Elections dominate hall talk at Jewish gathering in Atlanta
By Rachel Pomerance
ATLANTA (JTA) — Almost everything there is to know about the state of Hillary Clinton’s supporters is there in the cocked head and defiant smile of Audre Rapoport, 84, of Waco, Texas.
“I don’t think she’s dead yet,” Rapoport said with a smidge of sarcasm and satisfaction at a VIP reception honoring her husband, Bernard “B” Rapoport, 90, for his volunteer service to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body of 14 national Jewish agencies and 125 community relations councils, at its annual plenum here this week.
The central theme of the three-day conference was confronting poverty, and a host of resolutions on foreign and domestic issues dominated policy discussion. But in the hallways and informal gatherings, much of the talk centered on the elections.
Audre and Bernard Rapoport have been “Clinton fans” for decades, she said — it was 1972 when B and Bill helped run the McGovern campaign in Texas.
“The thing about Hillary is she doesn’t let her best side show,” he said. “She and Bill are the best one-two combo since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in the lineup.”
His wife agreed, but ultimately, she said through that head-tossing smile: “Anybody but Bush.”
With the approach of the pivotal March 4 primaries, which could crown Barack Obama the Democratic presidential nominee unless Clinton wins both Texas and Ohio, many of the roughly 400 people attending the JCPA conference, a bastion of liberal Democrats even among Jews, grappled with the endgame.
While Obama commands plenty of Jewish support — and most Jews are expected to carry on the tradition of voting Democratic regardless — there was significant talk, given Clinton’s popularity with many Jewish voters, of the possible need for Jewish peacemaking with an Obama presidency.
And in this regard, the key point is Israel — checking and touting his bona fides and rebutting e-mail rumors to the contrary.
At least one Texan said she would support John McCain should Obama win the Democratic nomination, because the Illinois Democrat lacks experience on the “world stage.”
Meanwhile, there are those gearing up to vote who have yet to decide on a candidate.
Political observers say the considerable Jewish population of Ohio could have a critical say in this election.
“My son is in the military so all my options are open,” said Bruce Lev, 54, a developer from Youngstown, Ohio. “McCain scares me” with talk of continuing war. And Obama’s comments about talking to U.S. enemies, Lev added, could make the U.S. president appear weak.
“So many of my peers can’t make up their minds,” Barbara Rosenthal of Cleveland said, referring to the over-70 crowd.
A staunch supporter of Clinton, Rosenthal has already cast her vote early. But she expressed concern about the unknown variables of Obama, whether his stance toward the U.S. judiciary or the Palestinians.
Many Jewish communal officials at the JCPA plenum say that they are fielding questions about Obama, questions triggered by e-mail rumors that falsely state he is a Muslim or receives funds from the Nation of Islam.
“I get tens of e-mails a day saying, ‘Is this true? Is this true?’ And I steer them to the NJDC Web site,” said Marc Stanley, 50, a Dallas attorney, who chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council.
The e-mail rumors have created “a real problem in the Jewish community that we need to fix,” Stanley said. “I have some concerns that his numbers might not be as high as he might like,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the Jewish community is fully there yet for Obama.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who is backing Obama, tried to disabuse the JCPA audience of any Israel-related concerns with a bit of humor.
“Needless to say, I’ve never heard it before, but I’ll assume some people have some questions” on Obama’s position on Israel.
He went on to list Obama’s attributes, including his letter to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations urging the U.N. Security Council to condemn rocket attacks against Israel, his rejection of the right of return before a Palestinian audience and his support of sanctions against Iran.
Wexler followed remarks by former U.S. Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who was speaking for Clinton and called her “someone who has shown by action where she stands on the U.S.-Israel relationship.” He cited as examples her visit to the bombed Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem and her bringing a wounded Israeli soldier to New York’s Israel Day parade.
But all the emphasis on Israel may be greater here among American Jewish activists than among the American Jewish masses, said Susan Turnbull, 55, of Bethesda, a JCPA board member and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
The domestic issues seem to trump Israel for most Jews, she said, listing the key issues at the JCPA conference — tikkun olam, health care, anti-poverty issues, the separation of church and state and U.S. security — as her own.
Where’s Israel on that list? “I think it’s a given,” she said. “I have complete faith in our candidates,” whose staff, she added, have made deep inroads into the Jewish community.
