It has become increasingly familiar territory for Barack Obama in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination: a synagogue; a large group of Jewish leaders; and questions about his support of Israel, his stated willingness to meet with leaders of countries like Iran that are hostile to the United States and a potential threat to Israel, and his relationship with his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has praised the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, considered by many an anti-Semite.
And so it was this week at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia that Obama, just hours before his acrimonious debate with rival Hillary Clinton, continued to court the small but important Jewish vote. On this day, however, he made news. For the first time publicly, Obama himself criticized former President Jimmy Carter for meeting with Hamas leaders this week in Egypt. (A campaign statement nearly a week earlier had stated that the senator "does not agree" with Carter's plan to meet with Hamas.)
"Hamas is not a state," Obama said of the group that now controls the Gaza Strip. "Hamas is a terrorist organization." Jack Rosen of the American Jewish Congress said Obama's criticism was welcome but questioned why it hadn't come sooner, particularly since presumed GOP nominee John McCain—who is also actively courting Jewish voters in key swing states like Florida—had been needling Obama to do so. Carter, a Democratic superdelegate, hasn't officially endorsed Obama but has said everyone in the Carter family supports him.
"This is the big question mark for us with Senator Obama. When we don't know his position we wonder," Rosen said. "Why doesn't he criticize Carter immediately for visiting Hamas?" The campaign says that the statement issued did just that.
Welcome to the at-times uneasy evolution of Obama's relationship with a wide swath of the nation's Jewish voters. The historically reliable, big-giving Democrats are sharply divided—"split down the middle," says Brandeis University Prof. Jonathan Sarna—over the front-running Illinois senator. And as the bitter Democratic primary season appears to be nearing an end and Clinton's attacks increasingly focus on Obama's "electability," his campaign has stepped up efforts to reach out to Jewish voters who could play a key role on Election Day in the crucial swing states, including Florida and Ohio. Not to mention the money contest that precedes them.
To bolster its bona fides, the campaign recently brought Daniel Kurtzer on board as a foreign-policy adviser. Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew who served as ambassador to Israel during the Bush administration and to Egypt under President Clinton, said he's been meeting with largely Jewish groups and answering questions like the ones asked this week in Philly. "But I have found in the audiences I've talked to," Kurtzer says, "a real groundswell of support that may be lost in some of the debate about Reverend Wright and other issues.
"This goes beyond the Middle East," Kurtzer says. "The appeal [Obama] has throughout the Jewish community is based on a whole range of issues," including his willingness to aggressively pursue diplomacy in trouble spots and his opposition to the war. Bringing Kurtzer on the campaign shows that Obama "obviously cares very much," says an activist associated with AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington that has had positive things to say about the Illinois senator. "They've run a good campaign, and it's hard to think they're going to screw this up."
Jews make up just over 2 percent of the country's overall population, but in politics they are "disproportionately important," says Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History. Not only do they play a large role in funding the campaigns, Sarna says, but they are geographically concentrated and typically vote in very high percentages. In close races, that gives them outsized clout in key states. In an analysis for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs at Hebrew Union College, Steven Windmueller said that four states with significant Jewish populations account for 128 of 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House: California, New York, Florida, and New Jersey, with Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the second tier.