|Abner Mikva, the former Chicago congressman, federal judge and White House counsel to President Bill Clinton, puts a 21st-century twist on the notion that Clinton was “the nation’s first black president.”"I think when this is all over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president,” he said.
Mikva, a powerful figure in local and national Democratic politics for decades, was one of Sen. Obama’s early admirers, beginning in 1990 when he tried to hire the brilliant student and first black president of the Harvard Law Review for a coveted clerkship. (Obama turned him down, saying he was going to move to Chicago and run for public office. “I thought that showed a lot of chutzpah on his part,” Mikva says with a laugh.)
Since then, Mikva’s support for and nurturance of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has never wavered. He is one of many influential Chicago Jews who have been among Obama’s earliest and most ardent backers.
One longtime Jewish observer of the political scene, who did not want to be identified, said admiringly that “Jews made him. Wherever you look, there is a Jewish presence.”
Yet outside of Chicago, there has been a significant amount of Jewish resistance to Obama’s candidacy, although that may be lessening with Sen. Hillary Clinton, a favorite among Jews, out of the picture.
The Jewish community has been a particular target of e-mails declaring Obama a secret Muslim who attended a madrassa in Indonesia, took his Senate oath of office by swearing on a Quran, and is aligned with Muslim terrorists. Those allegations have been thoroughly disproven by mainstream media and other sources. But even aside from the crackpot right, there is still distrust of the Illinois senator from some Jewish quarters, much of it centering on Israel and on some former and current advisors who are perceived to be unfriendly to the Jewish state.
Typical of the naysayers is Joel Sprayregen, a Chicago attorney who is a former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a current member of the executive committee of JINSA, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs.
“My skepticism about Obama derives from both his lack of experience and his alignment up to recently with the far left,” Sprayregen said while acknowledging that the candidate “has moved more to the center once he secured the nomination.”
Sprayregen believes that “a number” of Obama’s foreign policy advisors “have views which would jeopardize American national security. His association with left-wing views and advisors gives me apprehension as to how firm his support for Israel would be in a crisis,” he said.
Obama is “baffled” by the resistance to him from some Jews, a key advisor, former California Rep. Mel Levine, said recently, and has stepped up outreach efforts to the Jewish community, including making a well-publicized trip to Israel earlier this summer, his second visit to the Jewish state. Washington correspondent James Besser, writing in The New York Jewish Week, declares that the senator “is acting as if Jews hold the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
In a way, they do. “The Jewish vote is important because of the states (Jews) are in,” Paul Green, a Roosevelt University professor and longtime political maven, said. While Jews make up only about three percent of the national voting public, they vote in greater proportion to their numbers than almost any other group and are gathered in key states, particularly Florida, a swing state with 27 electoral votes, he said.
“That’s the most interesting and important. The Jewish vote will matter the most there,” Green said. “New York, Illinois, California – they’ll go for Obama. But my guess is right now he has some work do with (Jews in) South Florida.”
Levine, the Obama advisor, says that more than anything, the nominee-to-be “wants people to realize what his record is and his closeness to the Jewish community in Chicago.”
That closeness can hardly be exaggerated.
Obama’s Chicago Jewish roots
“Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish community in Chicago,” Obama told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2004, just after his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention had galvanized the party and made his name a household word overnight.
That was not hyperbole.
Typical Obama first came to Chicago in 1985, after he graduated from Columbia University, and spent three years in the city as a community organizer. In 1988, he left for Harvard Law School, and in the same year met Newton Minow, a Jew and a longtime Democratic powerbroker who served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy. He is currently senior counsel at the Loop law firm of Sidley Austin.
Minow’s daughter Martha (“She’s not just Jewish, she’s very very Jewish,” her father said) was a professor at Harvard Law School at the time. “She called me in 1988 to say that the best student she ever had wanted to spend the summer in Chicago and she wanted me to meet him,” Minow relates. “I said what’s his name, and when she said ‘Barack Obama,’ I said, you gotta spell that.”
Minow asked a partner in his firm to look up Obama when he visited the law school. “He started to laugh,” Minow said. “He said, we hired him already.”
Obama worked at Sidley Austin as an intern that summer; the firm is where he met attorney Michelle Robinson, and they married in 1992. Minow later offered him a second internship followed by a permanent job, but Obama turned it down because, he said, he was planning to go into public service or politics.
