Jews looked past worries to embrace Obama


For some Jewish voters, the strangeness of Barack Obama was like a recurring dream: unsettling and then settling in, and then, suddenly, revelatory.

Ari Wallach described breaking through to elderly Jews in Florida who had resisted voting for the son of the man from Kenya, the tall black man with the middle name “Hussein.”

“It wasn’t only his policy on Israel and Iran, on health care,” said Wallach, whose ” target=”_blank”>Great Shlep,” an effort to prod young adults to get their Jewish grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama. “His biography feels so Jewish, it feels like an Ellis Island archetype. People felt more comfortable when I talked about where he came from, it resonated so deeply surprisingly among older Jews.”

For months, polls showed Obama languishing at about 60 percent of the Jewish vote, a critical chunk short of the 75 percent or so Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) garnered in 2004. But exit polls from the Tuesday election showed Obama matching those results, garnering about 78 percent of the Jewish vote against 22 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his Republican rival.

Wallach credited the campaign’s late-campaign blitz of Jewish communities, joined by groups like his own, for converting the candidate from stranger to standard bearer for a Jewish ethos.

It was an uphill battle, starting with rumors that Obama was a hidden Muslim, that he wasn’t a genuine, born American. The subterranean campaign soon burst through semi-legitimate and then legitimate forums; Obama was not a Muslim, these conservatives and Republicans said, but he might have been raised a Muslim and later had radical associations.

The ” target=”_blank”>reject the RJC ads, said it was vindicated.

“Tonight, American Jews resoundingly rejected the two-year, multimillion dollar campaign of baseless smears and fear waged against him by the right wing of our community,” J-Street’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in a statement. “Surrogates and right-wing political operatives in our community stopped at nothing in their efforts to sway Jewish voters against Obama. With exit polls showing Barack Obama’s share of the Jewish vote equal to 2004 levels, it is absolutely clear that their efforts failed.”

Some Democrats said McCain, once popular among Jews because of his willingness to reach across the aisle, hurt himself in the community by choosing the deeply conservative and relatively inexperienced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

An American Jewish Committee poll commissioned in September found that 54 percent of American Jews disapproved of the Palin pick, compared to just 15 percent who disapproved of Obama’s decision to tap Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

But Obama’s appeal to Jews might have been most deeply rooted in shared values, said Mik Moore, Wallach’s partner in JewsVote.org.

“Folks just wanted to be with us, with the more progressive candidate; it’s where their heart is,” he said.

Let bygones (not) be bygones


That’s it?

Twelve-hundred-and-eight words, and we’re supposed to forget the months of ugly that came before?

Not so fast.

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together.”

A gracious gesture, and — poof! — the “Country First” ticket is off the hook, just like that, for the lying, red-baiting, character assassination, rabble-rousing, and calculated polarization that preceded it?

I don’t think so.

A dog that behaved that badly would be sent to obedience school. A child who was that reckless would face consequences up the wazoo. But just because Americans are good people, a campaign’s end requires us to willingly come down with a national case of amnesia?

Gimme a break.

What an insult it is to the idea of accountability, this notion that responsibility for the ugly emotions unleashed by demagoguery is wiped away by a concession speech. What an affront to the dignity of democracy, this remorseless draining of meaning from language, this quadrennial rush to retroactively trivialize our public discourse.

The most pernicious aspect of the media-political complex we are saddled with is its addiction to postmodern irony. Educated people are supposed to understand that politics is just theater, a pageant designed to entertain us, a Punch and Judy show whose audience realizes it’s not real. Politics is only a game, you see, a sport — a blood sport, to be sure, but the teams aren’t actually warriors, they’re performers, and their combat is ritual, not real.

You think these candidates mean what they say? Grow up, says the professional commentariat. Don’t you get it? These politicians are winking at you. They know it’s just kabuki. Don’t take this stuff seriously.

So John McCain — while claiming that not he’s not impugning Barack Obama’s patriotism — impugns Barack Obama’s patriotism, but we’re supposed to understand that it doesn’t really matter, because that’s just what people do in campaigns.

So Sarah Palin says that Obama pals around with terrorists, and she incites her crowds to look for pitchforks, but we’re supposed to believe that Pandora can just shoo the evil back into the box come Election Day.

