WASHINGTON (JTA) – A campaign by a new dovish pro-Israel group to get Jewish newspapers not to run Republican Jewish Coalition attack ads has raised questions about what’s kosher and what isn’t in this fraught political season.
The new group, J Street, helped flood many Jewish newspapers with letters in recent days urging them not to run the RJC ads attacking the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Letters were even sent to newspapers in which the ads did not appear.
“I was saddened to see that the Republican Jewish Coalition’s vile, fear-mongering advertisements have been printed in your publication,” read one typical letter. “Since when do Jews go along with smear campaigns? By all means tolerate genuine dissent but please, draw the lines at hateful, dishonest caricatures.”
In addition to initiating the letter-writing campaign, J Street organized a petition calling on papers not to publish the ads. The petition garnered 23,000 signatures, according to the group’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
“There is a deep well of anger in the broader Jewish community over the questionable tactics used by the RJC and the lies and distortions they and others have circulated during this campaign,” Ben-Ami said. “We do hope that our campaign will spark a discussion among Jewish media executives about the extent to which they wish to provide a platform for further dissemination of baseless allegations and unfounded personal attacks.”
Matt Brooks, the RJC executive director, derided what he described as J Street’s “amateurish” attempt at intimidation and censorship.
“It’s wildly offensive that they would engage in intimidation on newspapers not to run ads,” he said. “It’s misguided and offends people’s sensitivities.” Brooks said he was ready to meet Ben-Ami to debate the ads’ content.
The overall thrust of the RJC’s ad campaign is that Obama remains an alarming mystery to American Jews; the slogan is: “Concerned about Barack Obama? You should be.”
It’s not an unprecedented tack in political campaigning, although it hardly jibes with two years of intense media scrutiny of Obama – and doesn’t comport with a GOP campaign that is going out of its way to keep reporters from examining the record of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the running mate of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
A review of the RJC ads reveals some substantive attacks on Obama, and others that severely distort his record and his relationships.
Perhaps the RJC’s most substantive claim is that Obama has expressed a willingness to meet with Iran’s president without preconditions.
Obama’s surrogates, including his running mate and the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, have suggested that when the Democratic presidential nominee spoke of meeting with Iranian leaders, he meant the religious hierarchy that controls the country’s security apparatus – not Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and predicted that Israel would be wiped off the map. But the record suggests this is an attempt to backpedal from Obama’s stated position, rather than a mere clarification.
The issue first emerged during a July 2007 debate sponsored by YouTube and CNN, in which voters submitted their questions via video . With an image of Ahmadinejad flashing on the screen as he spoke, one questioner asked the Democratic candidates if they would be willing in their first year of office to meet separately – without preconditions – with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
Obama said yes, and never challenged the initial media coverage or criticism from the other candidates based on the assumption that he had been talking about a potential meeting with Ahmadinejad.
Similarly, two months later, with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama answered questions about how he could reconcile his willingness to meet Ahmadinejad and his view that Columbia University had made a mistake in offering to host the Iranian president during his New York visit.
The RJC also gets it right when it notes that Obama has said that Iran and other current pariah states targeting the United States are “tiny” compared to the Soviet Union and don’t pose the same threat. A McCain campaign TV ad simply quoted Obama as calling Iran “tiny,” denying viewers the ability to draw their own conclusions about what Obama had actually said.
One Iran-related distortion lingers, however: “Sen. Obama is opposed to critical legislation labeling Iran’s revolutionary guard a terrorist organization,” one ad says. The legislation in question – a non-binding amendment – was hardly critical, and Obama has supported such a label in separate legislation. Additionally, he has sponsored legislation that would protect from lawsuits pensions that divest from companies that deal with Iran.
Even as Obama maintains his support for stepped up diplomacy with Iran, he has also stressed that the goal of any talks would be for the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear program and end its support of terrorism. Obama has portrayed U.S.-Iranian talks as an important step for building international support for tougher measures if Iran pushed ahead with its nuclear program – and he has refused to take military options off the table in dealing with the issue.
In addition to the issue of Iran, the RJC ads have attacked Obama’s supposed choice of religious and foreign-policy advisers.
One ad refers to Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has in the past embraced radical views about Israel as a colonial state and suggested that the United States bears responsibility for fomenting the unrest that leads to terrorism. Obama has cut off Wright and insisted he was unaware of his pastor’s more radical views, although these seem to have been well-known in real time.
The ads call Wright an anti-Semite, without substantiating the claim; Wright is not known to have targeted Jews and had friendly relations with Chicago Jewish groups.
Another RJC ad accurately quotes Democrats praising McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. But Obama backers are quick to note that the Democrats in question are all supporting the Illinois senator’s presidential bid.
Other RJC ads, severely distort Obama’s positions and relationships.
Obama has never backed down from endorsing Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, as one ad says. Instead, he amended the pledge, made in May to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to note that – whatever his personal views – the city’s final status is a matter for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That’s also McCain’s view, and generally uncontroversial. Brooks says the difference is that McCain has never had to clarify his views on Jerusalem. Furthermore, he added, McCain has pledged to immediately move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Obama will not makes such a pledge; a succession of candidates who have, including the current president, have reneged after Election Day.
Arguably the most dubious ad is the one titled “Barack Obama’s advisors: pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, even hostile to America.”
Robert Malley, a Middle East scholar and former U.S. negotiator, is not anti-Israel, as the ad suggests; nor is David Bonior, a former Democratic congressman who is on the Obama team. Both men have been critical of Israeli settlement policies and of Israeli conduct during negotiations, but have upheld Israel’s right to security. At think-tank talks in Washington, Malley gets exercised about preserving the two-state solution, in part because he says he sees it as a guarantee to Israel’s survival.
