she got more votes, he won more delegates – and won in South Carolina, it is high time to dispose once and for all of some singularly stupid attacks on him and to focus instead on the issues that truly matter.
In the interest of full disclosure, I actively campaigned for Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 and was twice appointed by him to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; I greatly respect and admire Hillary Clinton; in early 2007 I made a contribution to John Edwards’ campaign; and I have no involvement or affiliation whatsoever with the Obama campaign.
The idiots among us who consider someone’s given name to be an indication of anything, let alone political ideology, should bear in mind that there are no more American, patriotic, motherhood and apple pie names than George (Washington), (Abraham) Lincoln and (Norman) Rockwell. Put them together, however, and you get the notorious long-time leader of the American Nazi party.
Those who are irrationally suspicious of Obama’s middle name, Hussein, would do well to remember that Jordan’s late King Hussein was considered one of the most respected, most moderate and most enlightened Middle East leaders long before he signed a peace treaty with Israel in October 1994.
Relative youth and the absence of years of executive or legislative experience also should not be considered automatic disqualifications for the presidency. Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were all younger than Obama when they first took the presidential oath of office. And, as mentioned above, Lincoln’s resume upon being elected president consisted of two years in the U.S. House of Representatives (1847 to 1849) and a losing 1858 bid for the Senate.
Why is any of this relevant? Because Obama has been the target of a mean-spirited campaign designed to discredit him among Jewish voters.
One need not take my word for that. Nine prominent American Jewish communal leaders, including David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Nathan J. Diament of Orthodox Union and Phyllis Snyder of the National Council of Jewish Women have taken the unusual step of publicly condemning the “hateful e-mails” that “use falsehood and innuendo to mischaracterize Senator Barack Obama’s religious beliefs and who he is as a person.” They denounced what they described as an “attempt to drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion.”
From the Jewish perspective, Clinton and Obama have equally strong credentials. Both have longstanding connections to the Jewish community. Both have demonstrated a strong commitment to Israel’s security and to achieving a just and lasting end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Clinton has former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in her corner. One of Obama’s Middle East advisers is Dennis Ross, who headed the State Department’s Middle East negotiating team for the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
Clinton and Obama espouse the same social justice principles as the overwhelming majority of American Jews. Whichever of them emerges as the Democratic nominee is certain to retain the historically broad support of Jewish voters.
Obama also was quick to distance himself unambiguously from an award that a newspaper published by his Chicago church had given last year to Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
“I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan,” Obama declared. “I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree.”
Most significantly, Obama’s repudiation of anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry has not been mere lip service intended for Jewish audiences.
“We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them,” he told the African-American Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last month on Martin Luther King Day. “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.”
The fact is that Clinton and Obama are both superbly qualified to be president.
What, then, is the difference between them? One evokes the nostalgia of the Clinton years, an era that on balance was far better than what we have now. The other offers the promise of a different, more idealistic, but also by definition more uncertain, future.
Clinton is the establishment’s candidate, the more conventional politician of the two. Obama, by contrast, inspires the young and brings a fresh, exciting dimension to the campaign.
Those of us who came of age during the 1960s feel as if we have been here before. Clinton in many ways is the alter ego of Hubert Humphrey, the admirable liberal veteran who remained far too long in Lyndon Johnson’s shadow. The charismatic Obama, meanwhile, resembles no one as much as Robert F. Kennedy during the winter and spring of 1968, before his assassination. And yes, John Edwards in some ways appears cast in the supporting role of Eugene McCarthy.
In contrast to the mainstream Humphrey, the 42-year-old RFK inspired the young, promised an expedited end to the Vietnam War and held forth the vision of an ideals-based alternative to the status quo.
Many Jews of a certain generation – probably most of us – were prepared to take the risk inherent in supporting the younger, more unconventional Kennedy. With his death, we remained with the lackluster alternative. Because of the intense mutual antagonism between the Kennedy and Humphrey camps, many of RFK’s disillusioned supporters sat out the 1968 election in protest, and what we got was Richard Nixon, a prolonged war and Watergate.
This year, for a change, Democrats have two viable, attractive, even if different, options. Whether one chooses Clinton or Obama, Jewish voters should not base their decision on a negative campaign of personal attacks and destruction.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer in New York and a former National President of the Labor Zionist Alliance, has never voted for a Republican presidential or state-wide candidate.