The Times today has a story about Obama and the Jews. I have the following comments:
[UPDATE: I just caught the transcript of Obama's meeting with Jewish community leaders in Cleveland last week. Unfortunately, Obama lies pretty blatantly, to wit (referring to the award his church's magazine gave to Farrakhan): "An award was given to Farrakhan for his work on behalf of ex-offenders completely unrelated to his controversial statements." As I've noted before, the honor for Farrakhan was for his dedication to "truth," with no mention of ex-offenders. You can watch the magazine's video tribute to Farrakhan here, and decide for yourself if Obama is accurately represented the award. (After a clip of Farrakhan discussing his willingness to die for "truth," the narrator explains that Farrakhan is being honored for his commitment to "truth, education, and leadership.") The award is named after Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's spiritual mentor who, as noted below, has also fulsomely praised Farrakhan's devotion to truth. [And this video calls Rev. Wright the magazine's "CEO" at the time of the award.] Back in mid-January, Obama, when asked about the award, said, "I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree." At the time, one could reasonably attribute Obama's statement to a false assumption that he and his aides hadn't the time to check up on. Now, with his aides having had a month and a half to discover the easily verifiable truth, I have to conclude he is simply being disingenuous. Obama thus avoided addressing the real concern, which is that his church's magazine and his spiritual mentor state that they honoring and praising Farrakhan precisely because of his stated political and racial views, which they claim are "honest" and reflect "truth." Note that as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, this is not something that concerns only Jews.]
(1) The problems Obama is having with Democratic Jewish voters are exaggerated. Obama is doing about as well as one could expect while running against Hillary Clinton, a Senator from the state with the largest Jewish population in the country, and the wife of a former president who is extremely popular among Jews, and Jewish Democrats in particular. Much of the current handwringing over Jewish support from Obama comes from very liberal Jewish activists such as Josh Marshall and M.J. Rosenberg, who are infatuated with Obama, and can't understand why their fellow Jews aren't as well, given their belief that Obama, unlike Clinton, has the potential to lead the U.S. to a new era of Progressive liberal politics.
(2) The answer is that "Progressive" Jews tend to overestimate how liberal their ethnic cohort is. While Jews are much more liberal than the population as a whole, "self-described moderates and conservatives in the Jewish community outnumber self-described liberals by 57% to 42%", and those who identify themselves as "slightly liberal" outnumber "extremely liberal" 12% to 4%. And given that only about 15% of Jews are Republicans, even among Democrats and independents there are at least as many self-described moderates and conservatives as liberals. I'm sure that some of these "moderates" are actually reasonably liberal by mainstream standards, but when it comes to voting behavior self-description presumably often trumps detailed issues analysis, given voter ignorance.
(3) But why are many Jews suspicious of Obama? First, Jews (beyond the activist minority, which I suppose includes me) generally are inclined to prefer stability, as stable societies tend to be tolerant ones. And most Jews, like most Americans, never heard of Obama until recently, and many of his supporters seem to premise their support of him on the view that he will be destabilizing in some way ("change"). Not to mention that the last Democrat who came out of nowhere to become president promising change, Jimmy Carter, quickly became uniquely unpopular among Jews, failing to even get a majority of the Jewish vote in 1980.
(4) Second, Obama gives occasional signs of being a leftist. While leftist Jews are a vocal minority, leftists give even many mainstream liberal Jews a certain queasiness. In part, this is for the stability reasons suggested above. But it's also because left-wing hostility to Israel, suspicious to Jews as such, often crosses over into hostility to Jews. And it's not just a fringe phenomenon, as even respected leftist academics are occasionally known to say things about prominent Jews such as "Having a Likudnik as the number three man in the Pentagon is a nightmare for American national security, since [Douglas] Feith could never be trusted to put US interests over those of Ariel Sharon." For that matter, one can look at any comment thread on the Huffington Post when Dershowitz writes about Israel.
And even if Obama himself is a mainstream liberal, not a leftist, the fact that he has been receiving dispoportionate support (compared to Clinton) from the leftist contingent of the Democratic Pary raises suspicions that at best some of these people will get political power in an Obama admnistration, and at worst, "they know something we don't know." (The latter suspicion stoked by comments by a prominent Arab American activist who interacted often with Obama that Obama used to be very pro-Palestinian before he decided to run for president, and promises to be again.) It's entirely possible, and I think actually probable, that Obama is actually far more "conservative" personally than his longstanding political persona would suggest; I take it that one doesn't get elected to his former seat in the Illionis legislature if one is anything but a very liberal Democrat, and running to the clearly right of Clinton wouldn't have been a sound political strategy. But experience trumps speculation.
(5) It's no secret that according to polling data, anti-Semitism is much higher among African Americans than among the public as a whole, and that a parade of prominent African American politicians--Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Cynthia McKinney--has been implicated in provoking or taking advantage of such sentiments. Perhaps nothing is as disturbing, or as mystifying, to Jews as the longstanding and continuing respect and admiration that Louis Farrakhan receives from prominent African Americans. It is, after all, undisputed that Farrakhan is an unrepentant bigot, whose Nation of Islam cult sells blatantly false, hateful tracts claiming a longstanding Jewish plot to suppress African Americans. When Obama decided on a spiritual mentor, he chose Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has longstanding ties to Farrakhan (he took a trip to Libya with him in 1985, for example), and who recently praised praised Farrakhan for his "astounding and eyeopening" analysis of the "racial ills of this nation," a "perspective," he added, that is "helpful and honest." He chose to be a member of Wright's Afrocentric church, whose magazine recently honored Farrakhan for his purported dedication "truth, education, and leadership."
The Times article's author seems perplexed that "Obama's pastor" "has been viewed with suspicion." Quite obviously, it's not perplexing at all. Obama's ties to Rev. Wright raise some interesting questions. It's not that people think that Obama likes Farrakhan, or likely shares Wright's puerile anti-Israel views. The question is, why this church, and this pastor? The charitable view is that Obama was genuinely, religiously moved by his encounters with Wright and his congregation, and he found a spiritual home completely removed from politics. But Obama is a politician, and people tend to be somewhat suspicious of politicians. The cynical take is that the church and its 8,000 congregants served as an important political base for the previously irreligious Obama, and that he was willing to overlook Wright's more incendiary and dubious stances to secure that base. Now that Obama is running for president, he is conveniently distancing himself from some of this, but always in a manner that suggests he's still afraid of alienating people who find Wright's perspective congenial. Jews, not surprisingly, are inclined to support someone who stands up to anti-Semitism and its enablers (Rev. Wright) directly, and not just when it's politically convenient.
(6) All that said, Obama has been generally saying exactly the right things to soothe concerns among Jewish voters, including his MLK Day speech in which he denounced anti-Semitism in the black community, and his invocation at the recent debate of the historical civil rights ties between blacks and Jews. But if we keep in mind how popular the Clintons are among Jewish voters, that Bush received 25% of the vote against Kerry, and that McCain has a moderate reputation and has virtually no specifically Jewish-related blemishes, it's hardly surprising that Obama isn't being received with universal adulation in the Jewish community.