Malley is not even advising Obama – the ad makes the claim based on a single erroneous media report which engendered many others. Bizarrely, when both sides – Malley and the Obama campaign – sent out releases in May denying once and for all that Malley ever advised the campaign, many of the resulting news reports suggested Malley was quitting a campaign he had never joined.
It’s true that Obama’s campaign once called Malley an “informal adviser” – that’s a euphemism for experts who send in position papers, unsolicited. And he is hardly a “Palestinian apologist,” as the ad asserts: Although Malley assigns blame to Israel and the Palestinians for the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks, he has not spared Palestinians criticism for their intransigence and corruption.
Brooks stood by the characterization. “If he is not anti-Israel, he is certainly pro-Arab.”
It is true that Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser to former President Carter named in the same ad, has in the past proven friendly to theories that Israel is more of a burden than a boon to U.S. interests; however his role in the campaign was marginal. He apparently was an Obama surrogate on one conference call early in the primaries for Democrats Abroad, not a constituency that the party ever treats as important, and he introduced Obama at an Iowa campaign event a year ago.
At that event, Obama called Brzezinski “one of our most outstanding scholars, one of our most outstanding thinkers;” he also commended Brzezinski’s role in brokering the Israeli-Egyptian peace, saying he brought “about a lasting peace between Israel and some of its neighbors.”
The Obama campaign insists that Brzezinski and the Democratic nominee have only discussed Iraq, not Israel. In the RJC’s defense it is also true that the campaign’s YouTube channel includes Brzezinski’s endorsement.
Perhaps the only substantive plaint in the advisers ad is about Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, who is indeed a senior adviser to the campaign. In a 2003 interview with The Oregonian, when asked to assign blame for the Middle East peace impasse, McPeak reportedly said: “New York City. Miami. We have a large vote here in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it.”
When the quote came to light during the primaries, Obama denounced it, but kept McPeak, who in a long military career – he is the former U.S. Air Force chief – has forged close relationships with figures in Israel’s security establishment. The RJC ad calls McPeak “hostile to American Jews.” Certainly, that could characterize his 2003 remarks, but does not describe his whole career.
The ad makes no mention of Obama’s actual senior adviser on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Dennis Ross, a former U.S. negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, and a well-respected figure in large swaths of the Jewish community.
Another ad attempts to link Obama to Pat Buchanan, the former Republican presidential candidate who has diminished the significance of the Holocaust. The ad is based entirely on the imaginings of Buchanan himself, who describes Obama’s views on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as close to his. There is no evidence that Obama would accept such a parallel, and in fact Buchanan would seem to differ substantively with Obama’s emphasis on the need to confront Iran and the degree to which the Democratic nominee absolves Israel for Palestinian suffering.
The RJC ad also insinuates that Buchanan’s support for Obama stems from Buchanan’s marginal and offensive views on Jews and immigrants. The RJC put the ad out in part to retaliate against attempts by Democrats, based on similarly flimsy evidence, to link Buchanan to Palin.
Brooks says the campaign was careful to emphasize that it was Buchanan who was endorsing Obama’s views, not the other way around.
“Pat Buchanan, who is not an idiot, who is not unread, has looked at the record of John McCain and Barack Obama and said ‘My views are in line with Barack Obama,’” Brooks said. “It’s up to people to understand what about Barack Obama Pat Buchanan found so appealing.”
Two of the RJC ads reference Obama’s comment in May 2007 that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” But the ads fail to make clear that Obama clearly implied at the time, and later made clear, that he blames Palestinian leaders – not Israel – for their people’s suffering.
J Street’s Ben-Ami says he worries that the RJC ad campaign will end up reinforcing the subterranean, Internet-driven effort to present Obama as a Muslim who is lying about his past.
“There are limits in particular in this environment, when we’ve had a season filled with anonymous smears racing across the Internet,” he told JTA. “To run paid advertising that taps into the exact same fears is irresponsible.”
Ben-Ami clarified that the campaign does not target all the ads, only those that might prove libelous, in describing Obama’s advisers, for instance, as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. The RJC has run positive ads extolling McCain; Ben-Ami does not see those as objectionable.
First Amendment protections in political speech are broad and Brooks rejected assertions that his ads crossed any line; indeed they are in many ways milder than the McCain campaign’s recent attempts to link Obama to domestic terrorists.
“I would be happy if JTA or one of the newspapers wants to schedule a debate with Jeremy about our ads,” he said. “I would be more than happy to have that debate. They don’t want to face the truth and reality of what we’re talking about and are trying to intimidate media.”
The ads and the petition to pull them have generated much debate among editors of Jewish papers. The Washington Jewish Week has run the ads, and its publisher, Larry Fishbein, said the newspaper would continue to do so.
“We reserve the right to reject ads, and while they were pushing the envelope, we do not feel they crossed the line,” Fishbein said of the RJC ads.
He said that about 15 subscribers had complained about the ads, and that he had spoken with each of them. “I tell them it is not an editorial stance we’re making, it is a commercial stance. Please judge us on the entire body of our work,” Fishbein said. So far no one has canceled a subscription.
As it turns out, the ads were only placed in newspapers located in swing states – the Washington Jewish Week serves northern Virginia – as well as on JTA’s Web site. But the designers of the J Street Web template mistakenly allowed members to write newspapers that had not carried the ads.
In a letter last week, Ben-Ami apologized for the mistake, but not for the content of the campaign.