Obama goes to shul in Florida

On Thursday, the New York Times had a big story previewing Barack Obama’s efforts in Florida to win over Jewish voters.

Let’s just say, elderly Jews in Florida haven’t looked this bad since they accidently voted for Pat Buchanan in 2000:

Because of a dispute over moving the date of the state’s primary, Mr. Obama and the other Democratic candidates did not campaign in Florida. In his absence, novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished. Among many older Jews, and some younger ones, as well, he has become a conduit for Jewish anxiety about Israel, Iran, anti-Semitism and race.

Mr. Obama is Arab, Jack Stern’s friends told him in Aventura. (He’s not.)

He is a part of Chicago’s large Palestinian community, suspects Mindy Chotiner of Delray. (Wrong again.)

Mr. Wright is the godfather of Mr. Obama’s children, asserted Violet Darling in Boca Raton. (No, he’s not.)

Al Qaeda is backing him, said Helena Lefkowicz of Fort Lauderdale (Incorrect.)

Michelle Obama has proven so hostile and argumentative that the campaign is keeping her silent, said Joyce Rozen of Pompano Beach. (Mrs. Obama campaigns frequently, drawing crowds in her own right.)

Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler. (Extremely unlikely, given his denunciation of Mr. Farrakhan.)

Today the Times follows up with a piece on Obama’s speech at a Boca Raton synagogue:

For nearly two hours, Mr. Obama tried to work through a deep-seated skepticism of his candidacy by some Jews. He was welcomed by warm applause that seemed to grow throughout the afternoon session at a synagogue.

Here’s some of the speech:


And part of the Q & A (Obama takes on the Republican Jewish Coalition ad):

Here’s a transcript of his remarks:

Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much. I am so honored to be here. First of all, you cannot have a better friend than Robert Wexler. When he is with you, he is with you a hundred percent. He is doing such a fantastic job on behalf of his constituents here in south Florida. But he’s also setting an agenda all across this country that is important for justice and fairness, and economic opportunity in America. And obviously Israel doesn’t have a better friend than Robert Wexler, and so I’m so grateful his support. Please give him another round of applause.

To the B’nai Torah Congregation, thank you for your hospitality, and to Rabbi Steinhardt, thank you so much for being here today. I want to also acknowledge Wendy Lipsick who’s the district director of Congressman Wexler. State Senator Dane Harinberg is in the house, and a great supporter. Democratic House Minority Leader Dan Gelber is here and a wonderful supporter. And two dear friends of mine – this is a point of personal privilege – Mark and Nancy Gilbert, have been such great fans, and I am so grateful for their support.

You know, two weeks ago, I had the honor of joining the Israeli embassy’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence. And it gave me a chance to think once again about the long journey that led to that joyous occasion.

The first time that this journey was brought to my conscious – this was back in the sixth grade. I had a Jewish-American camp counselor who had spent time in Israel. And he talked about what it meant for Jews to have a homeland, particularly after the horror of the Holocaust. And he talked about how important it was for a people who had been uprooted – who had preserved their culture over centuries – to finally return to their homeland.

And that idea was incredibly powerful to me, I was eleven years old at the time, but I had grown up as a child who had never felt rooted.

Some of you know that I’ve got a diverse background – a mother from Kansas, a father from Kenya. My father was black; I lived in Indonesia from a time; come back to Hawaii. I didn’t know where I was. And so the idea that one could hang onto one’s sense of values, and have a sense of family, and despite being an outsider, somehow still have a place to come back to. Not only a physical place, but also an emotional place and a spiritual place, was very powerful to me. So even before I fully understood the history of the Jewish people, the Zionist movement was something that I related to and connected to from my own experience.

As I learned more, I found that I had a deep affinity with the ideal of social justice that was embodied in the Jewish faith. There was a notion that you could repair the breach of the past. There was a notion – embodied in the kibbutz – that we all have a responsibility to each other, that we’re all in this together, that hope can persevere even against the longest odds.

And it is that belief that sustained the Jewish people over their long journey toward Israel’s independence. It’s a journey that dates back to Moses leading his people toward a Promised Land. It’s a journey that includes centuries of hope when the dream of a homeland was darkest. A journey that gained new meaning through the work of Herzl, and a new urgency after the terrible suffering and loss of the Holocaust. And it was a dream no longer deferred when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence.

