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Obama and the Jews -- The Smear Campaign That Didn't Work

12/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Marcia G. Yerman Writer on women's issues, human rights, environment and culture

The countdown to Election Day is in its final hours. There have been a lot of side bar narratives to the main event. Perhaps, one of the most telling accounts will be the story of how the grinch did not steal the Jewish vote away from Obama. As of this writing, according to the latest October Gallup Poll, Obama's percentages with Jewish voters is tied with John Kerry's numbers in 2004 (74%) and just slightly lower than the numbers garnered by Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000 (80%). The recent Quinnipiac Poll tallied Florida's Jewish vote at 77% for Obama.

What happened? Why was one of the most solid Democratic voting blocs, the Jews, ever in doubt? There are a number of factors. Yet one element that the purveyors of fear did not count on was the incredible push back to their actions, spearheaded by the use of new media to fight the deception and vilification.

Sources close to the Obama campaign told me that they have seen a "marked shift in the past month or so" from people who had questions about Obama. Those concerns have now been resolved. The nomination of Palin, who was perceived as holding extreme views on social issues and being connected to the Christian right, was a negative. Her strong streak of anti-intellectualism and contrast to Joe Biden -- a proven friend of Israel known for his foreign policy chops -- helped to tip the scales.

Dan Shapiro, Senior Policy Adviser and Jewish Outreach Coordinator for the Obama campaign sent me a comment by e-mail stating:

"We are very confident that, despite millions of dollars spent trying to smear Barack Obama in the Jewish community, Jewish voters understand that the Obama-Biden ticket shares an unshakeable commitment to protecting Israel and shares their values, and we fully expect to receive strong support from the Jewish community, matching or exceeding the support John Kerry received in 04."

In trying to tease out where the money muscle behind these attacks was emanating from, two names came up with frequency. Sheldon Adelson, casino magnate and billionaire with right-wing views on both American and Israeli politics, was one. The Republican Jewish Coalition
was the other. There have been rumors of a million dollars spent on television buys, fraudulent mailings, and "push poll" calls. The latter is an unethical campaign tactic that asks phoned subjects misleading questions (i.e. What would you think if...Obama was a Muslim), planting seeds of disinformation and doubt.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founding Executive Director of J Street, saw the funded attacks as an attempt to "sow fear" among the Jewish electorate. Ben-Ami, whose father is Israeli, speaks of his deep commitment to Israel. He has been involved in American politics for twenty-five years, including as an advisor to Bill Clinton. For Ben-Ami, the lesson of the 2008 election is that the Republican expenditure of millions of dollars belied "a fundamental misunderstanding of the Jewish community, [and] is based on myths that must be dispelled." He contends that Jews are being viewed through an incorrect prism. "You don't have to pander to Jewish voters," Ben-Ami told me. In the last analysis, Israel is not guiding their voting choices, nor making them one-topic voters. That characterization Ben-Ami attributes to 8% of American Jews, which he qualified as being "the loudest and most reactionary."

Two players who were determined to create a shift in the Jewish community were Mik Moore and Ari Wallach. Seeing the poll numbers at only 60% of Jewish voters supporting Obama in late July, they recognized the inroads that the negative ads had made. Moore, who has a background in communications, Jewish issues, and online organizing, spoke with me by telephone and explained the evolution of their response. They pinpointed a "lack of information" on Obama's background as the key problem. Knowing that Obama needed 500,000 votes to match Kerry's 2004 performance, he and Wallach co-founded and launched the Jewish Council for Education and Research, which would be the springboard for their other initiatives.

The first action was a move to construct a response system. Since Jews were passing on the damaging and inflammatory e-mails they were receiving, they made a plan to inoculate against the attacks. Their methodology was simple. Have strong Obama supporters reach out to others, in a "direct communication from Jews to their friends." People are most readily convinced by those they trust.

The concept yielded JewsVote.org, which allowed users to create an account and then have access to a set of tools including e-mails and talking points. Individuals could upload their contacts once, and then move ahead to compose and compete with the e-mails that were being disseminated questioning Obama's solidarity with Jewish concerns. Moore stated that 6,500 people signed up and sent out 10,000 e-mails. How many times those original e-mails were forwarded can't be gauged, but the ripple effect is easily understood.

Next, they focused on signatory ads in regional Jewish newspapers. Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Florida were the key target states. Then, pulling in the circle even tighter, they shrunk the outreach from friends and colleagues to family with the directive of "Take responsibility for people in your own family." What evolved was "The Great Schlep" with Sarah Silverman. Five hundred people actually made the "schlep." Half went to Florida, the remainder traveled to Nevada, Ohio, and Philadelphia. A cross-generational conversation on race and politics ensued. Web traffic showed that "hits were up during the HIgh Holiday," as families watched the video together.

Roughly 200,000 people downloaded the website's talking points. In a high-tech version of the David and Goliath story, the sling shot of online activism turned out to be very potent. As Moore said, "We feel like we played an important role."

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Congresswoman from the 20th District of Florida, reasoned that at the beginning of the campaign "people didn't know Obama." "Now," she explained, "they've come home. They've learned who he is." Wasserman Schultz believes the Jewish community is firmly behind Obama because "he stands with Israel and will be a catalyst to move the peace process forward." She has confidence on voter turnout because "older voters are the most reliable."

It is impossible to parse out the components of this story without an examination of what Joe Lieberman added to the discourse. Reaction from those I spoke with was consistent. Lieberman, whose approvals ratings have recently plummeted, was characterized as "having a lack of decorum," being "an incredible disappointment," "inappropriate," and "out of step with the views of most Jews." Ben-Ami stressed that with "the history of our people, we are supposed to learn." He added, "We hold ourselves to a higher standard."

This concept was shamelessly discarded by Lieberman when he engaged in "coded messages" and subtexts during his appearances with McCain. The tactics he engaged in were addressed in a SeaChange Communications panel that took place during the Democratic National Convention, entitled The Unconscious Communication Wars: Racism, Sexism, and "Swift Boat" Attacks. Speaker Dr. Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, spoke to these "stealth communications" directly in his comments, elaborating on his personal reaction as well.

"Joe Lieberman made it explicit when he said, 'One of the candidates puts country first, and the other doesn't.' As someone who is Jewish, to see someone else who is Jewish attack a person of a particular ethnicity...that was one of the most despicable acts I have ever seen in American politics...coming from a Jew, when that has been the attack on our people for over 2,000 years."

Moore defined the current numbers of support among Jews for Obama as "a real testament to the Jewish community." Amos, the Jewish prophet (circa 750 BC) would agree. As he said, "Hate evil, love the good, and establish justice in the gate."

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