Obama Muslim Fears Gone But Israel Anxieties Remain

Letter From Boca Raton

Long Ago: Barack Obama won over many Florida Jews in 2008. Four years later, he has work to do to get them back on his side.
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Long Ago: Barack Obama won over many Florida Jews in 2008. Four years later, he has work to do to get them back on his side.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 01, 2012, issue of February 10, 2012.
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In 2008, comedian Sarah Silverman recorded a Web video urging young Jews to go to Florida and persuade their grandparents to vote for Obama. If Obama lost, Silverman warned, she would “blame the Jews.”

Silverman was joking, sort of. But she was also responding to rumors, then rampant among older Florida Jews, that Obama was a Muslim — and to the widespread belief that these rumors would hurt his election bid.

Obama went on to earn 78% of the Jewish vote nationally and to win Florida, including the heavily Jewish counties of Broward and Palm Beach.

Read the Forward’s story about a new study that claims Jews are shifting towards the GOP.

Four years later, rumors that Obama is a Muslim have vanished from Jewish discourse here. But criticism of his Israel policy has taken on strikingly harsh dimensions.

Obama represents an “existential threat” to Israel, said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, while lunching on a hardboiled egg and a Diet Sierra Mist at his home in a Palm Beach Gardens gated community. Dinerstein is known in local political circles for exaggerating for effect. But while describing Obama in language now most commonly used to describe the regime governing Iran, he grew heated.

“If 78% of the Jewish community could vote for Obama, there’s a tremendous disconnect between the Jewish community and their culture, and Israel,” Dinerstein said.

Democrats decry the characterizations, citing the president’s record on Israel. But it’s clear they fear them and take seriously their potential impact on election results in closely contested Florida, with its 27 Electoral College votes. The Obama campaign has thrown its top resources into the fray, deputizing Democratic National Committee chair and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, among others, to push back among Florida Jews.

It’s an effort that resembles the push against the Muslim rumors four years ago.

And some in Florida see a relationship between the charges leveled 2008 and 2012.

In Silverman’s 2008 video, the comedian pinpointed Obama’s name as the locus of Jewish anxiety over the candidate. “You know why your grandparents don’t like Barack Obama?” Silverman asked. “Because his name sounds scary, it sounds Muslim.”

And while some considered the Muslim anxiety a proxy for race, Kenneth Wald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, said that, in his analysis, it was always about Israel.

“Four years ago, Obama was unknown,” Wald said. Jewish opposition to Obama, Wald said, was focused on the idea that “he’s a Muslim, and Muslims do not have Israel’s best interest at heart.”

Before Obama was elected president, those anxieties had little to go on but his social ties with Palestinian academics and his attendance at a church led by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, known for making controversial statements about Israel. But now, in 2012, there are years of policy to analyze, and Obama’s religious and ethnic identity can fade into the background.

“The Israel conversation has changed dramatically, at least in my segment of the community,” said Rabbi David Steinhardt, spiritual leader of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, where Obama spoke in May of 2008, toward the end of that year’s primary, just days before Hillary Clinton conceded the race.

Obama’s speech then hit notes that have become regular touchstones in his addresses to Jewish communities in recent years: the Jewish camp counselor who impressed him with his love for Israel when Obama was a child, his respect for the Jewish notion of tikkun olam.

But the video of the measured address, still available online, doesn’t tell the whole story of the visit.

“It was a very charged atmosphere,” Steinhardt remembers of the town hall-style gathering. The address came amid media reports of rumors circulating among Florida Jews about Obama: that he was an Arab, that he was a Muslim, that he was overly sympathetic to the Palestinians.


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