The end of this journey was not the end of challenges facing Israel.

The fight for the survival of the Jewish State has endured through decades of war and decades of terror. To this very day, the people of Israel show courage and commitment to freedom every time they board a bus, or kiss their children on their way to school.

But throughout these challenges, Israel has done more than just survive – it has thrived. It is a strong and vibrant democracy. It has provided that Promised Land for Jews from around the world. It has built a thriving economy that is spreading opportunity to Israel’s citizens while enriching the world. And it has developed a rich cultural life, and made enormous contributions to science and to the arts.

Israel has also developed many friendships, and none is deeper than the bond between Israel and the United States of America. It is a bond that is rooted in the millions of Jewish immigrants who sought opportunity on America’s shores; in the liberation of those awful Nazi death camps in World War II; and in the courageous stance of President Harry Truman, who bucked the counsel of his own advisors in recognizing the Jewish state.

But it’s also a bond that I tried to describe recently in an article that I feel very deeply, and it’s a values bond and an ideals bond, and an intellectual bond. You know, when I think about the books that have taught me so much, so many of them have been written by Jewish- American authors. When I think about the professors who helped nurture my academic career, my employers and my mentors, so many of them have been members of the Jewish community, and that’s because the Jewish community’s impact on American cultural life – on our idea of ourselves – is so integral. And so it’s not surprising then that we are always going to have this special relationship – a relationship that’s rooted in shared interests and shared values, democracy and opportunity, and tolerance and community. And I’m proud of the fact that it’s supported by a strong bipartisan consensus, a consensus that I’ve been proud to be a part of. A broad majority of the American people understand this special relationship, and when I am in the White House, I will bring with me an unshakable commitment to maintaining that bond between the United States of America and an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.

Two years ago, I traveled to Israel and the experience made a powerful impression on me, as it makes on all who travel there. I have long understood Israel’s great dilemma – its need for security in a difficult neighborhood, and its quest for peace with its neighbors.

But there is no substitute for meeting the people of Israel; seeing the terrain; and experiencing the powerful contrasts of a beautiful, holy land that faces a constant threat of deadly violence.

I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected and Prime Minister Sharon before that, with a mandate to pursue it. And I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will always support Israel’s security; I intend to strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. I will personally work for two states that can live side by side in peace and security – with Israel’s status as a Jewish state ensured.

And I will work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes. We saw their intentions in the Katyusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006. In fact, when I visited Israel, I visited homes along the northern border that had been struck by Katyusha rockets. We see it today in the Qassams that Hamas fires into Israel every day from Gaza.

That is why I have a fundamental difference with President Carter and his decision to meet with Hamas. We must not negotiate with a terrorist group that’s intent on Israel’s destruction. We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements. That is what I have said throughout this campaign. I want to just repeat this, because I know that there’s a lot of rumor-mongering going around. People have been getting e-mails non-stop. I have said throughout this campaign that we should not negotiate with Hamas or Hezbollah, and that’s why I reject the attempts by some of my opponents in this campaign to distort my position. They are counting on fear, because they know they haven’t told the truth.

As President, I will do everything in my power to help Israel protect itself from these and other threats. I will make sure that Israel can defend itself from any attack, whether it comes from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The defense cooperation between the United States and Israel has been a model of success, and I believe that it can be deepened and it can be strengthened.

The gravest threat to Israel today obviously comes from Iran. There, a radical regime continues to pursue the ability to build a nuclear weapon, and continues its support for terrorism across the region.

President Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust, and his disturbing denunciations of Israel.

The threat from Iran is real, and is great. And my goal as President will be to eliminate it. Ending the war in Iraq will be, I believe, an important step toward achieving that goal, because it will give us increased flexibility in our dealings with Iran, and increase legitimacy in the region. Make no mistake about it – our invasion of Iraq has empowered Iran. It is one of the biggest strategic blunders that we have made. And I intend to change it when I’m President of the United States of America.

