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Barack Obama's voting record and public statements in steadfast support of Israel win him high marks from many Jewish groups and leaders.
Still, Obama has had to work to counter conservative opponents, rumors and chain e-mails widely distributed in the Jewish community cautioning that Obama's public stance is belied by associations with people who hold anti-Israel views.
One of the less subtle broadsides came in February 2008 from the Tennessee Republican Party, which put out a release titled "Anti-Semites for Obama." It expressed concern "about the future of the nation of Israel" if "Sen. Barack Hussein Obama" is elected, and included the now famous picture of Obama in Somali garb.
"Nothing in Barack Obama's history or his choice of advisers suggests he will be a friend to Israel," said Bill Hobbs, communications director for the Tennessee Republican Party. "On the contrary, supporters of Israel should view a possible Obama administration with extreme caution, as America's ally is being put in the cross-hairs by the anti-Jewish left."
The release was strongly condemned by Democrats and many Jewish groups, and also by Sen. John McCain and the National Republican Party.
U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, who co-chairs Obama's Florida campaign, said the release was nothing more than a political smear.
"I really doubt that the Republican Party of Tennessee worries one bit about the security of the state of Israel," said Wexler, who is Jewish and is an active pro-Israel proponent. "It would be laughable if it wasn't so devious."
The Tennessee Republican Party's allegations of Obama's "anti-Israeli leanings" are by no means a lone voice in the political forest. In fact, they touch on three main allegations making the rounds:
• Key members of Obama's Middle East advisory team are anti-Israel.
• As a board member for a Chicago nonprofit, Obama okayed a grant to an Arab-American group that is anti-Israel.
• Obama is a member of a church whose pastor has espoused anti-Israeli ideas, and which gave an award to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has famously made anti-Semitic remarks.
PolitiFact has covered some of this ground before. Indeed, a magazine affiliated with Obama's church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, did give Farrakhan a lifetime achievement award and Obama has decried that decision. You can read a PolitiFact story on other charges against Obama's church here.
And, in a 2005 newsletter, senior pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. advocated divesting from Israel to "wake Americans up concerning the injustice and racism under which Palestinians have lived because of Zionism."
In a meeting before Cleveland-area Jewish leaders in late February, Obama tried to brush off fears that he mirrors his pastor's thinking, saying Wright "is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with."
For this story, we'll focus on the other two charges. Let's take them one by one.
• "You don't even have to go outside Obama's campaign to find advisers who are anti-Israel."
The blogosphere is filled with accusations that key members of Obama's Middle East advisory team are anti-Israel.
Two names getting the most discussion are Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, and Robert Malley, once a special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. These men ring alarm bells for some pro-Israel people who follow Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Whether either is anti-Israel as described is a matter of opinion. More important, the Obama campaign claims neither is a formal adviser.
The news release from the Tennessee Republican Party is direct.
"You don't have to go outside Obama's campaign to find advisers who are anti-Israel," states Bill Hobbs, communications director for the Tennessee Republican Party, in the release. "Robert Malley, a principal foreign policy adviser to Obama, has advocated negotiating with the Iranian-funded radical terrorist group Hamas and urged that Hamas — which sends suicide bombers to kill innocent women and children — receive international assistance."
The comments appear to parrot several articles written by Ed Lasky for the American Thinker, a conservative daily Internet publication. In a Jan. 16, 2008, article titled "Barack Obama and Israel," he claims that Obama "has assembled a body of foreign policy advisers who signal that a President Obama would likely have an approach towards Israel radically at odds with those of previous presidents (both Republican and Democrat)."
Lasky claims that "Brzezinski is well known for his aggressive dislike of Israel" and that he "has been an ardent foe of Israel for over three decades."
Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel, stated in an article in the Jerusalem Post that Brzezinski heads up Obama's "problematic" Middle East team. Brzezinski is faulted for advocating dialogue with Hamas prior to the November 2007 Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
In a meeting with Cleveland Jewish community leaders on Feb. 24, Obama stated that he does not share Brzezinski's views with respect to Israel. Moreover, Obama said, "He's not one of my key advisers. I've had lunch with him once. I've exchanged e-mails with him maybe three times. He came to Iowa to introduce (me) ... for a speech on Iraq."
Brzezinski, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, echoed that in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
"I am a private supporter of Sen. Obama, and by not being part of the campaign as such I retain the right to continue advocating publicly my own views regarding policy issues — which I have done for years and on the record," Brzezinski wrote. "My views have been supported by Israelis who desire peace and I have frequently consulted them. The McCarthy-like comments you cite emanate from the fanatical right which for years has opposed any serious effort to end the tragic Middle Eastern conflict."