Minow and his wife have remained friends with the couple and supporters of Obama’s political career. “We introduced him to a lot of our friends and held fund-raisers for him,” Minow said. “We find him to be truly outstanding. If you just look around, you can see he’s got many many Jewish friends. He is very much at home with Jewish people, their values and interests.”
He believes that many in the Jewish community supported Clinton over Obama because “they didn’t know Barack Obama. They were not informed about him. They had a loyalty over the years to the Clintons. It’s not that they were negative about Barack; they were just committed elsewhere.”
Minow continues to actively support Obama’s candidacy; a nephew serves as one of his speechwriters.
In Chicago, meanwhile, the Obamas settled in Hyde Park and Obama became a popular lecturer at the University of Chicago law school. Abner Mikva, whom Obama already knew from Washington, also taught there, and the two renewed their acquaintance and became close. “We would have lunch and breakfast together and talk about a lot of things, different issues,” Mikva said.
Through Project Vote, a voter registration drive that Obama worked on in 1992, he met two key future supporters, both Jewish. One was David Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and chief consultant to Chicago mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley who has been Obama’s chief strategist since 2002.
The other is a largely behind-the-scenes champion who has been there since the beginning of Obama’s political career and played a quietly crucial – perhaps the most crucial – role in it. She is Bettylu Saltzman, a longtime liberal activist whose father, Philip Klutznick, was a legendary Chicago developer, Jewish leader and statesman who served as secretary of commerce in the Carter administration and played a leading role in the development of the State of Israel.
Saltzman recalled that when she first met the 30-year-old Obama, “I don’t know what I saw, but others saw it too. I’m impressed by the numbers of people who said the same thing. He was clearly brilliant and articulate. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about him that was clearly destined to be something very special.”
She was working in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign at the time and, perhaps because she was thinking in presidential mode, “I immediately thought, he’s going to be president some day. I said to my husband and to a lot of other people, he is going to be our first black president. Why I don’t know, but I will never ever forget it.”
Later, she said, as she got to know Obama, “I would sort of tease him about it. I always said to him, this is what I think is going to happen, and I think in his own mind he always thought that was what he was going to be, too.”
While Saltzman said she “never thought about (her support) Jewishly,” she added that “obviously I’m not going to support someone who is opposed to Israel and what it stands for. He’s right on all the issues when it comes to Israel. He’s in exactly the same place (Hillary) Clinton is, maybe even stronger. He’s a clearer thinker.”
She was also impressed with Michelle Obama and says that “we could have two great people in the White House.”
Saltzman supported Obama during his campaign for the state Senate, which he won in 1996, and in his failed bid for Congress against Bobby Rush in 2000. And when Obama was contemplating a U.S. Senate run in 2002, she introduced him to a group of powerful Chicago women who call themselves the Ladies Who Lunch. Many became his supporters.
The following year, Saltzman may have played an even more crucial role in Obama’s political rise when she asked him to speak at a downtown Chicago rally against the Iraq war that she was organizing. The speech he gave there became famous, and Obama’s early opposition to the war served as a centerpiece of his primary campaign for president.
Saltzman has remained a supporter and now devotes her time to Obama’s presidential campaign. “What he did in his early life in Chicago proved that he has a great commitment to people who are less well off,” she said, adding that she is encouraged by how many young people are working to get out the vote for him. “People don’t always understand the fact that he thinks so clearly,” she said. “He is deliberative but not indecisive.” And as for Israel, “I think his (recent) trip to the Middle East proved how well accepted he was there.”
Meanwhile, after he finished his work with Project Vote, Obama took a job at a civil rights law firm, Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, led by Judson Miner, a well-known Chicago civil rights attorney and Mayor Harold Washington’s former counsel. Miner said he met Obama when he read an article in the paper about Obama’s wanting to join “a silk stocking law firm.” He called Obama, Obama called him back and Miner’s young son answered the phone. “He said a guy called me with a very funny name,” Miner related. “I had forgotten all about him, but just by chance I called him back.”
