PHILADELPHIA (JTA) – The Pennsylvania Republican Party distributed an e-mail last week signed by three prominent Jewish Republicans suggesting that a vote for Barack Obama could bring about another Holocaust.
The e-mail, sent to 75,000 Jews in the state, extolled John McCain’s support for Israel and questioned Obama’s commitment to Israel, as well as his association with William Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
It concluded that “Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008. Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let’s not make a similar one this year.”
In the ensuing uproar, the political operative who wrote the e-mail was fired and its signatories – including I. Michael Coslov, the campaign chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the person widely assumed to become the next federation president – distanced themselves from it.
Signers said they had not read through the e-mail before agreeing to affix their names to it.
A few days after the e-mail was sent, the Republican Jewish Coalition again took up the Holocaust theme in leaflets distributed in heavily Jewish neighborhoods in suburban Philadelphia.
While not mentioning the Holocaust explicitly, the glossy leaflets featured a photo of Obama speaking in Germany. It read: “Concerned about Obama? You should be. History has shown that a naive and weak foreign policy has resulted in tragic outcomes for the Jewish people.”
These latest salvos, coming just days before the election, epitomize what some are calling the most bitter and divisive presidential campaign ever seen in the Jewish community.
Republicans have tried to chip away at the traditionally overwhelming Jewish support for Democrats by sowing seeds of doubt about Obama’s positions on Israel through a campaign of e-mails and ads in Jewish media. Democrats deride such efforts as scare tactics born of desperation; the Republicans say they want voters to know the truth.
The battle is particularly intense in Pennsylvania, which the McCain camp has said the Republican candidate needs to win to have a real shot at capturing the White House.
With Obama enjoying a double-digit lead in the state, according to most polls, the McCain campaign is devoting tremendous resources here – in appearances and advertising – in the final days of the race, hoping to turn the Democratic state Republican red.
Both campaigns say they believe the state’s more than 400,000 Jews could play a decisive role in the outcome.
The e-mail that referenced the Holocaust continued to stir debate this week, with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee both condemning it.
After the uproar, Coslov repudiated part of the letter he had signed, calling it “extreme.” Obama is not "right for the Jewish people," he said, "but I don’t think he’s going to cause another Holocaust."
Sandra Schultz Newman, a former state Supreme Court justice and another of the e-mail’s signatories, issued an apology to those who had e-mailed her objecting to the letter.
"I regret that I did not carefully review the final draft before it was released with my signature," she wrote. "Some of the language was inappropriate and intemperate. I apologize to anyone who was offended by this misguided e-mail."
Beyond the bluster, both campaigns are reaching out to Jewish voters with an intensity rarely seen in previous presidential elections.
While the McCain outreach bid is driven mostly by grass-roots organizers and the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Democratic effort is fueled by the well-disciplined Obama campaign machine.
A steady stream of political dignitaries have come to the state, with a special focus on Philadelphia and its Montgomery County suburbs – seen as linchpins of how the vote will go.
The Obama campaign has overwhelmed the McCain camp in the sheer number of Jewish events scheduled. In synagogues, community centers and home parlor meetings, Obama surrogates have taken to the stump seeking to assuage lingering concerns about Obama’s experience and foreign policy priorities, and to drum up enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket.
The surrogates have included U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Obama Middle East policy adviser Dennis Ross and Pennsylvania’s popular governor, Ed Rendell.
For the Republicans, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has been the heavy lifter touting McCain’s virtues – and invariably having to defend his endorsement of the Republican ticket. Linda Lingle, the Jewish governor of Hawaii, was scheduled to visit the state this week. And the RJC sent its local representative on a whirlwind speaking tour and bused in some 100 volunteers last weekend to distribute leaflets.
It’s not clear whether the outreach efforts are succeeding at winning over the state’s remaining undecided voters, but both campaigns clearly hope they will make a difference.
State Rep. Josh Shapiro, the deputy speaker of the Pennsylvania Legislature and a leader in the state’s Jewish outreach effort for Obama, said Jewish voters have become more comfortable with the Democratic candidate as they have gotten to know him.
“Six months ago I said that all that was required was to make sure we got the facts out about Obama’s strong support for Israel – and we have,” said Shapiro, an early Obama backer. He added that most Jewish voters already agreed with Obama’s position on domestic issue.
Judy Davidson, who has organized many of the Republican events with little help from the McCain campaign, sees things differently. She says longtime Jewish Democrats are on the cusp of voting for McCain – they just need a little encouragement that it’s OK to vote Republican.
Davidson, who calls herself a third-generation Republican, says she constantly hears from Jews, particularly those who had supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Democratic primaries, that “ ‘I’m scared of Obama, but I don’t want to be a Republican.’ I have to allay their fears. I tell them you don’t have to change your party, just vote your principles.”
Judging from dozens of interviews at campaign events in eastern Pennsylvania over the past few weeks, Obama clearly has the edge with Jewish voters in the state.
“He’s the only one for the working class; he’s got vision,” Myron Cohen, 81, a retired Navy Yard worker, said of Obama at a recent gathering of seniors at a Jewish community center in northeast Philadelphia.
Cohen was among the many seniors in the area courted assiduously by both parties in Pennsylvania, which has the second largest senior population in the country after Florida.
“I’m voting for Obama,” declared Edith Bernstein, 84, a resident of Brith Sholom House, a Philadelphia residence for low-income seniors.
"Yes, I have some concerns, but there are always concerns about everyone,” she said after hearing a debate between representatives of both parties. “We’re not electing a king or an absolute ruler.”
At a Lieberman event for McCain, 78-year-old David Shenker said he was afraid of Obama.
“He’s got a history of radicalism and he hasn’t abandoned his past,” said Shenker, a Russian immigrant.
With Election Day so close, a few Jews in these parts still hadn’t made up their minds.
At a local synagogue, John Silver, a self-described conservative Democrat, came to a surrogate debate between Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) for Obama and ex-Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roehmer for McCain. Citing Israel and the economy as his top issues, Silver said he was reassured to hear Waxman’s assurances on Obama’s support for Israel.
“But I still haven’t made up my mind,” he said.
At another event, Phyllis Stoltz, 66, wrestled with her decision.
“I love McCain, but I’m not crazy about Sarah Palin,” she said, talking about the GOP vice-presidential candidate. "And I don’t want four more years of what we’ve had with the economy and no respect in the world. But Israel is a big issue for me. I just don’t know.”