Obama: Good for the Jews?

The comment seemed like a casual aside. Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, was touting the New York senator's strong support for Israel during a conference call in January with leaders of major American Jewish organizations. During the call, Lewis energetically contrasted Clinton's pro-Israel credentials with those of Barack Obama. To make her point, she said that Obama's "chief foreign-policy adviser" is Zbigniew Brzezinski, says one participant who would talk about the call only if he were not identified.

Brzezinski—the former national-security adviser to Jimmy Carter—is not Obama's "chief foreign-policy adviser." That is the job of a triumvirate who once worked for Bill Clinton: Anthony Lake, Susan Rice and Greg Craig. But Brzezinski, who tells NEWSWEEK he has advised Obama "only on occasion," has a reputation that is close to toxic in the American Jewish community. "When Brzezinski's name appears on an advisory list, that's a red flag right away," says an influential American Jewish leader who did not want to sour relations with the Obama campaign. Many American Jews mistrust Brzezinski because he endorsed a 2006 article, later a book, called "The Israel Lobby," which blames many U.S. foreign-policy problems on Washington's ties to Israel.

Lewis's aside is not an isolated incident. (She did not respond to a request for comment.) As the race between Clinton and Obama has sharpened in recent months, other Clinton campaign operatives have sent around negative material about Obama's relations with Israel, according to e-mails obtained by NEWSWEEK. In addition to Brzezinski, the e-mails attack Obama advisers such as Rob Malley, a former Clinton negotiator at the 2000 Camp David talks who has since written articles sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view, and they raise questions about Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor at Obama's Trinity Church in Chicago. Wright has criticized Israel, and Trumpet, a publication run by his daughter, gave an award for "greatness" to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who once called Judaism a "bloodsucking religion." (Obama disagreed with bestowing the award.)

Aides to Obama say they have little evidence of an organized Clinton plan to turn Jewish voters away from him. (Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says he has no comment.) Some members of the Jewish community say the e-mails began with Christian evangelicals who are supportive of Israel. Regardless, one senior Obama adviser, who would talk only anonymously because the campaign's response involved internal discussions, says the timing is suspicious: "There's an increased number of these attack e-mails going around in direct correlation to Barack's strength in the primaries and caucuses." (He has beaten her among Jewish voters in California, Connecticut and Massachusetts; she's won in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.)

In one case, Daphna Ziman, a longtime friend of Hillary Clinton's who has co-chaired several events for her, forwarded an e-mail from the Republican Jewish Coalition, a grass-roots GOP group, criticizing Obama for proposing a Muslim summit. In a Jan. 31 interview with Paris Match, Obama said he wanted "an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows between Muslims and the West." Ziman, in her Feb. 2 e-mail, responded, "I am horrified at Mr. Obama's point of view." Her e-mail, sent to a group including Mike Medavoy, a Hollywood producer who supports Obama, contained a press release from RJC executive director Matt Brooks. "Nowhere in the Paris Match article does Senator Obama affirm Israel's right to exist," Brooks wrote. (Ziman says "the campaign had nothing to do with" her e-mail.)

In an e-mail sent Feb. 4—a day before Super Tuesday—Clinton finance official Annie Totah passed along a critical essay by Ed Lasky, a conservative blogger whose own anti-Obama e-mails have circulated in the U.S. Jewish community. Totah wrote: "Please read the attached important and very disturbing article on Barak Obama. Please vote wisely in the Primaries." (She didn't respond to a request for comment.)

The Obama-ites have counterattacked, rounding up endorsements from stalwarts in the Jewish community. Almost unanimously, American Jewish leaders say Obama's voting record and public pronouncements paint him squarely as an Israel supporter. "Senators Clinton, Obama, McCain and Governor Huckabee have demonstrated their support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship," AIPAC president Howard Friedman wrote to NEWSWEEK. (AIPAC says all three senators have strong congressional voting records on issues important to the U.S.-Israel relationship.) The few mainstream Jewish and Israeli figures who criticize Obama focus on his apparent willingness as president to talk to the Iranian regime. Danny Ayalon, Israel's former D.C. ambassador, says Iran would exploit Obama's gullibility and race ahead with a nuclear program. Hillary Clinton seems eager to remind voters of that argument.