They agreed to meet and have lunch. Afterwards, “I called my wife and told her I just had lunch with the most impressive person I’ve ever met,” Miner said. “He was truly extraordinary in all sorts of ways. He had a unique comfort with who he was and no pretenses. He was not trying to impress you with who he was. He had a lot of questions and wanted to talk seriously about things he was giving a lot of thought to.”
Obama worked for Miner’s firm for close to 10 years in two different stretches. When he decided to take time off to run for the state Senate, Miner said, a telling incident occurred. Under a fairly common arrangement, Obama planned to work for the firm part-time while serving in the Senate, considered by many to be a part-time job, and Miner agreed to pay him.
“On about his third day in Springfield, he called me up and said, Judd, this is unfair to you guys. I’m going to be putting in a lot more time than I thought I was going to, and I wouldn’t feel right about being paid” by the law firm, Miner related.
Today, Miner is a firm supporter of his former employee’s presidential bid. “He has plenty of life experiences that have sensitized him to the things that matter most,” he said. “He has enormous self confidence but it is not arrogance. He is not a person who feels he has to hide things. He has very strong views but is very flexible.”
Obama’s “great strengths” are that he is “most comfortable dealing with people who he respects, who he thinks are dealing with him as equals, are sharing their true opinions. He is not interested in people who are yes men,” Miner said.
“I don’t know a blemish the guy has. We had many conversations about how do you engage in what you care about professionally while balancing your family obligations and commitment, and he has been quite successful in working it all out. He would be very effective in anything he wanted to do,” he said.
Working at Miner’s firm introduced Obama to many in the city’s liberal community, and during his state Senate tenure, he gained other supporters, including Illinois Sen. Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew who shared an office with him in Springfield. They also shared carpooling duties when both their children attended the secular pre-nursery at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School.
When they first met, Obama “never knew what an Orthodox Jew was,” Silverstein said. Although his Hyde Park district had a large Jewish community, there were few Orthodox Jews. “Down there (in Springfield) on the Sabbath, he didn’t understand my restrictions at first but he offered to help if I needed anything. He was very respectful and curious to find out. We talked about religion a lot. He is a very religious person,” he said.
Silverstein continues to support Obama and said he is disturbed that “there is lot of bad information out there, a lot of miscommunication, misinformation that has been proved false” about the senator. He said he and Obama often shared their pro-Israel feelings and that when Silverstein sponsored numerous resolutions condemning PLO bombings, Obama eagerly signed on as a co-sponsor.
“I know him,” he said. “People can read what they want to in the press, but I know him personally and I can testify to” his pro-Israel views. “That’s different than hitting a blog,” he said. “If people don’t want to listen to me they don’t have to, but there’s a lot of hearsay out there.”
In the state Senate, he said, Obama impressed him by his ability to work with the Republicans when the Democrats were the minority party, and by his ability to “bring people together.”
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, rabbi emeritus of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation and a legendary Hyde Park liberal, is Obama’s neighbor and longtime supporter. When Obama was running for the state Senate, Wolf held a fund-raiser for him and told him that “some day you will be the vice president of the United States. He said, why vice president, then he laughed. But we were all thinking this guy isn’t going to stay in the state Senate.”
“He moved across the street from a synagogue,” KAM, he said. “He didn’t have to do that.”
In fact, Obama even has a Jew in his mishpocheh, albeit on his wife’s side. Rabbi Capers Funnye, the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken-Agudath Achim Congregation on Chicago’s South Side is Michelle Obama’s cousin – her grandfather and the rabbi’s mother were sister and brother.
Funnye, an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s presidential bid, said he met him before the couple married and “thought it was a good match.” Later he worked with Obama when he was in the state Senate and Funnye was the director of a South Side youth services center and found him helpful and “always reachable.”
“Despite some of the things that have been said, I certainly believe (Obama) has a genuine affinity for the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” Rabbi Funnye said. “I’m hopeful that the broader Jewish community and the rest of the country will simply grow to understand they have nothing to fear from Obama on the State of Israel and Jewish issues in general.”
His own congregation is “extremely supportive,” and, he said, “throughout the black Jewish community in the United States, there’s great enthusiasm and support for his candidacy. This is a historic moment in time in the history of our country.” If Obama is elected president, “I think we will have achieved the ideals for which this country really stands,” he said.