So Rudy Giuliani bares his teeth on national television, but because he laughs with startled delight at the rancor he unleashes in his listeners, we’re supposed to construe his snarling as a harmless charade.

So the ads on America’s airwaves relentlessly pound into our national psyche the message that “liberal” is akin to traitor, that Obama is dishonorable, that he is opportunistically lying when he claims to dissent from “God damn America” – and the press covers the slurs as merely tactical maneuvers, as though the country could just take a shower once the campaign is over and wash the silly slime off its body, as though no damage had been done to the nation because no one serious takes any of this stuff seriously.

Yes, I know that some of Obama’s ads earned the ire of independent fact checkers. I realize that political rhetoric isn’t the same thing as sworn testimony. And I recognize that campaigns in America’s past have crawled with calumny even worse than this one.

But I also think that our yearning for post-election healing, our hunger for common ground, is risky. There is something wonderfully redemptive in our belief in national reconciliation. But there is also in it something naïve and self-destructive and dangerous.

Have we so quickly forgotten the rank hypocrisy of George W. Bush running as “a uniter, not a divider”? Have we no recollection of the fatuous hollowness of his inaugural promises to reach across the aisle? Is it too dispiriting to recall that his search for common ground turned out to mean “my way or the highway”? Is it just too difficult to remember the eight years during which principled dissent was demonized as being “with the terrorists”?

On Inauguration Day, no doubt Barack Obama will come up with something gracious to say about the worst president in history, just as he was generous in his victory speech to John McCain and Sarah Palin, and open-armed to their supporters.

But it does no good to pretend that the politics of personal destruction is harmless to democracy, to ignore how corrosive campaigns can be, to comfort oneself — as the punditocracy does — with the sophisticated nostrum that it’s only politics, so get over it.

Call me churlish, but I think that along with the privilege of living in a democracy comes the obligation to be accountable for your actions. And if you think that words — the currency of campaigns — aren’t actions, if you believe that rhetoric doesn’t matter, if you treat politics as just another branch of show biz, well then, you’re pretty much a sitting duck for the next demagogue to come along.

Forgive and forget? Not just yet.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Move over, Willie Horton


I just hope Peter Feldman isn’t Jewish.

In my parents’ New Jersey home, when the perpetrator of some awful act in the news was not yet known, I could always count on them to say, “I hope he isn’t Jewish.”

This worked out well in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, but for Jack Ruby, not so much. Sighs of relief greeted the announcement that the “Mad Bomber” terrorizing New York was George Metesky, but not when the “Son of Sam” killer was identified as David Berkowitz.

Peter Feldman is the McCain-Palin campaign’s communications director in Pennsylvania.

I don’t know Peter Feldman, and the only mayhem he’s suspected of is metaphorical, and the drip, drip, drip of evidence against him is coming out in the court of public opinion, not in a court of law. I realize that politics ain’t beanbag, and I’m familiar with the riptides and undertows that can seize anyone working in a presidential campaign, especially an apparently losing one, in its final days. Still, for the sake of the reputation of Jewish ethics, and even for the sake of the reputation of Republicans, I sure hope he didn’t do last week what it kinda sorta looks like he did.

By now everyone knows that Ashley Todd, the 20-year-old McCain volunteer from College Park, Texas who told Pittsburgh police that a 6-foot-4 black man robbed her at an ATM machine and carved a backwards B on her face, has (in the words of a Pennsylvania prosecutor) “not insignificant mental health issues.” She made it all up.

But what everyone may not know is that before the contents of her allegation were fully known, let alone verified, it appears to be Peter Feldman – not the police – who told local reporters that her (fictional) big black assailant said to her, “You’re with the McCain campaign? I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

Move over, Willie Horton.

“>if you believe that Peter Feldman was just repeating what he had heard from the police, it is nevertheless arguable, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said, that Mr. Feldman’s actions showed “not just a willingness to believe it, but an eagerness to incite a …racial backlash against the Obama campaign.”

On Saturday night, the same Peter Feldman ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”381″ height=”288″ vspace = 8 hspace 8 8 align = right />said that the party had not authorized the email; he blamed it on Bryan Rudnick, a consultant whom he said had drafted it. Mr. Rudnick denied that, saying that he had been hired by the party to do outreach to Jewish voters, and that “I had authorization from party officials.”