Malley's chief offense among many pro-Israel activists is a letter he penned to the New York Times in which he claimed all sides, including Israel and not just the Palestinians, were to blame for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit.
The furor against Malley reached such a pitch that five former Middle East policy leaders (including Sandy Berger, former national security adviser, and Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel) wrote a statement on Malley's behalf. In part, it read, "Over the past several weeks, a series of vicious, personal attacks have been launched against one of our colleagues, Robert Malley. ... They claim that he harbours an anti-Israeli agenda and has sought to undermine Israel's security. These attacks are unfair, inappropriate and wrong. They are an effort to undermine the credibility of a talented public servant who has worked tirelessly over the years to promote Arab-Israeli peace and U.S. national interests. They must stop."
Obama's campaign states that while Malley has offered advice and opinions on a couple occasions, he is not a formal adviser either.
The day-to-day Middle East policy advisers with Obama's campaign, as confirmed by Wexler and other campaign staffers, are: Dan Shapiro, a member of Bill Clinton's National Security Council; Eric Lynn, a former foreign policy adviser to Rep. Peter Deutsch; Tony Lake, a former national security adviser to Clinton; and Dennis McDonough, foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Tom Daschle.
The allegations that Obama has surrounded himself with advisers who are anti-Israel are largely based on two men who, according to Obama's campaign, are simply not key advisers to Obama. We rate this statement False.
• "The board of a nonprofit organization on which Obama served as a paid director ... granted funding to a controversial Arab group."
The second key charge from the Tennessee Republican Party release relates to Obama's role with the Woods Fund, a Chicago grantmaking foundation whose goal is to "increase opportunities for disadvantaged people."
The release says: "The board of a nonprofit organization on which Obama served as a paid director ... granted funding to a controversial Arab group that mourns the establishment of Israel as a 'catastrophe.' "
Deborah Harrington, president of the Woods Fund, said Obama was, in fact, a director from 1994 through 2001, when the board approved a $40,000 grant to the Arab American Action Network for "community organizing."
The source for the allegations can be traced to a Feb. 24, 2008, article written by Aaron Klein for WorldNetDaily, an Internet publication.
The story takes issue with the founder of the AAAN, Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor who is "a harsh critic of Israel and has made statements supportive of Palestinian terror." The article also notes that the AAAN co-sponsored an art exhibit that featured "works related to what some Palestinians call the 'Nakba' or 'catastrophe' of Israel's founding in 1948" (although the exhibit came years after Obama left the Woods Fund board).
Other blogs note that in a July 2006 interview, AAAN's executive director, Hatem Abudayyeh, referred to the "Israeli government and its military killing machine."
Abudayyeh has been bombarded of late with media calls from the likes of Time and Newsweek. In an interview with PolitiFact, he dismissed the WorldNet article and others that have parroted it as misguided attempts by "marginal right wing, anti-Muslim" Internet voices to try to discredit Obama.
The AAAN has no foreign policy agenda, Abudayyeh said. It is a nonprofit "community-based organization working to improve the social, economic, and political conditions of Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans in the Chicago metropolitan area." The AAAN provides Chicago-based adult education, social services, youth development programs, domestic violence prevention and "community empowerment" through community organizing, activism and leadership development, Abudayyeh said.
"Individuals within organizations have different political viewpoints on domestic and foreign policy," he said, but those viewpoints have no bearing on the services provided by the organization.
Louise Cainkar, an associate professor of sociology at Marquette University, used to serve on the AAAN board and specifically remembers the 2001 grant from the Woods Fund.
"It was after the Sept. 11 attacks," said Cainkar. "Many Arab-Americans were being victimized by hate crimes. It was a hostile environment. That was an essential grant to cope with what community members were facing."
Chicago has the country's largest Palestinian-American community, said Cainkar, who is writing a book about the Arab-American experience after 9/11. Many of them are critical of Israeli government policies, she said.
"Does the organization takes sides? No," she said. "Do individuals? I'm sure they do.
"AAAN is a community organization and they are careful about not getting involved in anything with foreign policy."
Harrington, president of the Woods Fund, called it "pretty ridiculous" to suggest the AAAN promotes anti-Israeli ideas.
The Woods Fund of Chicago has provided grants in recent years to a diverse array of nonprofits including Protestant, African-American, Japanese and Latino organizations.