When Obama ran for the Senate in 2004, he had not yet visited Israel – one scheduled trip coincided with the birth of his daughter – but he has since been there twice, in 2006 and earlier this summer. Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, was along on the January, 2006 trip, part of the federation’s “ongoing agenda to help public officials better understand Israel,” he said. (The organization is nonpartisan.)
On the trip, “we exposed him to aspects of Israel that might not otherwise be noted, aspects where this community and the federation are actively engaged,” he said. The senator discussed Ethiopian aliyah with the head of the Jewish Agency “to understand aliyah, how basic that is to Israel,” Kotzin said, and visited an Israeli-Arab-Christian village, among other sites.
The visit “gave him insights into Israeli life and society that are not commonly known, and that registered for him when he gave his main speech in Chicago on Israel and the Middle East,” he said. “He ended up talking about the trip he took and how he connected with aspects of the Israeli population and people and understanding the importance of Israel to our community.”
Another longtime Chicago supporter, philanthropist, community leader and member of one of Chicago’s Jewish royal families, Lester Crown, has known Obama since his first days in Chicago, when Minow called Crown and “said we have in our office a young man who I think is really going places, and I’d like you to meet him.” Crown has been a supporter ever since; his son James heads Obama’s Illinois financial campaign.
Crown said that despite Obama’s “rock-star, amazing popularity,” he has not changed fundamentally in all the years they have known each other. “He’s the same person, even though there are tremendous pressures on him. In the last six or eight months, he hasn’t gotten a swelled head. If he ever got a little bit of one, his wife would bring him back in two minutes.” Michelle Obama, he said, is “absolutely brilliant.”
Crown said he is “bothered” by portions of the Jewish community that express concerns, particularly, about Obama’s position on Israel. “From the time I met him, the times we talked about Israel, and we talked about it several times, he has been an ardent backer of Israel’s defense position, Israel’s security position,” he said. “He has been a proponent of the two-state solution, but only on the hopes that you will have a demilitarized peaceful Palestinian entity, which you do not have now.”
Most important, Crown said, is that “knowing him long before he got into politics, I know he is completely supportive, without any question or equivocation, of Israel’s security. He is only interested (in a two-state solution) if Israel’s security is absolutely assured, and that was his position long before he ever went into politics. His speeches to AIPAC are not new positions, merely the vocalization of what he has always believed,” he said.
Not everyone in the Jewish community agrees.
Jewish criticism of Obama – aside from the lunatic fringe that still harps on his middle name, Hussein, and supposed Muslim “credentials” – centers on four factors: his positions on Israel, several of his foreign policy advisors, his foreign policy inexperience and his apparent willingness as president to talk to the Iranian regime. His domestic agenda is little mentioned in these debates.
Emily Soloff, area director of the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee, said that is natural since “the Jewish community is passionate about many things but particularly about Israel. People for whom Israel is the issue or the primary issue look with a magnifying glass at everything a candidate says or does. The nature of campaigning in America makes it difficult for any candidate to hold up to that kind of scrutiny.”
In addition, she said, “Jews are well educated, they’re readers, there are many Jewish bloggers, all of which means the amount of information that comes out about a candidate, there is tremendously more information coming out than there has been in the past.”
In such an environment, “people tend to shrei (Yiddish for yell) a little bit louder to get their voices heard,” she said. “In terms of this election, Obama’s youth and his newness also has put him under greater scrutiny than candidates who have been in the public eye for much longer and have longer records of action as well as words.”
Even former Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky has expressed his concerns, telling a Shalom TV interviewer that Obama has no record on foreign policy and that an Obama presidency would be a “risk” for Israel.
Closer to home, Rabbi Victor Weissberg, a local Israel activist and chair of To Protect Our Heritage PAC, which works to promote a closer alliance between the United States and Israel, said Obama is “flawed.
“He is suddenly forced to become specific and not use a lot of gloss words like change; that isn’t working for him any more,” he said. “He’s a very bright fellow but he’s sort of a hollow man, and America really needs somebody of substance who will say what he means and won’t change,” he said. Obama has changed his position on offshore oil drilling and other issues, he said. “We’re not dummies, we can think straight,” he said. “The people who are going to lead us need to think straight too and not shoot their doggone mouths off.”