“>as he told the Des Moines Register, that he always tells “100 percent absolute truth” – that he is not winking at us ironically, not signaling “it’s just politics, my friends,” not asking us to pardon him for just-doing-what-a candidate’s-gotta-do, when he says that Jerry Falwell “>fire Rumsfeld; or that he’s the only presidential candidate not to receive “>balance the budget in four years; or that Obama wants kindergarteners taught “comprehensive “>expert on energy.

It is even conceivable that Sarah Palin really does think it’s true that the Troopergate investigation “>natural gas pipeline really is under way; or that Obama really does “>with terrorists; or that Obama’s economic plan actually amounts to

Dems to Palin: Bring up Rev. Wright, we’ll bring up Rev. Muthee [VIDEO]


WASHINGTON (JTA)—As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attempts to inject Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor back into the presidential campaign, the Republican vice-presidential candidate is facing increasing questions about her own associations with clergymen.

This week, in an interview with William Kristol for his New York Times column, Palin suggested that more attention should be paid to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, calling his sermons “appalling” and arguing that Obama had effectively condoned the comments because he didn’t leave the church.

Obama supporters in the Jewish community counter that they are ready to fight back with their own barrage of guilt-by-association attacks. They note Palin’s presence in church when speakers praised Jews for Jesus, suggested that terrorism in Israel was divine retribution for rejecting Christianity and argued that corruption would end if Christians took control of the financial sector.

In addition, a prominent Democratic strategist and liberal bloggers have responded to Republican efforts to link Obama to a domestic terrorist-turned-education activist by noting that John McCain once served on the board of an organization accused of anti-Semitism.

Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, reiterated his objections to such attacks, but said that if Republicans are going to engage in them, they should “have to answer for their own problems.”

“What’s good for the goose,” he said, “is good for the gander.”

Last spring, during the Democratic primaries, a firestorm erupted over Wright, Obama’s longtime pastor and a man the U.S. senator from Illinois had identified as a mentor. After video clips surfaced of Wright shouting “God damn America” on the Sunday after the Sept. 11 attacks, and criticizing U.S. support of Israel, Obama eventually cut ties with the retiring pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

In recent weeks, the Republican Jewish Coalition has run advertisements playing up Wright’s controversial comments and Obama’s connection to him. Palin, meanwhile, has taken the lead in injecting the issue into the national political conversation.

Some Democrats say this is a risky maneuver, given the emerging details about clergymen who have appeared in her churches. Two weeks before being tapped for the GOP ticket, Palin was in attendance at her current congregation—Wasilla Bible Church—when a leader of Jews for Jesus described terrorist attacks against Israel as “judgment” against those who have not accepted Christianity.

While a spokesman for Palin has said that the Republican running mate rejects this view, the McCain-Palin campaign has declined to say whether she shares her pastor’s general support for Jews for Jesus—a group that Jewish organizations accuse of using deceptive tactics because it tells people they can embrace Jesus and still remain true to Judaism.

Asked this week whether the Alaska governor would condemn the missionary group, McCain-Palin campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb told JTA that “vice-presidential candidates cannot be in the business of condemning religious groups who do not commit violence” in a country that guarantees “freedom of religion.”

Goldfarb added that it is “extremely inappropriate for any elected official” to comment “on any religious group” and its mission. “That’s a fundamental breach of the separation of church and state,” he said.

Fred Zeidman, co-chairman of the Republican Party’s Jewish outreach in 2008, said in an interview with Shalom TV last month that Palin “needs to answer” questions about her feelings on Jews for Jesus “to have any credibility for all citizens. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And if the answers are not to the liking of the Jewish community, I think that becomes problematic.”

On Monday, Zeidman told JTA that the campaign’s response “was not the best answer in the world.” He added that he “would love to hear” Palin’s thoughts on the issue “from her mouth.”

Zeidman was also quick to emphasize his view that Obama’s 20 years in Wright’s church was a much bigger issue than Palin’s attendance at one speech at her church.

Goldfarb, the campaign spokesman, said Palin wouldn’t be opposed to talking about her religious beliefs, provided she was asked about them by interviewers in the next few weeks.

