Op-Ed: Obama Has a Long Road to Travel to Win Support from American Jews

Senator Barack Obama can’t seem to shake his “Jewish” problem.

He is perceived by many American Jews and a large part of the pro-Israel non-Jewish community as biased in favor of Palestinians, Iran, Syria, and Hamas. Despite his repeated statements concerning the security of Israel, Obama still has work to do in terms of persuading Israel and its supporters that as President he will not be another Jimmy Carter who believes that Israel is an “apartheid state” that terrorizes and bullies its neighbors.

Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East was in part intended to assuage these fears, but it was just another step down a long road of attempting to appeal to the Jewish community in the United States. Obama has not gained much ground in these efforts because his outreach has been haphazard and marked by missteps that make Obama look like he’s playing politics when he talks about his support of Israel.

For example, in his speech before American-Israel Public Affairs Committee this spring, Senator Obama called for the eternal undivided Jerusalem as a capital of Jewish state. A few days later he backed off from this statement and switched to more neutral position regarding the future of Jerusalem – “the fate of Jerusalem should be decided during the negotiations between Israel and Palestinians.”

It also did not help Obama when his close foreign policy advisor Robert Maley resigned from the campaign after revealing that he was in constant contact with Hamas for the period of eight months. While the measure received modest publicity in the mainstream media, it alarmed those in the Jewish community.

The Senator from Illinois was also forced to condemn some anti-Semitic statements made by Louis Farrakhan, a leader of radical group “Nation of Islam”, who in February received “The Leadership Award” at the Trinity Unity Church of Chicago, which was Obama’s church for 20 years. Obama also initially defended his long-time pastor and close friend Jeremiah Wright who blamed America for supporting “state terrorism against Palestinians.” Later Obama denounced his former pastor, but many Jews still wonder if Obama sat in the pews for 20 years because he either didn’t find Wright’s views offensive or he agreed with them.

Senator Obama also did not make many friends among Jews when he said during debates that he is ready for direct negotiations “without preconditions” with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran in the first 100 days of an Obama Administration. Now he talks about “preparations” and “all options on the table,” but Jews wonder if he still believes he can persuade rogue dictators to change their behavior by personally talking to them. Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be wiped off the map, denied the Holocaust and persecuted Jews in Iran, so the idea of presidential talks between Obama and Ahmadinejad sounds scary to many Israeli supporters.

On top of some real issues existing between the presumptive Democratic nominee and the Jewish community, there is overwhelming evidence of a whisper campaign spreading massive rumors and false accusations through e-mails by Obama’s opponents (whoever they are). The emails are a mixture of half-truths, total nonsense, open racism and complete fabrications that are accompanied by a set of “incriminating” pictures of Obama’s extended family in Kenya, Obama in an African “Muslim” turban and Obama not placing a hand on his heart while the American anthem is performed.

It’s good that Obama visited Israel and met some influential Israeli leaders, like Tsipi Livni, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Shimon Peres. It’s also important that he visited Yad Vashem museum wearing a yarmulke and met residents of the city of Sderot who are constantly under missile attacks from Gaza. He also had negotiations with moderate Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah.

In his interviews after these meetings he said all the right words about the peace process, American engagement and importance of current negotiations between Olmert and Abbas. But the question remains: Will President Obama push Israel into significant territorial concessions that will jeopardize the security and even the existence of the Jewish State?

We need to hear more from him about the terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas that seem to be gaining influence in recent weeks. He also should convince the pro-Israel community (including more than one million Russian-speaking Jews in America) that as President he will continue to send Israel billions of dollars in military aid and other help, continuing a policy that has lasted for several decades. He could put some of these worries to rest by giving a more visible role in his campaign to well-known supporters of Israel like Congressman Anthony Weiner, Senator Charles Schumer or Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. It would also be wise for Senator Obama to mention the security of Israel in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention.

Barack Obama is still viewed with concern and suspicion by large chunk of Jewish community in America. It would be smart for him to allay some of these fears and not give an advantage to Senator John McCain who has a proven record in terms of supporting Israel.

Ari Kagan is a senior editor for “Vecherniy New York” a Russian-language weekly.

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