U.S. Elections Grab Attention, Spark Debate in Europe

Stephen Kramer cannot believe he is watching Barack Obama’s step-grandmother Sarah get emotional in a Kenyan village for the second time this week.

“She is on television telling a reporter, ‘Oh, Barack can come here anytime,’ ” referring to her grandson, a front-runner in the race to be the Democratic candidate in the November U.S. presidential elections. “Then they showed her feeding pigeons,” Kramer added. “Twice.”

Kramer is not in Ohio or Texas, where primaries are set to be held next week. He is a Jewish communal leader in Germany, which like other European countries has come down with a case of U.S. election fever.

“There is an unbelievable fascination with U.S. elections in Britain,” said Gavin Gross, the director of public affairs for the Zionist Federation in London.

“The lead story on EuroNews,” he said of the cable television station, “was Obama winning the Wisconsin primary.”

Gross, an American who has lived in Britain for 15 years, said the elections have captivated audiences there because the candidates are “intriguing personalities who engage in a long contest with debates, in contrast to the short, usually colorless races in Europe.”

But do Europeans, and specifically European Jews, really care who will be the next U.S. president?

“Like all Europeans, we want a U.S. president who cares more about environmentalism than the current president,” said Jose Carp, the president of Portugal’s Jewish community, in an interview at the

recent general assembly of the European Jewish Congress in Paris. “As Jews, we want to make sure the U.S. is led by someone who can press European governments to be firm with Iran.”

A slew of interviews conducted by JTA suggest that the same differences of opinion can be found within the American and European Jewish communities.

Europeans who think first about which candidate will be best for Israel tend to view Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) as the most reliable, given their better-known records of support for the Jewish state.

Obama is a question mark for those with Israel as a priority, some European Jewish leaders told JTA.

But others, even those with Israel as a top priority, want to know which candidate will do more to repair the trans-Atlantic relations so badly damaged by the war in Iraq, and by the general perception in Europe of President Bush as a leader who has been bad for the world.

According to a poll last September by the German Marshall Fund, 77 percent of Europeans surveyed in 12 countries expressed disapproval of Bush and the war in Iraq.

“European anti-Americanism is on the rise due to Bush policies, and that’s not good for Jews, Israel or the world,” said Ariel Muzicant, the president of the Austrian Jewish community.

Then there is the history of each country’s delicate political dance with the United States.

After many years of tension, due in part to French President Jacques Chirac’s frosty attitude toward America, Franco-U.S. relations warmed as conservative Nicolas Sarkozy took power last May.

While French Jewish voters consider ties with the United States, they are focused primarily on an issue beyond Europe’s borders, according to Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF, the French Jewish umbrella group.

“The single most important issue is Iran and its nuclear ambitions,” he said.

But which French Jews? Ashkenazim, who are the minority, tend to be more liberal while the majority Sephardim, or North African Jews, are conservative, according to Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress.

France has some 600,000 Jews, the largest number living in any European country outside of Russia.

“The e-mails circulating making various charges against Obama, such as that he refused to swear on a Bible when he became a senator, did nothing to boost his reputation, even if they were false,” Cwajgenbaum said.

In Germany, some Jews are not confident that “Obama takes the security of Israel seriously,” said Kramer, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

British Jews, Gross added, are thinking as much about their internal situation as they are of Israel, hoping for a U.S. president who will counter Islamic extremism.

“Remember the U.S. is our closest ally and like the U.S., we had a terrorist attack on our own soil,” Gross said. “So clearly that is something that we want to be on the mind of the new president.”

Meanwhile, liberal European Jews find Obama as inspirational as the Americans helping him to edge ahead of Clinton in the U.S. primaries.

“There has been mounting excitement about Obama among the people I speak to,” said Tony Lerman, the director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London.

“I thought Clinton was more experienced, but Obama represents an important shift to something new and fresh. Quite a few of my of my friends are moving in that direction, if they are not already there.”

Further east, Europeans living in societies that were closed for decades to outsiders and ideologies like feminism and multiculturalism, are sometimes fixated on the reality of an African-American and female candidate.

Media reports in the region routinely express excitement and sometimes shock that a woman and a dark-skinned minority have made it so far.

“My friends think Obama is all right, but they are very skeptical,” said Adam Schonberger, the director of the Marom Jewish organization in Budapest, Hungary. “They think its impossible a black or a woman can be elected.”

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