Attention has started to shift to Palin’s involvement in a second service, this one in 2005 at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, just a few days before she announced her run for governor. The video of the service first gained attention because it shows a Kenyan pastor, Thomas Muthee, blessing Palin, and urging Jesus to protect her from “the spirit of witchcraft.”

In recent days, however, critics increasingly have focused on the speech that the clergyman gave before he brought Palin to the stage.

Muthee called for “God’s kingdom” to “infiltrate” seven aspects of society, including economics.

“It is high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity, running the economics of our nations,” he said. “That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the Israelites, you know, that’s how they won. And that’s how they are, even today. When we will see that, you know, the talk transport us in the lands. We see, you know, the bankers. We see the people holding the paths. They are believers. We will not have the kind of corruption that we are hearing in our societies.”

Given Muthee’s linking of Israelites and banks, some observers and critics have concluded that the statement was anti-Jewish. But, a McCain adviser countered, when read carefully it is clear that the statement was not at all critical of Jews.

The ‘Israelites’ video

The adviser, John Beerbower, said that the term Israelite “refers to the biblical kingdom, not the modern state,” and that Muthee is speaking of the “restoration of the Davidic kingdom,” a key element of evangelical Protestantism. He added that the statement can be read as a “compliment” to Jews, because he is actually saying that the Israelites were people of “integrity,” and still are today.

As for Muthee’s comments about wanting to see Christian men and women running the country’s economy, Beerbower said the clergyman was merely expressing a desire to see the Christian men and women who are in those positions act with integrity.

Dewey Wallace, a professor of religion at George Washington University who teaches on Christianity in the United States, agreed that the reference to “Israelites” could be viewed as “a bit of a compliment” to the Jewish people. But he said Muthee’s reference to “top Christian businessmen, businesswomen” went beyond a desire for men and women of “integrity” in banking; rather, it’s a wish for evangelical Christians to serve in those posts.

He noted, though, that Muthee was not targeting Jews with his comments, but all non-born-again Christians.

“I don’t think Jews need to be more concerned than Episcopalians,” Wallace said.

Goldfarb noted that Palin had actually left Wasilla Assembly of God as a member in 2002 and was only visiting that day. He argued that just because Palin sat in the audience or came up on stage did not mean she agreed with all of Muthee’s remarks—which, he added, were somewhat difficult to understand.

Rabbi Jack Moline, religious leader of a synagogue in Alexandria, Va. and a leader of the new group Rabbis for Obama, downplayed the importance of Muthee’s blessing of Palin. He said that what people do in their house of worship can look foreign to anyone who doesn’t have a background in that tradition.

Another front in the “guilt by association” war was opened up on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” when Democratic strategist Paul Begala pointed to McCain’s stint on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Begala identified the council as an “ultra-conservative, right-wing group” that the Anti-Defamation League said had increasingly become a gathering place for extremists, racists and anti-Semites.

“That’s not John McCain,” Begala said, but warned that the GOP candidate “does not want to play guilt by association or this thing will blow up in his face.”

An ADL spokesman said the group was currently looking for a copy of that report, which was published in 1981.

A New York Times article from 1986 reported that the ADL, in a letter to the group’s founder, John Singlaub, said that since he took over in 1981, the retired major general had “brought about a considerable cleansing of the organization.”

An Arizona Republic article from that same year said McCain had been trying to cut ties with the group for two years.

Singlaub told The Associated Press on Monday that he didn’t recall McCain’s efforts to leave the group, but he also said the Republican was not an active participant in the organization.

 

VIDEO: Jewish voters targeted in ‘push polling’ — RJC fesses up


Joelna Marcus tells JTA she was the target of a push poll because she is Jewish. A caller, pretending to be a pollster, tried to insinuate Barack Obama is pro-Palestinian.



The Republican Jewish Coalition has admitted it sponsored a negative poll about Barack Obama.

Politico.com reported Tuesday evening that the RJC took responsibility for the phone poll in swing states, which asked voters their response to negative statements about Obama. Those statements included reported praise for him from a leader of the Palestinian terror group Hamas and a friendship early in his career with a pro-Palestinian university professor.

RJC executive director Matt Brooks told the publication that his organization conducted the poll to “understand why Barack Obama continues to have a problem among Jewish voters.”

Brooks denied that the poll was a “push poll” meant to influence Jewish voters, and said it was a traditional survey meant to gauge the opinions of Jewish voters.

