Angry Over Attack Ads, Obama Campaign Yanks Reps From Planned Debates

Los Angeles — The presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama is refusing to participate in debates with representatives of a Republican Jewish group that is behind an advertising blitz attacking the Democratic nominee.

Earlier this week, the Obama campaign instructed its representatives not to participate in forums with representatives of the Republican Jewish Coalition. So far, Obama campaign representatives in California and Pennsylvania have canceled their appearances at previously scheduled debates in front of Jewish audiences.

Since early fall, the RJC has placed a series of paid advertisements in Jewish publications — including on the Web site of the Forward — that attack Obama on issues of Middle East policy and criticize individuals with whom the Illinois senator has associated. The ads present Obama as a threat to Israel’s security. Obama supporters contend that the ads are misleading, and Jewish Democrats have fiercely attacked the RJC over its ad campaign.

“The level of tension in the Jewish community around this election is very heightened,” said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. “Normally there’s a level of civility between Jewish Democrats and Republicans, and my sense is that a lot of that has been lost in this election.”

The RJC’s executive director, Matt Brooks, criticized the Obama campaign for its actions.

“If they had a problem with our ads, a perfect forum to discuss what we’re saying — which we feel is well cited and sourced — is these kinds of forums and debates,” he said. “What it shows is that they’re trying to run away from the facts, stifle debate and intimidate opposing points of view, and that’s totally undemocratic.”

Mel Levine, a former California congressman who serves as a Middle East policy adviser to Obama, pulled out of a planned debate with the RJC’s California director, Larry Greenfield, slated for October 19 at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. That debate will go on, since Levine recruited University of California, Los Angeles law professor David Kaye, who has no official role in the Obama campaign, to be his replacement.

The Obama campaign has been making efforts to replace its campaign representatives with supporters who can address the Jewish community but are not officially tied to the campaign.

An organizer of the Valley Cities JCC debate, Haim Linder, said that he was initially “not pleased” that Levine dropped out of the debate on such short notice. But Linder, the first vice-president of the Council of Israeli Community — an L.A.-area Israeli group — said that in the end it worked out, since there would be a replacement.

Levine said that he will continue to engage in debates on Middle East issues with McCain surrogates — as he did October 16 in Las Vegas with Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican — but not with representatives of the RJC.

“The Republican Jewish Coalition has proven to be consistently irresponsible and dishonest throughout this campaign,” said Levine, who had previously published an opinion article in the Forward attacking the RJC over its ad campaign. “And we’re not going to get on the same platform with them any longer and do anything to elevate their stature.”

In Pennsylvania, state representative Josh Shapiro canceled his appearance at a debate scheduled for October 26 at Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pa. He would have faced off against Scott Feigelstein, the regional director of the RJC in Pennsylvania.

Feigelstein blasted Shapiro’s decision.

“It’s not in concert with the First Amendment and it’s offensive,” Feigelstein said. “I am planning on showing up regardless.”

Shapiro could not be reached for comment.

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Angry Over Attack Ads, Obama Campaign Yanks Reps From Planned Debates

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