By Bill Boyarsky
The bad side of being a new face in politics is that your enemies can treat you like a blank slate, to be filled in with lies and slurs. That’s what is happening to Sen. Barack Obama, who is being subjected to a secretive whispering and e-mail campaign that aims to alienate him from Jewish voters by linking him to Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and the Muslim religion.
Farrakhan, a demagogic anti-Semite, is the leading character in a smear effort that is gaining in intensity as the Democratic presidential primary election between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton approaches in Ohio on Tuesday. Clinton and Obama face each other in Texas the same day in another close contest. Bill Clinton says his wife must win both to stay in the race.
Jews make up only 2 percent of the vote in Ohio, but they are committed to going to the polls and their numbers could tilt a close election. And polls indicate that Obama’s race against Clinton in Ohio is tight. But, just as important, the smears are racing through the nation on the Internet. In a milder form, they have made it to the pages of some conservative publications.
The situation was serious enough for Obama to meet with about 100 members of the Cleveland Jewish community on Sunday, Feb. 24. His campaign staff gave a transcript of the meeting to The New York Sun.
“Let’s just be very specific about what these e-mails have been,” Obama said. “And they have just been virulent and started very early ... they are clearly political in the sense that they go in waves. ... Suddenly they magically appear in great volume in whatever state it is we are campaigning. And the e-mails suggest that A. that I am Muslim, B. that I went to a madrassa [an Islamic religious school] C. that I used a Koran to swear myself into the Senate D. That I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag. There are all sorts of variations, but you get the general gist.
“If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim ... the school that I attended in Indonesia ... was not a madrassa but was a secular school. ... My grandfather who was Kenyan converted to Christianity then converted to Islam, my father never practiced he was basically agnostic and so other than my name and the fact that I lived in a populous Muslim country for 4 years when I was a child I have very little connection to the Islamic religion. But these are the kind of things that you deal with in politics.”
Polifact, a political fact-finding Web site produced by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, noted that Obama is a Christian and took his Senate oath of office on his own personal Bible.
The Jewish newspaper The Forward said the e-mails were directed at “frightened, angry Jews, thousands of them, determined to stop anyone they suspect is against them. Once they get going, no one can talk them out of it. They feel powerless and vulnerable before enemies great and small, and they have the clout to do something about it. And they don’t always check the details before hitting the barricades.”
The campaign is so outrageous that in mid-January, The Forward said, top officials of nine national Jewish organizations condemned the “attempt to drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion.” Seven Jewish U.S. senators issued a similar message.
Critics link Obama to Farrakhan through the senator’s minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. The church’s Trumpet Newsmagazine, edited by Wright’s daughter, bestowed on Farrakhan its Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter award. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, noting the magazine said that Farrakhan “truly epitomized greatness,” asked of Obama, “Where is his sense of outrage?”
Farrakhan has endorsed Obama. On this week’s MSNBC television debate in Cleveland, the senator was asked about the endorsement.
“You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments,” Obama said. “I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support.”
Sen. Clinton said, “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting. And I think when it comes to this ... we’ve got to be even stronger.” Obama replied, “I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. ... But if the word reject Senator Clinton feels is [stronger] than the word denounce, then I’m happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce.”
Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political consultant active in conservative and Jewish affairs, said that Obama, rather than “hem and haw,” should have quickly and instinctively used the word reject.
Obama’s foes also are trying to portray him as hostile to Israel, saying he is relying on advice from Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Some Israel supporters consider Carter and Brzezinski hostile to Israel.
“I know Brzezinski,” Obama told the Jewish community members in Cleveland. “He’s not one of my key advisers. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged e-mails with him maybe three times. He came to Iowa to introduce me for a speech on Iraq. ... I do not share his views on Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally.”
A top Obama adviser, former Rep. Mel Levine of California, told me he has “very little doubt that some of Hillary’s supporters and even her campaign itself is perpetuating” the Brzezinski line of attack on Obama.
Levine, a former member of the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said the attacks are “a problem. Some people are trying to define him [Obama] in a way that is completely innuendo. The Jewish community that know him best is the Jewish community of Chicago [Obama’s home], and they love him. That isn’t as well known outside of Chicago. ... As his record becomes more widely known, it will be less of a problem.”
Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, said the fact that Obama is just coming under heavy scrutiny makes him susceptible to assaults on issues such as Israel.
“He’s an unknown on a lot of issues,” Eshman said. “He doesn’t have a long track record, and on Israel, a candidate’s position is put under a microscope.”
So far, Obama is capturing a substantial part of the Jewish vote. On Super Tuesday, exit polls showed him beating Clinton 49 percent to 47 percent in California among Jewish voters. He received 61 percent of the Jewish vote in Connecticut and 52 percent in Massachusetts. Clinton beat him among Jews in New Jersey, Arizona and her home state of New York.
Ohio will be another test of the power of the anti-Obama campaign among Jews. If he wins the nomination, the real test will come in the fall.
Introducing the “Obama-kah”: Volunteers from a New York City pro-Obama group created “Obama ‘08” yarmulkes, an “idea developed by a group of volunteers who believe in wearing their politics on their sleeve, or, in this case, keppe.”