“At the AIPAC conference, he was a wow.” Weissberg said. “He had people standing up on their seats cheering. He has tried to say all the right things about Israel, but because he flip-flops, people are really at sixes and sevens with themselves about him. Israelis think he’s not the right candidate at the right time for their situation. We were there for Pesach and almost unanimously they were in favor of (presumptive Republican nominee John) McCain.”
Polls have, indeed, shown that McCain is perceived in Israel as a staunch friend of the Jewish state, and that some Israelis have been wary of Obama’s statement, during a meeting with Jewish leaders in Cleveland in February, that “there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”
One Israeli native and longtime Chicagoan, attorney and community activist Chaya Gil, said she is “definitely worried” about an Obama presidency, for several reasons.
One is the candidate’s “very close intimate relationship” with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor who gained notoriety for his inflammatory statements and is widely perceived to be anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Obama denounced Wright earlier this year and eventually severed his ties with him and his church.
“Wright doesn’t love America, he speaks against his country and he said awful things about Israel. He’s no good for the Jewish community and it’s not good that he is the role model for Obama,” Gil said. She said that when Obama said he wasn’t aware of some of Wright’s positions, “he was lying. There is a character issue.”
In addition, she said, Obama “said he will talk to Iran and other countries. That says to me that he will be manipulated by Iran and others.”
She said she is also concerned about Obama’s relationships with some advisors perceived to be anti-Israel, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor in the Carter administration; Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who was forced to leave the Obama campaign after making a derogatory remark about Hillary Clinton but is said to still be advising him; and Robert Malley, another Clinton administration advisor.
Gil’s worries parallel those of right-wing media outlets that have recently taken aim at the advisors. Brzezinski was perceived as unfriendly to Israel during the Carter administration and, more recently, initially endorsed the views of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of articles and a book blaming the pro-Israel lobby for American foreign policy failures. They are anathema to most Jews. Brzezinski later said their book overstated its case.
Power has drawn the ire of Israel activists because of her stinging criticism of Israel’s first Lebanon War. Malley was perceived as blaming Israel for the breakdown of the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, which he attended as a senior adviser to President Clinton.
Another frequent target of conservative bloggers has been George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who has often been critical of Israel’s policies. He has contributed to the Obama campaign.
The campaign has said that the three advisors, who are among hundreds, have a peripheral role in the campaign and do not advise Obama on Middle East policy. Soros, although he has donated to Obama, has no role in the campaign, an Obama spokesperson has said.
Gil said that Obama “has put these people on ice lately, hushed up their relationship. But they’re not dead, they will pop up the minute he’s elected.” Israelis, she said, although they were impressed with him during his recent visit to the Jewish state, “know he is not coming in good faith.”
She said that “at a time of pressure,” Obama “loses his balance. He is very good when he is prepared, but once in a while he is asked a question that he does not expect, and he stutters. He would say whatever suits him.”
Another Israeli-born Chicagoan, who did not want to be identified, said she is “very very uncomfortable” with Obama, “not because he is not a good man” but because “he knows very little about Israel.”
She added that she doesn’t believe Obama has enough experience to be able to run the country in difficult times. “If you ask me, we need a strong person who can move things around to what they used to be, a strong America, a great Israel,” she said. That person is not Obama, she said.
Much of the concern over Obama’s perceived anti-Israel advisors has been spurred by Richard Baehr, the chief political correspondent of the American Thinker, an online conservative magazine that Jewish Telegraphic Agency political correspondent Ron Kampeas calls “the principle redoubt of Obama-Israel skepticism.”
In a recent phone conversation, Baehr, who is a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, reiterated his concerns about Brzezinski, Power and Malley, calling them “Jimmy Carter retreads.”
“If you have one or two bad apples, OK, but this team is full of them from top to bottom,” Baehr said. “This is what the pro-Israel community is most nervous about.”
Kampeas, the JTA correspondent, writes that “much, if not the vast majority, of the material targeting Obama’s advisors is distorted and even false,” and many Jewish Obama supporters agree.
One, former Chicagoan Gidon “Doni” Remba, president and co-founder of the Jewish Alliance for Change, which advocates for Obama in the Jewish community, has dedicated his Web site and newsletter to rebutting what he calls “lies that are spreading virally. A lot of Jews are getting concerned on the basis of a fear and smear campaign, and they’re not looking at the facts. This is politics at its worst,” he said in a recent conversation.
