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A Matter of Trust

“You mean Barack Mohammed Hussein Obama?” he asked, laughing.

Klein quickly stressed that he was joking, and that he didn’t put any stock in the anonymous e-mail circulating that claims Obama is not only a closet Muslim--and that his middle name is Mohammed--but also that the senator from Illinois is part of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy the U.S. by winning its highest office. He had, however, certainly received the defamatory e-mail, as well as another that alleges that Obama’s church is a racist and anti-Semitic institution that is more committed to Africa than to the United States.

Klein is far from alone. The Internet libel seems to have been directed in part at the Jewish community, and in recent weeks, these two emails have landed in the inboxes of thousands of Jews across the country. In fact, an adviser to the Obama campaign told me that he suspects the emails were originally sent using the mailing list of a Jewish nonprofit in Washington. He added that they may have originated with Middle East hawks skeptical about Obama’s approach to the region, but because the e-mail campaign has ramped up in both intensity and scope following Obama’s victory at the Iowa caucus, he believes that the candidate’s political foes may be pushing it.

“One can draw inferences on who might have interest in this spread,” he said.

There’s no question that it’s important for Obama to gain acceptance from the Jewish community in the United States--along with other voters who place Israel’s security high on their list of criteria when choosing a candidate--if he wants to overtake Hillary Clinton. These voters are heavily represented in the all-important Super Tuesday states: Over fifty percent of American Jews live in New York, New Jersey, and California alone.  Although they still make up a small percentage of the overall population, the vast majority of them vote Democratic, and they are disproportionately active both in fund-raising and participation. In the no-delegate Florida primary, for example, they made up 6 percent of registered Democrats, but represented 9 percent of those who actually voted.  (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and other states heavy in evangelical Christians--who often hold a candidate’s position on Israel to a higher standard than many American Jews do--will be holding primaries on Super Tuesday as well, but these voters will mostly be involved with the Republican race.)

The heads of several national Jewish organizations--including the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center--have come to Obama’s defense in response to the e-mail campaign, but the strategy behind it is as insidious as it is effective: Fan the already existing flames of doubt. As the Obama campaign adviser told me, whoever is behind the slander wants Jewish voters to decide not to give him their support “just to be safe.”

But why do those doubts exist in the first place? While Obama certainly has broad appeal in the Jewish community, as he does among other overwhelmingly Democratic constituencies, he has at times had a testy relationship with those most invested in protecting Israel’s interests. Recently, an internal memo from the American Jewish Committee, a mainstream Jewish advocacy organization, was leaked. It reportedly said that Obama “appears to believe the Israelis bear the burden of taking the risky steps for peace, and that the violence Israel has received in return does not shift that burden.” It then listed the number of times that Obama has called for engagement with Iran, before pointing out that he “also calls for negotiating with other rogue states, notably Syria.” Most of the major Jewish organizations, by contrast, have been more inclined to support a harder line stance against states like Syria, putting far more faith in the stick than the carrot.

Obama’s respect for soft power and the themes of reconciliation which underlie so much of his rhetoric may hurt him in some quarters of the Jewish community. His explaining how much Palestinians have “suffered” and his sense of urgency with regards to an Iraq withdrawal do not jibe with the views of many of those most zealous about Israel. Nor does his choice of Zbigniew Brzezinski as foreign policy advisor, or his support from financier George Soros, neither of whom are generally viewed as supportive of Israel. It has been widely noted that a good-faith appraisal of his platform does not cast any doubt on his support for the Jewish state, and the AJC has since apologized and made it clear that the memo does not represent the official opinion of the organization. It seems likely, though, that the views expressed in the memo reflect those of some of the most powerful members of the Israel-first community--and that’s bad news for Obama.  


Each time I have asked a spokesperson from AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobbying group, about the organization’s opinion of Obama, they have stressed that they are satisfied with Obama’s positions on the Middle East. When I asked again recently, Jennifer Cannata, an AIPAC spokesperson, would once again only say, “Like all the leading presidential candidates, the senator has a strong record on issues of importance to the pro-Israel community.”

Several other people connected to Middle East lobbying in Washington have told me, though, that they believe there is a rift between the official positions of AIPAC on Obama and the feelings of a good deal of its membership, possibly including some of its major donors. Because AIPAC doesn’t endorse candidates directly, but often encourages its very active membership to get involved in campaigns and fund-raising on their own, how the AIPAC rank-and-file acts is not a matter of diktat; it’s an accurate barometer of how it feels. And according to The Jerusalem Post, “When it comes to the Jewish establishment of campaign donors, fundraisers, and political players, support for Clinton is estimated to be twice that for Obama (except in his home state of Illinois, where he has deep connections with the Jewish community).”

With regards to the AIPAC bigwigs, one former AIPAC official recently said to me that he believes that Obama’s stated willingness to diplomatically engage with some of Israel’s most avowed enemies makes much of the organization’s leadership “uncomfortable”--though they would never say so publicly because of a reluctance to sour their relationship with a potential future president.  

Mort Klein, whose ZOA is far to the right of AIPAC, is much less tight-lipped.

“Obama doesn’t understand that the Palestinians are more interested in Israel’s destruction than in establishing a Palestinian state,” he told me. “He makes general comments supporting the security of Israel, but makes no specific comments, like that Abbas must end incitement or confiscate weapons.”

Even though ultra-hawk Mort Klein is hardly representative of American Jews, in November, a survey done by the American Jewish Committee found that 53 percent of American Jews had favorable opinions of Hillary Clinton, but only 38 percent felt similarly about Barack Obama. The survey did not endeavor to determine the reasons behind this disparity, but a well-trafficked feature on the English website of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper is clearer. The feature, called “The Israel Factor,” brings together a collection of Israeli academics and former government officials to evaluate the American presidential candidates’ relationships with Israel. It regularly ranks him as the “worst” candidate for Israel, and has evaluated him particularly badly on the issue of dealing with Iran and in the category of “emotional attachment to Israel.” One panelist told Haaretz, “If you don't trust someone, you try to be careful with him.”

In the Nevada caucus, Hillary Clinton picked up 67 percent of the vote among Jewish Democrats, while Obama only got 25 percent, and in Florida, 58 percent of them backed Clinton while only 26% gave their support to Obama. The Obama campaign is now working to bridge this gap.

“There is no daylight between Barack Obama’s support for Israel and any other candidate’s,” another Obama adviser recently told me. “In fact, on protecting it as a Jewish state, I think he has gone further than some of them.”

He added that he was optimistic that voters would understand that, but said he recognized that the recent spate of defamatory e-mails posed a risk. Even the man himself--perhaps recognizing that being loudly pro-Israel carries little political risk, while being more soft-spoken about it just might--has made a more concerted attempt to reach out within the last week. After the U.N. Security Council called a meeting to discuss the current situation in the Gaza Strip, for example, he was the only presidential candidate who sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. urging him to stop the passage of any resolution perceived as biased against Israel. In a conference call last week, Obama even beseeched writers from several Jewish and Israeli newspapers to use their “megaphone” to help combat the “constant virulent campaign” targeting him, and some of them have already done so.

When influencing public opinion, however, sometimes a whisper campaign is louder than a shout.

Gregory Levey is the author of the forthcoming memoir Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government. He is on faculty at Ryerson University in Toronto and blogs at

By Gregory Levey