We cannot just keep talking tough from Washington in the naïve belief that bluster alone will cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism. It has not happened over the last eight years. There’s no reason to believe that it would happen in the next eight years. The time has come for tough, principled, and direct diplomacy to lay out our clear terms: an end to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons; an end to their support of terrorism; and an end to their threats against Israel and other countries. To achieve this, I think we have to offer sticks – like economic sanctions, and we should not take our military options off the table. That’s one of the reasons that I was a chief sponsor of the bill that Congressman Wexler referred to, that calls for greater ability to divest resources from Iran, to put the economic squeeze on them. But it also has to provide carrots, incentives, like the prospects of better relations and integration in the international community, in order for these things to be effective.

I would seek sanctions through the United Nations, and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the United Nations. We will be in a stronger position to achieve tough international sanctions if the United States shows that we are willing to come to the table. I will continue to work on strengthening sanctions. And make no mistake – if and when we ever have to use military force against any country, we must exert the power of American diplomacy first. That’s how we gain legitimacy, that’s how we are going to be more effective – that’s how we can be a good friend to Israel.

As we celebrate six decades of independence, we know that more work remains to be done to secure a lasting peace for the children of Israel. That is the work I intend to do as President. Because we know that even as we meet here today, there are still those who have not taken the step that President Truman took 60 years ago to recognize the Jewish State of Israel.

As I flew in an IDF helicopter during my travels in Israel, I was able to look down at the hills and the mountains that have nurtured the dreams of so many generations, while also appreciating the dangers faced by this particularly narrow strip of land between the West Bank and the Mediterranean. But what most struck me was the kindness and the resolve of the people I met – people who balanced their hopes for their children, with the need to protect.

The same kindness and resolve that I’ve encountered in so many Jewish Americans, including those who have supported me so ardently in Chicago and who know me best. And I know that I might not be standing here were it not for the historical bond between the Jewish community and the African American community here in this country in pursuit of justice during the Civil Rights movement. The reason I raise this is because one of the painful things for me, over the last several years, has been to see the strains between the African American community and the Jewish community. That strains me because I know that Dr. King could not have done everything that he did, had it not been for the support of the Jewish community. That there was a time when we saw common cause in eliminating discrimination and promoting civil rights and promoting civil liberties in this country. That sense of a common kinship of people who have been uprooted, and people who’ve been on the outside. That strikes me as the very essence of what we should be fighting for. And I want to make sure that – I want to make sure that I am one of the vehicles by which we can rebuild those bonds, because I truly believe, just as all those Jewish Americans who boarded the bus and went down south to march for justice, that justice is at the heart of the Jewish journey. Justice is at the heart of Israel’s existence.

The journey has been long. And in the journey ahead, we will have a lot of bumps, but America must stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Israel. I believe that all Americans believe that. Together, we can strengthen the ties that bind America and Israel, but I also believe that we can strengthen the bonds here in the United States, and make sure that all of our children are prospering, and all our children are experiencing the kind of opportunity that they deserve.

And that’s ultimately what this election is going to be all about.

So let me just make one last point. I emphasize these issues, the issues of Israel, because I think on a lot of domestic policy, we are in agreement. But this is a town hall meeting, and I know that your interests extend beyond the issue of Israel. So, what I’d like to do is just very briefly say that part of what we’re fighting for in this country, domestically, is also to restore a sense of justice in our economic lives and in our social lives.

You know, when we have – when we have senior citizens who are having to take half of prescriptions because of a prescription drug law that was fundamentally flawed, and did not allow negotiations with drug companies for the cheapest available price on drugs, that’s a violation of that spirit of justice. When we have children in sub- standard schools, teachers underpaid, young people who can’t afford college because it’s financially out of reach, that’s a violation of the spirit of justice. When we have families who can’t afford health care, and single mothers who are still trying to figure out whether they can get even basic checkups for their children, now that’s a violation of the spirit of justice. And I know that the Jewish American community has always been at the forefront of making sure that this is truly a land of opportunity and that the American dream extends to everybody, and so I just want to make sure that everybody understands that even as we talk about the issue of Israel, I welcome a dialogue as well about how we can make this country a little more fair than it’s been, and how we can make sure that all our children have opportunity, all our seniors are cared for, and middle class families have the kinds of quality of life that has always been the hallmark of the American dream.

You are going to be a part of making that a reality. And I’m hopeful that, you know, in the coming months as I campaign throughout Florida, that you realize that you’re going to have a strong champion in the White House in Barack Obama.

Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.

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