He said that information in the American Thinker by Baehr and Northbrook’s Ed Lasky “looks like a very serious essay, but it is all based on distortions, misleading information, twisting statements, statements taken out of context and downright false information.”
For instance, Remba said, Brzezinski “was not an advisor to Obama on Israel, just somebody who had a couple of conversations with him about Iraq.” (The Obama campaign confirmed that neither Brzezinski, Power nor Malley advised Obama on Israel-related issues.)
“The critics ignore the fact that McCain had as much or more of a relationship with these same anti-Israel advisors. McCain said he would consider appointing seasoned hands, people like Brzezinski and James Baker (secretary of state for the first President Bush). Obama said he would never consider using Baker. People ignore that.
“The most prominent smear is that he is secretly not pro-Israel, but everything he has done and said, his entire record of years of public life, all the legislation he sponsored is pro-Israel,” Remba said, accusing Obama’s Jewish detractors of “bringing up very tangential things and twisting them in such as way as to arouse people’s fears.
“I saw it in my own family,” he said. “A lot of Jews, they are getting these e-mails. I got them from my uncle, my cousins, my family in Israel and other parts of the country. People are saying, is this true? Their fears have been aroused.”
On the Israel question, some Jews see the fact that Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s Middle East envoy and chief negotiator who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, is advising Obama on Israel as a reassuring sign. Joy Malkus, research director for the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a Chicago-based political action committee that supports Israel, church-state separation and reproductive choice, said members of the PAC “are comfortable with where (Obama) stands as far as Israel is concerned. Especially now that Dennis Ross has come to work for him, we have no concerns whatsoever as far as his position on Israel goes.” The PAC has endorsed Obama but will not be supporting him financially because he is not accepting money from PACs.
Malkus said the PAC decided to support Obama because “McCain’s voting record (on Israel) is perfect so there’s no reason to think he would not be excellent on Israel but he does not meet our domestic criteria.”
She said she thinks some Jews are uncomfortable with Obama because of his shorter voting record, but said that “I find it disappointing. I don’t think you can just base (your vote) on the length of a voting record. He’s surrounding himself with people who care about moving the process forward and having a two-state solution that works. If people have questions, they should look back at what (Dennis) Ross has written. He is quite a strong person to have in your corner.” The PAC, she said, is “strongly in favor of the U.S. facilitating whatever is necessary to move the peace process forward, and that’s where Obama stands on Israel.”
Baehr counters such arguments from Jewish supporters. “I don’t see the fact that some major scions of the Jewish community support (Obama) as meaning he is pro-Israel,” he said. “In the Senate, he has behaved more traditionally and signed on to most resolutions that AIPAC would consider pro-Israel. But now and then something slips out.” He cited a 2004 interview in which Obama was critical of the Israeli security wall and his more recent statement, to Cleveland Jewish leaders, that being pro-Israel doesn’t mean being pro-Likud.
“I don’t think an American president should decide who he should be for in the Israeli government,” Baehr said. “His view of being pro-Israel doesn’t mean being sympathetic to the elected leaders of the Israeli people. That’s a difficult position to put yourself in.”
He said another “bothersome factor” is that people in Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood said “he wasn’t reticent about arguing that American policy is too pro-Israel and needed more balance. The general perception is that he was a Palestinian sympathizer. That doesn’t mean he is hostile to Jews or Israel but he is not a strong Israel supporter.
“Now he’s saying all the right things and voting the right way, but there are a whole bunch of little threads out there that make people nervous,” Baehr said. “Nobody questioned whether McCain or Hillary (Clinton) was pro-Israel, but with Obama, there are questions.”
Joel Sprayregen, the Chicago attorney and Israel activist, said that he worries about Obama’s lack of experience, his foreign policy advisors, and “the fact that he was so wrong on the surge in Iraq,” which Obama opposed. Many Americans believe that the added troop deployment known as the surge has made Iraq safer.
