WASHINGTON (JTA) – With Hillary Clinton’s wins Tuesday setting the stage for many more weeks of an increasingly bitter campaign, Jewish Democrats are concerned that the increasingly abrasive tone between their party’s frontrunners could seep into Jewish and pro-Israel issues.
In particular, the concerns are being sharpened by the prospect of a seven-week campaign ahead of a primary in Pennsylvania, a state with two substantial Jewish centers, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Also looming is the likelihood of a rematch in Florida, whose delegates were not counted because the state held its primary too early.
“Democrats in general are going to want to tell both candidates a blood bath is not going to help us,” said Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “It can get worse; all of us in the party want to keep the level of antagonism down.”
Jewish organizations prefer to keep bickering over the Middle East out of election campaigns, promoting instead the idea that there is a bipartisan consensus on protecting Israel. Additionally, the prospect of clashes dealing with some of the ties U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has with controversial African American figures in Chicago raises the uncomfortable specter of further breeches in the black-Jewish relationship.
“It’s bad for Israel, it’s bad for the U.S.-Israel relationship, it’s bad for Jewish African-American relations, it’s totally selfish politics and totally cynical politics, and it’s ugly,” said M.J. Rosenberg, the Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum.
With Clinton and Obama neck and neck and neither candidate likely to get the majority in delegates, both campaigns took off the gloves ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Texas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Vermont. Clinton resuscitated her prospects in those votes, winning all but Vermont.
Democrats have winced at attacks from both sides and how they could reverberate in a general election: Clintonites, for instance, point to what they say are Obama’s distortions on her health care plan, saying that his contention that it is unwieldy and costly amounts to handing U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, a potent weapon in November should he face Clinton.
The Obama campaign counters that her emphasis on his alleged lack of national security experience will stick should Obama face the much older McCain, a decorated war hero and longtime senator.
In the Jewish campaign, however, the concerns are directed almost entirely at Clinton’s tactics ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
“I hope they have no willingness to attack Obama on his bona fides,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a leading Democratic consultant who backs Clinton. The high road, he said, would be to emphasize her more seasoned record. “On her greater experience, longer record, familiarity with the community – why isn’t that fair game?”
That has been the theme sounded by top Clinton surrogate Martin Indyk, the former ambassador to Israel, who has called Obama “naïve” on Middle East policy but who also fiercely insists that Obama is pro-Israel. The concern is that other Clinton backers or aides may be willing to aim lower.
Eyebrows were first raised a week ago at a nationally televised debate in Ohio when Clinton argued that Obama had not gone far enough in distancing himself from the praise that he had received from Louis Farrakhan, the Chicago-area leader of the Nation of Islam who has in the past described Judaism as a “gutter religion” and blamed Jews for the plight of the blacks.
Obama “denounced” Farrakhan’s comments, but Clinton wanted more: “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” she said. “We’ve got to be even stronger.”
Obama conceded the point and “rejected” Farrakhan’s endorsement, but that didn’t stop the Clinton camp. Her strategist Mark Penn rushed to the pressroom to note that Obama did not denounce or reject his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who has praised and worked with Farrakhan.
“If you listen very carefully, I do not think he in fact rejected or denounced his minister praising Farrakhan — he only did that to Farrakhan,” Penn said.
Ann Lewis, Clinton’s top Jewish adviser, issued a mass e-mail to Jewish community leaders featuring the debate exchange. “Hillary urged him to go further,” she said, proceeding to imply that Clinton was the only candidate who would make Jews comfortable.
“We are proud of the dozens of Jewish members of Congress, leaders of national Jewish organizations, and Jewish policymakers and opinion leaders who support Hillary Clinton for President,” she said. “They agree that in this critical election with so much at stake, Hillary is the candidate who deserves our support!”
It was a tactic that deeply unsettled some Jewish Democrats, among them Clinton backers, who would only speak off the record.
Asked about the Lewis e-mail, the IPF’s Rosenberg called it “scurrilous,” noting that Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, has said that it’s time for the community to bury the Obama-Farrakhan linkages. “When Abe Foxman says there’s nothing there, we don’t need Ann Lewis to jump in and say this is a threat.”
However the Clinton camp treats Jewish issues ahead of Pennsylvania and Florida, it’s already clear that the Obama campaign plans to make an issue of Clinton loyalists making it an issue.
“We’ve been disappointed by the attempts by Clinton campaign to push negative stories about Israel,” Eric Lynn, Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community, told JTA.
Sometimes the evidence of Clinton’s purported nefariousness cited by Obama loyalists has been slight: The campaign has distributed a Newsweek story claiming that Clintonites have perpetuated right-wing smears claiming that Obama is surrounded by anti-Israel advisers, but that story focuses on three isolated incidents: involving Lewis, a low-level staffer and a donor, respectively.
In an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday night, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, criticized her response, when she was asked on “60 Minutes” if she believed the e-mail rumors that Obama is a secret Muslim. Axelrod told MSNBC that he was “disappointed” with Clinton’s answer, asserting that she was not “unequivocal” in rejecting the rumors.
In fact, Clinton dismissed the rumors. “There is no basis for that, I take him on the basis of what he says and there isn’t any reason to doubt that,” Clinton said, in her initial response to interviewer Steve Kroft.
She later used the phrase “as far as I know” – drawing criticism from some bloggers and pundits – but only after Kroft pressed her for more on the topic.