The Audacity of Chutzpah

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A group of Jewish leaders announced that it was having a public meeting yesterday to discuss the 2008 presidential election. Representing John McCain: former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger. Representing Hillary Clinton: former White House official Ann Lewis. Representing Barack Obama: "a high-level representative of Barack Obama's presidential campaign (TBA)."

TBA? Obama's Jewish problem must be getting worse.

Finally, TBA was ID'd: Princeton professor Dan Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel. And when the victim, er, high-level representative, took the stage at the Washington Hilton yesterday for the United Jewish Communities debate, he went quickly on defense.

"There's a question in the community that's unfortunately been stimulated and stirred about and played with in e-mails and innuendos and newspaper articles," he said, "that suggests that there's something wrong with Senator Obama's views about Jews, about Israel." He then suggested that Jews could relate to Obama's persecution. "There are nagging doubts, there are e-mails, there are innuendos: These are the kinds of things which we as a community have suffered over the years at the hands of anti-Semites."

It took a bit of chutzpah to play the anti-Semite for Obama -- but these are tense times for the senator from Audacity.

Obama is in trouble because his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was caught on tape preaching such gospel as "God damn America" and accusing Israel of "state terrorism against the Palestinians."

Jews, a small but influential group in Democratic politics, had been worried about Obama even before last week's preacher problem. It seems recent divisions between African Americans and Jews were aggravated by matters such as Obama's sympathy for the Palestinians, and his willingness to take advice from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former Carter administration official who calls U.S. Middle East policy "morally hypocritical."

According to exit polls, Jews went for Hillary Clinton by margins ranging from 20 to 42 percentage points in Florida, Nevada, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Obama had a significant edge only in Connecticut.

The videos of Wright's sermons -- in which the pastor also condemned "rich, white people" -- escalated Obama's racial and ethnic problems, and he has scheduled a "major" speech on race for this morning in Philadelphia. If Ambassador TBA's reception at the United Jewish Communities event is any indication, Obama has difficult work ahead.

Security guards with Israeli accents turned away people at the door as the room overflowed. McCain's representative and Clinton's representative struck up a conversation on stage, leaving Obama's man to his own thoughts. As moderator William Daroff introduced Kurtzer "on the far left" of the stage, Eagleburger interrupted.

"Where he belongs!" the former secretary of state announced.

Kurtzer, granted his turn to speak, attempted to argue that "on issues relating to Israel, frankly, there aren't any differences among the three candidates." Eagleburger looked at him incredulously; the audience laughed.

Kurtzer attempted to defuse the Wright controversy. "For many of you who belong to synagogues and Jewish community centers, as I have all my life, we would not want to be judged by the words of rabbis who sometimes say ridiculous things," he reasoned.

The others used their time to raise doubts about Obama's fealty to Israel. "Senator Obama has said that he commits in his first year as president to meeting with President Ahmadinejad of Iran," Lewis said. McCain, Eagleburger added, "will not talk with the Syrians, will not talk with the Iranians, will not talk with Hamas and Hezbollah. . . . He isn't going to push the Israelis."

The skepticism continued through the question time. Daroff said he had "heard in the hallways here" that Obama "doesn't see the U.S.-Israel relationship as much of the mainstream of the Senate or the Jewish community sees it."

Kurtzer blamed such sentiment on "attack dogs" and writers of scurrilous e-mails. "He's right within the mainstream of American society and Jewish community concerns," TBA said.

Next question to Kurtzer: Obama's assertion that he needn't have a "Likud view" -- that of Israel's right-wing party -- to be pro-Israel. Kurtzer explained that Obama wanted to see a "plurality of views." Silence in the room.

To that, Lewis retorted: "The role of the president of the United States is to support the decisions that are made by the people of Israel. It is not up to us to pick and choose from among the political parties." The audience members applauded.

Eagleburger piled on. "There's a distinction between those you do talk to," he said, "and those who declare themselves as intent on the destruction of the state of Israel. And if that's their policy, I think we ought not talk to them." More applause.

A conference attendee from Richmond pressed Kurtzer on Obama's "judgment about not disavowing Reverend Wright's views earlier." Another question prompted a back-and-forth about whether Obama had been advised by Brzezinski, who won the enmity of pro-Israel groups for, among other things, accusing Israel of the "killing of hostages" in Lebanon.

"I'm not Brzezinski's spokesperson," Kurtzer demurred. And after yesterday, he may think twice before being Obama's TBA again.

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