Sprayregen said that while he is encouraged that so many thoughtful and committed Jews are in Obama’s camp, he believes that “Jews still tend to vote Democratic in knee-jerk fashion thinking they’re still voting for FDR’s New Deal. Too many Jews do not take into account the fact that President Bush has been enormously supportive of Israel. I think we have no better guide than (Connecticut senator) Joe Lieberman, a true liberal on domestic issues, as to which of his senatorial colleagues is more qualified to be commander-in-chief.” Lieberman is supporting McCain.
If Obama has a way to go to garner solid Jewish support in other parts of the country, in Chicago it seems solid and growing.
Some of his champions are longtime friends like Rabbi Wolf of KAM, who worries that Jews who don’t know Obama think of him as “remote.” “It may be the Muslim element in his background, it may be that he’s black. Jews are like everybody else, they have some questions about a black president,” Wolf said.
But he may understand Obama’s background better than most. When people ask him if Obama is “tough enough,” he says, “When you come up in Chicago politics, you better be tough.”
He believes Obama is “very cautious. Whenever we talked about issues, I would always be more radical than he. He listened a lot but said very little. He’ll listen and listen and you don’t always know what he thinks. He knows as much as any of us about the Middle East, and he hasn’t said a word about the Palestinians that President Bush hasn’t already said.”
Many Jews may have been more friendly to Hillary Clinton, he said, because “she is more of a known quantity. You know, the Jews can’t stand not to worry. Nobody (in politics) is against Israel, they can’t afford to be, why should they be? He knows more than most people do about the (Middle East) situation, but he’s going to go very cautiously and not do anything that shakes up the Jewish community. I’m not sure I agree with that, but that’s what’s going to happen.”
He would advise Obama to “make his Jewish supporters more visible. He could mention them, put them forward, be proud of the Jewish community’s support.”
The rabbi’s own feeling is that Obama is “sort of Jewish in a way. His overachieving is Jewish, his intellectualism is Jewish, even his charisma has a Jewish side. Maybe I feel it more strongly than others do, but I feel like he’s one of us.
“I like McCain too, but he ain’t one of us,” he added.
One of Obama’s most ardent Chicago supporters is Jack S. Levin, an attorney practicing international law and a longtime community activist who said he is not a Democrat but an independent who “supports candidates I think are superior. I am not a down-the-line Democrat or Republican and I don’t support mediocre candidates. I support Barack because I think he would be best for our country,” he said.
Levin has known Obama for more than 15 years, since Levin served on the Harvard Law School Visiting Committee and met the young law student. “Members of the Visiting Committee don’t typically take much note of students, but he was outstanding, an absolutely standout student,” he said.
He became reacquainted with Obama when he served in the Illinois Senate and sponsored legislation that would help to create jobs by bringing more private equity and venture capital to the state, one of Levin’s areas of expertise. He continued to be so impressed with Obama that now he serves on his campaign finance, tax policy, Jewish community and Middle East committees.
He calls Obama “a brilliant, far-thinking, organized, thoughtful super kind of person. He has wonderful thoughts and ideas and he soaks up experiences in moments that it would take other people years to get. He is jumping in knowledge year by year. His grasp of ideas and concepts and ability to understand what other people are thinking is wonderful.”
Having served in the office of the Solicitor General in Washington, Levin said he has many friends who have worked in the White House, and believes that “the most important attribute of a president is the ability to think, reason, absorb information and make decisions when there is conflicting advice, and Obama is just terrific at that.
“You can give all the speeches you want to about how you would handle issues, but (as president) 100 times a day things cross your desk that you had never thought of, and (a president needs) a great ability to think and grasp, to do the right thing, to analyze the conflicting advice being received and work it out and say, this is the course we should take.
“No one is as good as Obama at hearing conflicting views, thoughts, advice and ideas, at looking at a complex problem and implementing solutions,” he said.
Levin said he does much international travel and what those trips have shown him is that “our country has turned into a pariah on the world stage. For the last few years, our leaders have not been people who could interrelate well with other world leaders. We are reviled, not respected.”
Obama, he said, “is going to be the closest there is to someone who is able to restore some modicum of respect internationally.”
Levin said he has worked with Obama for years on many issues and that the senator has always been a strong supporter of Israel.
