Obama to Jewish Floridians: 'Don't Vote Against Me Because of Who I Am'

BOCA RATON, Fla.--The first drops of rain started falling the moment Barack Obama arrived, and by the time he started speaking, there was a downpour. But even inside the B'nai Torah temple it was easy to sense there was a storm brewing over Boca.

Obama, for one, knew the forecast. In choosing to visit a conservative synagogue in one of the country's most densely Jewish congressional districts, the Illinois senator sought Thursday evening to combat misconceptions about his background and beliefs within what's proven to be one of his most skeptical constituencies. Signs of the coming tempest were apparent as early as January, when Vicki Hercsky, 47, a local teacher, told me after a Rudy Giuliani event a nearby shul that Obama, a Christian, was "Muslim." "He has it in his blood," she said when I corrected her. "You can't take away what's given to you. It's given to you for a reason, and that's who you are. That's who he is." At Boca's Century Village retirement community Wednesday, local residents greeted voters who'd come to see Hillary Clinton with banners that said "Obama: Bad for Israel, Bad for America"; they were back yesterday at B'nai Torah, having transformed the "O" of Obama into a frowny face. Outside, the Republican Jewish Coalition distributed a flier--currently doubling as ad in the Palm Beach Post, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Boca Raton News--that accused Obama of supporting Arabs over Israelis. And each of the evening's warm-up speakers--a rabbi, a state senator, a state representative and a U.S. congressman--pleaded repeatedly with the audience not to believe the viral email rumors ("Muslim, pro-Palestine, un-American") that have flooded Florida's Jewish community and have largely come to define the Democratic near-nominee in the ten months since he last campaigned in the state. "This is salacious and false and wrong innuendo," said state Rep. Dan Gelber. "Senator Obama does not have an Israel problem; he is perfect on Israel. The Republicans have an election problem--and they will only win if you do not believe your own eyes and your own ears."

Providing Florida's Jewish voters with that raw material was, of course, was the point of Thursday's visit. Amid a spate of stories in recent months about a Hamas spokesman who had spoken kindly of the candidate, a former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., who had made pro-Palestinian remarks and Obama's own willingness to talk directly with hostile adversaries like Iran, the campaign has ramped up its outreach to this small but influential voting bloc by dispatching key Jewish supporters to upcoming primary states and making the candidate himself available to the Jewish press. But the B'Nai Torah visit was unique in that it brought Obama face-to-face with skeptics in a townhall setting. Aware, perhaps, of the paradox of social psychology that says that "repeating a claim, even if only to refute it, increases its apparent truthfulness"--unlike, say, his opening acts--Obama dismissed the viral smear campaign with a quick flash of humor. "By the way, if you get an email from a Nigerian says who you can get a lot of money if you send him $1,000, don't do it," he joked. "We don't believe that stuff when it comes over email. Why would you believe an email about me?"

Instead, Obama chose to counter misconceptions largely by reiterating his policy positions: a 100 percent pro-Israel voting record, according to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; no negotiations with Hezbollah or Hamas, "a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction"; and demands that Iran "stop developing nuclear weapons, stop funding terrorists and stop threatening Israel." "The bottom line is this," he said. "Nobody can find any statement that I have ever made that is anything less than unequivocally pro-Israel, that says Israel's security is paramount." Throughout, the Illinois senator laced his talking points with personal reminiscences meant to stress his kinship with the Jewish people, from the sixth-grade camp counselor whose descriptions of Israel appealed to him as an uprooted, biracial child--"an outsider in search of a home"--to his 2006 trip to the Jewish state, where he was struck by "the kindness and resolve of the people I met." Ultimately, he asked that the audience move past the "rumor-mongering." "This is part, I think, of the tradition of the Jewish people is to judge me by what I say and what I have done," he said. "Don't judge me because I have a funny name. Don't judge me because I am an African American... If my policies are wrong, then vote against me because my policies are wrong. If I am not honest, if I am not truthful, don't vote for me for that reason. But don't vote against me because of who I am--and I know you won't."

Yet the storm clouds lingered even after Obama spoke. Shortly after the start of an extended question-and-answer session, a man named Michael Ackerman ("from Brooklyn to Boca") stood up and said that his daughter, a 26-year-old New York law student, felt Obama had been "pilloried in the press" and had a question she wanted to ask. "Go ahead," said Obama. Reading from a computer printout, Ackerman began by seeming to criticize the media for obsessing over "certain relationships with controversial people with questionable pasts." But it soon became clear that was merely a pretense for listing those "relationships" himself. As Ackerman rattled off his names--a Michigan imam whom Obama met earlier this month; a Palestinian scholar he knew from Columbia University--the audience began to boo, and the senator tried to interrupt.

"All right," said Obama. "I know you're doing it for your daughter. I've got daughters so I'm sensitive to it. But I want to make sure I get some other questions in."

"I'm almost there," Ackerman insisted--then continued with the names, prompting more jeers. Undeterred, he didn't skip to his "question" until an elderly man approached and reached for the microphone. "Ok, ok," he said. "My daughter wants to know, aside form elected officials, who can you point to as close personal friends of you and your wife who are solemnly pro-Israel and anti-terrorist and can say that..."

At this, the audience erupted, drowning him out. Although Ackerman tried to speak up, Obama had heard enough. "Let me respond," he said, cutting off his questioner and quieting the crowd. Admitting that he was "hesitant" to "start listing out" Jews who could "vouch for me"--"You remember the old stereotype about someone who says, 'I'm not prejudiced; some of best friends are Jewish'"--Obama nonetheless mentioned a handful of staffers (his national finance chair, his Illinois co-chair) who fit the bill, and noted that "one of the raps on me when I first ran for Congress in [Chicago's] African American community was that 'he was too close to the Jewish community.'" But he was clearly uncomfortable with Ackerman's insinuation. "To pluck out one person who I know and who I had a conversation with and who has different views than nine of my other friends and then to suggest that shows I'm somehow not sufficiently pro-Israel is, I think, a very problematic statement," he said. Unfortunately, the discomfort didn't stop there. A few moments later, a woman who claimed she kept in touch with Iranian acquaintances from her childhood in India, "informed" the audience that her "friends" "say they are so excited because they can't wait to have another president as good as Jimmy Carter... who will allow them to do what they want without limits." Needless to say, Obama, who reiterated his anti-nuke, anti-terrorism stance toward the Iranian regime, wasn't particularly flattered.

Obama's so-called Jewish problem is easy to oversstate. Most of the B'nai Torah crowd was appreciative, and many were adoring; Obama received several standing ovations. What's more, a Gallup poll last month showed him clobbering John McCain among Jewish voters 61 percent to 32 percent. But it's also worth noting that Gallup had Clinton outperforming the Illinois senator by five points, and that John Kerry captured 76 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004. That wasn't enough to win Florida, a state where Jews account for five percent of the electorate. Obama's goal, of course, is to improve on Kerry's finish. Judging by Thursday's initial effort, though, there are still some rainy days ahead.

Obama to Jewish Floridians: 'Don't Vote Against Me Because of Who I Am' | News