"It just seems like, why this one?'' Harrington said of singling out the grant to the AAAN. "It's a witch hunt."
So, seven years ago, Obama was a director of the Woods Fund when the board approved a grant to the AAAN. And some of the leaders of AAAN have made statements that could be interpreted as anti-Israel. But there's no evidence the AAAN used any of the Woods Fund money to promote an anti-Israel foreign policy agenda. In fact, the AAAN's focus is on local initiatives, and has no foreign policy. We rate the claim Barely True.
• • •
Obama has gone to great lengths to set the record straight about his position on Israel, meeting numerous times with Jewish leaders during the campaign. That may seem like a lot of effort for a group that has comprised about 4 percent of Democratic primary voters as of March 2008. But studies show that the Jewish voter turnout rate is significantly higher than other ethnic groups. (Exit polls show Clinton has held a 52-46 percent edge over Obama among Jewish voters this primary season.)
The doubts about Obama's stance on Israel stand in stark contrast to the thumbs-up he has gotten from several major Jewish organizations.
"All of the leading presidential candidates ... have demonstrated a fundamental commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship," said Joshua Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America's pro-Israel lobby. "All three senators have strong congressional voting records on issues important to the pro-Israel community."
The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) isn't taking sides in the primary but has concluded that both Clinton and Obama "are strong supporters of Israel."
In its analysis of Obama, the NJDC states: "Senator Obama has an outstanding voting record on Israel issues. Senator Obama co-sponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act. He has joined several letters urging actions on behalf of the interests of the State of Israel, including a letter calling on the European Union to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist groups, a letter urging President Bush to press Palestinian leadership to bar terrorist groups from Palestinian elections and a letter expressing solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism. He has voted multiple times in favor of foreign aid and is a leader in pushing for divestment from Iran."
In an address at the 2007 NJDC Washington Conference, Obama promised that as president he would "stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel" in search of peace.
To an AIPAC audience in Chicago on March 2, 2007, Obama pledged "a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel. ... That will always be my starting point."
Rep. Wexler, who has been at the forefront of Obama's efforts to woo Jewish voters nationwide, said he wouldn't be so adamant if he weren't convinced of Obama's commitment to Israel. "If you gave it a grade, it would be an A-plus," Wexler said.
WorldNetDaily, "Obama worked with terrorist," by Aaron Klein, Feb. 24, 2008
American Thinker, "Barack Obama and Israel," by Ed Lasky, Jan. 16, 2008
Agence France-Presse, "Obama backs Israel, rejects Farrakhan's backing," Feb. 26, 2008
New York Sun, "Obama and Israel," editorial, Jan. 9, 2008
Politico, "Obama's Rhetoric Chills Some Supporters of Israel," by Ben Smith, March 19, 2007
National Jewish Democratic Council, "Democratic Candidates Support Israel," an analysis
Haaretz, "Obama: Opponents trying to weaken my support in Jewish community," by Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent, Jan. 28, 2008
Jewish Week, "Sniping Intensifies On Campaign Advisers," by James D. Besser, Feb. 13, 2008
Philadelphia Jewish Voice, "American Smear-Artist: Ed Lasky attacks Senator Barack Obama," by Ira N. Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, February 2008
BarackObama.com, Position on Israel
New York Times, "Fictions About the Failure At Camp David," by Robert Malley, July 8, 2001
Jerusalem Post, "Obama and the Jews," by Marc Zell, co-chairman Republicans Abroad in Israel, Feb. 21, 2008
Jerusalem Post, "Obama is a Strong Friend of Israel," by Congressman Robert Wexler, Feb. 27, 2008
Trumpet Newsmagazine, "A message from our pastor," by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., July 2005
Fight Back News, Interview with Hatem Abudayyeh, July 2006
Associated Press, "Obama tries to allay Jewish concerns," by Philip Elliot, March 14, 2008
Interview with U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, co-chair of Obama's Florida campaign, Feb. 29, 2008
Interview with Shmuel Rosner chief U.S. correspondent for Haaretz, March 5, 2008
Interview with Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, March 3, 2008
Interview with Deborah Harrington, president of the Woods Fund of Chicago, March 3, 2008
Interview with Steve Rabin, deputy executive director of National Jewish Democratic Council, Feb. 29, 2008
Interview with Joshua Block, spokesman for AIPAC, March 4, 2008
Interview with Louise Cainkar, associate professor of sociology at Marquette University, March 13, 2008