At the hotel bar Monday night, a 26-year-old Clinton volunteer and JCPA activist hosted an impromptu “rally” that he couched in terms of solidarity.
In fact, the mood was heavy among the handful of people gathered around the small cocktail table to hear him list her achievements.
“Young people are caught up in the emotion” of Obama, said Susan Penn of northern New Jersey, whose brother-in-law is Clinton’s pollster.
“I don’t think they’ve truly examined the issues,” she added, expressing concern about the momentum and enthusiasm for Obama.
Other Jewish activists have taken that information to reach alternative ends — like joining Obama’s camp.
Jan Soifer, 50, chair of Austin’s community relations council, wrestled with the question of which Democrat to support, but ultimately decided to volunteer for Obama.
She said she wanted to join the winning team.
My generation’s short attention span
By Ori Raphael
I recall watching Obama’s stump speech late one Saturday night after he had swept the Potomac primaries. After 30 minutes or so, I was beginning to believe him. I was, to put it simply, inspired. But, as he continued to speak, I understood why I could never vote for this man. I still do not know anything about him.
For the past few months I have been running a political campaign for a state race. I have been able to see and hear more than one presidential candidate along the way. I noticed, after conversing with different demographics, that young Jewish voters were the most out of touch and misinformed.
Why is Paris Hilton famous? She fulfills two main criteria for a movie star: good looks and the media spotlight. Therefore it would make sense to put in her the movies, wouldn’t it? No, not at all.
So why do so many young Jews love Obama? Ask any of his followers and they will give you the same answers. “He is new.” “We need a change.” “Anything but Bush.” “End the war.” Etcetera, etcetera. I am ashamed and frankly worried that so many young Jews are infatuated with this man. Why is Obama the “best” option? Maybe he fulfills the two criteria for a great politician: an amazing ability to speak and the media spotlight. But what is missing, as for the infamous Paris, is why that makes him the best candidate.
Obama began his political grab for the most powerful position on earth in 2004 during the Democratic convention, when he wooed the masses, and the minority vote, to stump for the Democratic Party. I do not think his young followers know that, nor the old. He used that forum to springboard into the Illinois senate seat. Did we hear anything of his time serving as senator? Did Obama author or pass legislation? Did he vote for most bills presented to him? Do most of the young voters who love him know or care? The truth is, he didn’t even have time to make an impact; he was too busy preparing for his presidential bid.
I am not telling people not to vote for him. I am asking young Jews to do the most Jewish of things: Ask questions. I want a president who will finally make a positive difference like anyone else, but I am afraid of what can come of someone who has absolutely no track record. Realizing that the president always has a leather briefcase containing a button to activate nuclear weapons, it is important to know more about whoever holds it.
There are many problems a young Jew should have with Obama. For one, he says he wants to repair our image in the Muslim world. Shouldn’t they be repairing their image? What do the majority of Israel- and America-haters across the Muslim world have in common? They have never met a Jew and want us dead. Yet many young Jewish voters want a president who will appease their interests. We are taught to be competitive, get into good schools and get great jobs, yet why are we ashamed of our country that is just as competitive? Striving to be the best has made our lives in this country great. I do not know why we would be ashamed of it.
If you were a football coach and a kid came out of nowhere and told you to put him in as the quarterback, would you listen? What if it was for the Super Bowl? Chances are no. But it is the same with Obama. He comes out of nowhere and tells us all his ideas and hopes, but there is no true way of knowing what he can or will do. Too many times in history, people — especially young Jews — have gotten onto the bandwagon because it was different and the times needed “a-changing.” The lessons are still felt today. It is a matter of education. I would never make a decision without studying the facts. I know what the other candidates can and will try to do, but I do not know what to expect from Obama. When it comes to the most powerful position on earth, it is sad to say that young Jews are voting for one person because he seems, like Paris Hilton, “hot.”
Too many young Jews are busy watching their TiVo-ed shows or worrying about where they are going out that night. All I ask is that you get informed and get involved. I do not think we all understand the impact of this election. Young and old, make sure to ask questions, because if not, the consequences could be dire. Get informed and vote wisely.
Elections dominate hall talk at Jewish gathering in Atlanta