A top Jewish Obama supporter slammed the RJC. “Peddling lies and hateful distortions to scare Jewish voters is reprehensible and deeply disrespectful to Jewish Americans,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).

 

Fear of an Obama Planet grips some Americans


As soon as I saw The New Yorker cover spoofing right-wing fear mongering over Barack and Michelle Obama, my first thought was that my friend, Sanjay, in Mumbai, India, hada point about Americans and stupidity.

What was it but stupidity that left so many Americans gullible to right-wing accusations that Obama was that turban-wearing, Osama bin Laden-loving Muslim on the magazine’s cover, bumping fists with his militant, rifle-toting wife, Michelle, as the American flag burned in their fireplace.

Where was Barry Blitt’s cartoon months ago, when a loud “So what?” might have nipped in the bud those ridiculous “Obama is a secret Muslim” rumors? So this Muslim, at least, was relieved to see the stupidity lampooned so starkly.

But as soon as I began to revel in the caricature, a little dismayed hand-wringing began. Because now the very people who were offended by right-wing accusations about Obama were acting offended by a cartoon lampooning those very same right-wing machinations. It is as if America has gone mad, or worse, gone brainless.

I remember a dinner-table conversation in Mumbai a couple of weeks ago when Sanjay — an architect and businessman — turned to me quite earnestly to proclaim, “Americans are inherently stupid.”

“How do you live with them?” he asked.

There we were — an Indian and an Egyptian — discussing America over dinner at the Royal Yacht Club, built by British colonialists for the enjoyment of white privilege and off limits to us brown people back when they ruled India.

Then Manique, a Sri Lankan woman, joined the conversation to tell us that during a visit to the United States a few years ago, someone actually asked her if they had bread in Sri Lanka. I asked her, half-jokingly, if it was the same American who asked my dad at an Athens hotel over dinner years ago whether we had fruit in Egypt.

More than just shocked amusement, these incidents show why all of us would vote for Obama if we could. He would never ask us if we had bread or fruit in our countries. Why? Obama is much like us. He has traveled. He has lived abroad. And he has family in several countries. He has a different script for what an American is. He is an American who is comfortable as a citizen of the world — with or without his lapel pin.

This is what makes the right-wing “secret Muslim” accusations and the stupid gullibility surrounding them all the more ludicrous and imperative to lampoon — just as Blitt does in this week’s New Yorker.

Those howls of “offensive” and “tasteless” flung at The New Yorker suggest to me Blitt’s ability to lampoon not just the right wing but even some on the left wing who have promoted fears about Obama.

Wasn’t it Hillary Clinton’s campaign that leaked pictures of Obama in Somali traditional garb, looking just like that crazy figure on the cover of The New Yorker? And didn’t Clinton herself suggest that white, working-class America wouldn’t vote for black, hypereducated Obama?

And wasn’t it The New York Times that published an op-ed by a right-wing commentator that was such an ignorant and embarrassing display, claiming that Obama wasn’t Muslim enough and would be hunted by Muslims because he had abandoned the faith of his father — who was an atheist, by the way.

Just as we were amused at how confounded Americans are that we, too, have bread and fruit in our countries, the Obamas confound because they don’t fit with in simplistic boxes meant to keep them securely in their place. They’re not at all the black stereotype, and it seems to scare the hell out of some Americans.

Jack White points out in an essay on The Root Web site: “We are all, including Obama, in a place we never really thought we would be, and it has knocked us off our feet. We don’t know how to act. We don’t have a plan. We’re searching for our equilibrium. And until we regain our footing, we can expect all sorts of bizarre behavior from people who ought to know better. Hold on to your hat.”

Which is why methinks the outrage over Blitt’s cartoon is less an issue of genuine offense and more a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” It touches on a fear of the world changing much too fast for many Americans to keep up.

The New Yorker cover ridicules an America that is being left behind, grappling with quaint notions of Muslims in regulation turban and white robe and militantly angry black women. And whether other countries have bread or fruit.

We, the children of a post-colonial world, don’t fear an Obama planet. It has been our world for a long time. We’re happy finally to see the growing success of one of our own.

No, I didn’t mean a Muslim. Stop hyperventilating.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning, New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

The torch has been passed