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.
Historically, about 80 percent of the Jewish vote goes to the Democrat in presidential elections. But some party leaders are fretting that McCain—with the support of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat who as the party's vice presidential candidate in 2000 became the first Jew named to a national ticket—could make measurable inroads. President Bush captured 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000 and 24 percent in 2004. The high-water mark for Republicans was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan pulled close to 40 percent of Jewish votes.
"If McCain can begin to approach that magical percent of what Reagan got, that will be deeply significant," Sarna says. "Democrats who can't solidly get the Jewish vote just can't make it." (If McCain picks an evangelical Christian as a running mate, Sarna predicts, the Dems won't have nearly as much to worry about.) Though the McCain campaign isn't talking about top contenders for the VP spot, it has been making a push with Jewish voters nationwide with "Joe L" as their top weapon, says campaign manager Rick Davis. He predicted that McCain has a "real good shot" at bringing more Jewish voters into the GOP fold this fall and has already been targeting those voters in states including Florida, California, and New York.
In Florida, Alex Halberstein, who serves on AIPAC's executive board, is among those who predict that Democrats will lose Jewish votes in the Sunshine State if Obama is the nominee. "We just don't know very much about him," says Halberstein, who supported President Clinton and contributed to and voted for Bush in 2004. He said that Obama's lack of a long track record on Middle East issues, as well as Wright's anti-American comments and praise of Farrakhan, remain ongoing concerns among many Jewish voters. The concerns linger, he says, even with the senator's denunciation of his former pastor's comments. Obama's friendship in Chicago with Palestinian intellectual and Israel critic Rashid Khalidi, now a professor at Columbia University, also requires more explanation for hard-line voters, says Morton Klein, who heads the conservative Zionist Organization of America.
Obama, a longtime Christian who has Muslim relatives in Africa, enjoys deep support within other parts of the Jewish community and has prominent Jewish fundraisers and close ties to Chicago's Jewish community. One of Obama's top Middle East advisers said that the senator made a series of speeches and appearances last year before Jewish audiences "because we knew at the very beginning of this campaign that the newness factor—the reality that Senator Obama was not well known and didn't have as long a record working on these [Middle East] issues—would be one of our big challenges."
And he's performed well with Jewish voters in primary contests, despite having to battle a vicious E-mail campaign that, among many false claims, asserted that he is a Muslim and took his oath of office on a Koran. The pernicious E-mails, the adviser said, grew from a "low-level Internet nuisance to a concerted, organized campaign to discredit Senator Obama in the Jewish community." They undercut some of the successful groundwork the campaign had laid in 2007 and made it more difficult to get the candidate's message out to Jewish voters just tuning in during the primary season.
The rumors became so rampant—and potentially damaging—that Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and eight other prominent Jewish leaders issued an open letter to the Jewish community earlier this year in an effort to quell what they called "despicable and false" E-mails.
Though campaign advisers say that they expect that in the general election the scurrilous Obama-is-a-Muslim narrative will be revived, for now it has quieted a bit. But Obama still has work to do, many Jewish leaders say. "Look, there are still questions," says Foxman. "The less you know about somebody, the shorter the record, the more the questions." But Foxman said he believes that on the issue of support for Israel, there is little difference among the three remaining presidential candidates. "And if you look at Obama's advisers, they look like what [Bill] Clinton had in 1992—left-of-the-spectrum, peace-now types," he says. "I don't think this really is an issue."
The question at this point, says Sarna, is whether Obama and advisers like Kurtzer can reassure Jewish voters uncertain about the candidate's experience and past associations, and keep them in the Democratic fold. Or whether this could be the election that demonstrates that Jews are no longer reflexively in one party—a longtime prediction, Sarna says, that has yet to play out.