As for Jewish community support, he said that “here in Chicago, people know him better than other places, and the vast majority of the Jewish leadership of Chicago support him wholeheartedly. We know he would be best for Israel and for the United States. I think it is an issue of Obama getting better known in Florida, New York and other places where the Jewish community hasn’t yet had the opportunity to touch hands with him and realize how wise and capable he is and how strongly he supports Israel.”
Why the distrust?
A number of Obama’s Jewish supporters have set about figuring out why some Jews – especially in other states – are distrustful of him. Abner Mikva said that the “unknown” factor is strong. Jews “were distrustful of (John) Kerry, (Al) Gore, (Bill) Clinton before he ran, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson. It goes all the way back. The first time I was campaigning for John F. Kennedy, I stopped at somebody’s door, a Jewish voter, and he said, you know he’s an anti-Semite. His father was, so he must be.”
Another factor, Mikva said, is one that “always bothers and embarrasses me about my co-religionists. A piece of our community still thinks of African Americans as schvartzes – somehow not sufficiently educated or smart enough to occupy the White House. All I can say to that is, they’re wrong. I think (Obama) will turn out to be one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had.”
He said he once tried to explain to Obama why some parts of the Jewish community didn’t support him. “I said, Barack, it wouldn’t matter if your name was Sholem Aleichem, there’s some segments of the Jewish community you wouldn’t get. He said, well, my name is Baruch Obama.” (During his 2004 campaign, Obama, visiting a Jewish center for the aged in Boston, discussed the etymological relationship of his first name, which means “blessed” in Swahili, to its Hebrew counterpart, Baruch.)
On the racial issue, Remba, the president of the Jewish Alliance for Change, agreed that “some people from an older generation have a very different experience in their lives with black Americans than people even in their 40s and 50s. Middle-aged and younger people have grown up in integrated America and are very comfortable and used to working with blacks, knowing them as friends and neighbors, viewing them in a way that race doesn’t matter.”
To some people, including Jews, who grew up in an older era, “your whole experience of black people is they come from the wrong side of the tracks, they’re associated with crime, with danger, they’re poor, gang related. If your whole experience of black people is the South Side of Chicago – not Hyde Park – you would have a sort of fearful set of associations.”
He said he believes some “holdover of these associations and biases” may be in play with Obama’s candidacy, but many Jews may be able to overcome it. “The vast majority of Jews, including older Jews, can judge Obama as an individual, an American, someone who has been so close to so many people in the Jewish community of Chicago for so many years. When they get to see who he is, I hope they’ll put aside their fears,” he said.
Those fears have been stoked by e-mails to pro-Israel activists warning that if Obama is elected, Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton will have prominent places in his administration, as well as a cartoon published earlier this year in the Israeli newspaper Maariv showing Obama painting the White House black.
Still most of Obama’s Jewish supporters believe it is the Israel issue, not racial politics, that may be keeping some Jews from endorsing him. Alan Solow, a Chicago attorney, community leader and former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council who has known Obama for many years, said he would like to put those fears to rest.
He has known Obama since both lived in Hyde Park and began actively supporting him during his U.S. Senate bid. “Working on his behalf, I had the opportunity to have many discussions with him on a wide range of issues,” he said. “I have always been delighted with the way he approaches problems and I’ve become more impressed as time has gone on.”
On the Israel question, Solow said Obama’s entire public policy approach, statements and votes “all consistently point to a position that is very helpful to strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. There isn’t one single action or vote that anyone can point to that would cast any doubt on what his position would be,” he said.
Beyond foreign policy, Solow said, “I think his positions are much more consistent with the vast majority of the Jewish community – the right to choose, separation of church and state, social justice issues generally. The Jewish community ought to be looking at those issues as well.” He said that although many Jews don’t feel they know Obama as well as they do Hillary Clinton or John McCain, he has a “long consistent record” of pro-Israel support. “People should look at what his record is and not say, we still don’t know,” he said.
On the question of inexperience, Obama’s old friend Ira Silverstein said, “Look, McCain has been around longer, but we’ve had President Bush in there and he was a governor, the head of a major league baseball team, and look at our economy. I’ve seen (Obama) work in the Senate. I’ve seen him. He can bring people together. I know him personally. Leadership? I can testify to it.”
Another old friend, Rabbi Wolf, gives another kind of testimony. Obama, he says, is “embedded in the Jewish world.”