A rally organized by the main Jewish umbrella organization to protest the scheduled visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the United Nations has turned into a political embarrassment.
Senator Hillary Clinton canceled her attendance at the September 22 protest, upon learning that Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin had been invited. The rally’s organizers then scrambled to reach out to the campaign of Barack Obama. The Obama campaign agreed to participate, but the rally’s organizers instead decided to rescind Palin’s invitation, saying that they would not have any political figures.
“In order to keep the focus on Iranian threats and to ensure that this critical message not be obscured, the organizers of the rally have decided not to have any American political personalities appear,” the organizers said, in a statement released on September 18.
The outcome was the result of fierce discussions between the organizers and a mounting pressure on Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the point person for the rally, to disinvite Palin, according to Jewish communal sources.
Both presidential candidates have been aggressively courting Jewish support, which could be key in battleground states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. Obama, who has been beset by false rumors that he is a Muslim, has been eager to showcase his pro-Israel credentials in order to muster Jewish votes. Although in recent months the Democratic nominee has tamed his initial support for engaging Iran diplomatically in favor of a more muscular sanctions policy, McCain’s campaign believes it has an opening on a hot-topic issue for Jews. McCain has indicated repeatedly that a military option against Tehran was on the table. In Palin’s first national television interview since her nomination, she said she would not second-guess Israel if it were to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations.
Jewish communal sources said that Clinton had agreed weeks ago to attend the rally, which is also sponsored by United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation of New York, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. On September 16, an organizer of the Stop Iran. Now! rally announced that Clinton, Palin and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel would be appearing at the event. The Clinton camp decided to pull the plug after learning about Palin’s presence from reporters.
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines told the Forward that “the attendance from a representative of the McCain campaign was news to us. This was never billed to us as a partisan political event, and because it is such an important issue, we do not want to distract from it by contributing to a political show.” Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign, blasted Clinton’s justification for bailing out.
“The claim made by Ms. Clinton’s office that she did not want to attend because it would be a partisan event doesn’t add up, since Ms. Palin’s attendance would seem to make it bipartisan,” he told the Forward.
He added that Clinton may have withdrawn at the behest of the Obama campaign.
“Utterly false,” the Obama campaign official replied. “We did not pressure Senator Clinton and had no discussions on it at all.”
Sources close to the issue said, on condition of anonymity, that the flap had caused heated discussions among the rally organizers, with the New York-based groups expressing dismay about the decision to invite Palin.
Several left-leaning members of the Presidents Conference, which comprises 52 Jewish organizations, also criticized the decision to reach out to the Republican Party, which they claimed was made by Hoenlein. They argued that having Clinton, who is the junior senator from New York and no longer running on a presidential ticket, is legitimate, while inviting McCain’s running mate was a political decision.
“I am very disappointed that the rally organizers approached Governor Palin in the first place,” said Kenneth Bob, national president of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance. “While such rallies in the past have included a bipartisan speaker list, in an election year you want to take special care to invite figures from both sides of the aisle who are well respected by the Jewish community. This certainly does not include Palin, and this invitation has taken the focus away from the matter at hand, Iran. While the conference likes to maintain good relations with both parties, the Democrats can’t like how this was handled,” said Bob, whose organization is a Presidents Conference member.
Hoenlein, who did not return the Forward’s requests seeking comment, told other media outlets and conference members that in order to maintain a political balance, the rally organizers had decided to reach out to Republicans after securing the participation of Clinton. In the end, the organizers decided to balance the rally in a different way – by eliminating both parties.