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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These concerns came out at the town hall event, Steinhardt said. His synagogue, one of the larger Conservative congregations in the country, with 1,250 member families, was a major stop on Obama’s Jewish campaign trail. “It was a very frank conversation that took place,” Steinhardt recalled. “Someone said to him, if you were Barry Obama, things might be easier in your campaign. He responded to that appropriately, with good humor.”

Most of the questions in 2008 dealt only indirectly with Obama’s supposed positions on Israel; they were manifestly about his identity. In 2012, that has changed.

“We’ve matured,” said Ned Siegel, a major figure in Republican political fundraising in Florida and the Romney campaign’s national Jewish outreach chair. Republicans have learned “not to use the race card, not to use the religion card, but to evaluate a man’s character, ethics and virtue,” he said.

But harsh, overarching rhetoric like Dinerstein’s, denouncing Obama as posing an “existential threat” in blanket terms, is common. “As a Jew, I have to tell you he’s anti-Jewish in any respect,” said Hal Rosenberg, a Lake Worth, Florida, resident.

And Arline Rein, 71, a Michigan resident who winters in Boca Raton, said that if Obama wins again, she can “see certain trends happening here that happened in Germany.” Rein continues, “As a Jewish person, it’s very scary to me if Obama gets in.”

Wald, the political science professor, said that he believes that not only are the 2008 Muslim rumors and the 2012 discourse on Israel related, but they come from similar sources.

“I think you’re seeing a good deal of overlap,” said Wald. “I think what you’re seeing is that the message is transmuted in some ways, but I also think it’s the same political forces, broadly speaking, who are trying to raise this alarm.”

Such discourse takes place in the context of an Obama administration record on Israel characterized by sharp disagreements in some areas (freezing settlements in the occupied West Bank) and fervent praise for Obama from Israeli officials in other areas. (Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren lauded as “warm and immediate” the president’s response to Israeli requests for cutting-edge weaponry that the Bush administration had denied Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Obama for his single-handed veto of the U.N. Security Council proposal to recognize an independent state of Palestine.)

In conversations with Florida Jews a week before the Florida primaries, voters expressed concerns about a few specific incidents during the Obama presidency. One with particular resonance was the president’s clash with Netanyahu in May 2011. The Israeli leader lashed out at Obama then for suggesting that a final status resolution between the Israelis and Palestinians should be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders with some mutually negotiated adjustments made for Israeli settlements built since then. Netanyahu, in a speech that left out those qualifications, denounced the 1967 borders as indefensible; Obama reiterated his insistence on “mutually agreed land swaps.” This may be just one misunderstanding against a backdrop that includes numerous points of agreement. But for those who see Israel’s hold over the West Bank — or U.S. agreement with the Israeli government — as sacrosanct, it touches a central nerve.

Another case has more to do with perceptions of the respect and honor Obama shoule pay Israel’s leader, or perhaps by extension, the country he represents. In an alleged incident cited by several Jews interviewed, Netanyahu had to enter via a back door of the White House and not allowed a photo opportunity with the president; Obama supporters have said that the incident has been mischaracterized.

In a meeting at a Starbucks in Weston, Wasserman Schultz said that what she called the misrepresentations of Obama’s record were politically motivated.

“They’re still overwhelmingly supportive of the president,” Wasserman Schultz said of her constituents. “What the Republicans don’t have — and this is the reason they have to try to erode support for the president by sowing seeds of doubt on Israel — is they don’t have a record Jews support on domestic issues.”

At a retirement community in Delray Beach, Adele Lurie, a Republican, said that she found the Israel issue “confusing.”

“He’s opened his mouth several times and stuck his foot in it,” Lurie said of Obama’s Israel policy. But a professor from nearby Lynn University had just spoken to a packed house at Lurie’s retirement community, talking about Obama’s military support for Israel. Now she didn’t know exactly what to think.

“It’s very confusing what the actual situation is,” Lurie said.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com. Follow him on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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