Obama: Is His 'Jewish Problem’ a Myth?

Barack Obama received a standing ovation when he proclaimed his unwavering support for Israel to the influential lobbying group AIPAC last week. In her own AIPAC speech, Hillary Clinton said she was sure "that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel." But Clinton's reassuring words didn't soothe the wounded feelings of some prominent Jewish Obama supporters, who charge that Clinton campaign operatives manufactured fear about Obama's ethnic background and doubt about his loyalty to Israel in an effort to turn Jewish primary voters against him.

Obama has long had a strong core of liberal Jewish supporters in Chicago; his national Jewish support grew as his campaign surged. But so did rumors that he had a "problem" with Jewish voters because of his family background (middle name: Hussein) and that some of his aides held pro-Palestinian views. David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul who once backed the Clintons but turned to Obama, told NEWSWEEK that her campaign bears some responsibility for "an awful lot of disinformation" that sowed doubts about the candidate's support of Israel among "older Jewish voters in Florida." New Jersey Rep. Robert Andrews, an Obama backer, says that two months ago a top Hillary campaign operative told him Obama would have a "hard time winning in November" because of his alleged Jewish problem and indicated Clinton's campaign was going to take advantage of those fears. Andrews says he found such talk "offensive," but he didn't know whether Hillary had sanctioned it. Asked for comment, the Clinton campaign referred NEWSWEEK to an article in the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, in which spokesman Phil Singer called similar comments by Andrews "sad and divisive."

Obama has trailed Clinton among Jewish voters in polling matchups against John McCain (though both beat him soundly). But Obama has many high-profile Jewish fund-raisers, and aides claim his support among Jews will equal or surpass John Kerry's 75 percent in 2004. McCain has enlisted high-profile help of his own to help win Jewish votes: Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a self-described "independent Democrat" who has criticized Obama's leadership qualities, has agreed to head up a booster group called Citizens for McCain. In a brief but animated Senate floor confrontation last week, according to a campaign aide who asked for anonymity when talking about private discussions, Obama told Lieberman he was surprised by Lieberman's personal attacks and his half-hearted denials of the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim. (The aide says Lieberman was "strangely muted" during the exchange; a Lieberman spokesman says the chat was "private and friendly.") McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker says Lieberman "played a key role in reaching out to the Jewish community in the primary … and you can expect that will continue."

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