Obama on the Defensive Before Fla. Jewish Voters

By MichaelJames

May 22, 2008 8:01pm

ABC News’ Sunlen Miller reports: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., faced a barrage of questions from Jewish voters in Boca Raton, Fla., about his relationship with some who are anti-Israel, his name and his own personal commitment to Israel.

Obama, with an American flag pin on his lapel, made brief opening remarks aimed at assuring the group of his support of Israel –- reminding the voters that he will not sit down with Hamas, and of his goal to eliminate the threat of Iran.  Obama told the crowd in the B’Nai Tora synagogue that his commitment to Israel is “unshakeable.”

“I know there’s a lot of rumor mongering going around. People have been getting e-mails non stop,” Obama said before taking questions at the town hall-style meeting.

Obama was referencing a swirl of e-mails saying incorrectly that he is a Muslim that have plagued him throughout the course of his campaign.

Obama’s preemption did not seem to help his case. The first questioner told of his friend who would vote Obama only he changed his name to “Barry.”

Obama said he used to go by “Barry” but then as he got older he thought it was important to acknowledge the other side of his heritage. Obama said that going by his real name caused some people to think he was Muslim.

“I think people shouldn’t worry about the name because my understanding is in Hebrew it actually means lightning," he said. "You’ve had a prime minister named Barack in Israel. It should be pretty familiar to this audience."

Obama explained that his Kenyan father was “basically agnostic” and said not believe the rumors that are being spread about the connections to his name.

Obama met a particularly fierce questioner who asked him about his relationship with Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East scholar at Columbia University, and asked for an example of one close Jewish friend who has influenced his thinking.

The voter’s direct and stern questioning of the senator elicited boos from the crowd -– with some attempting to drown out the man’s line of questioning.

Obama listed a few friends and campaign aides who are Jewish — Penny Pritzker, James Crows and Les Rosenburg — and responded to the Khalidi connection.

“You mentioned Rashid Khalidi, who’s a professor at Columbia," Obama said. "I do know him because I taught at the University of Chicago. And he is Palestinian. And I do know him and I have had conversations. He is not one of my advisors; he’s not one of my foreign policy people. His kids went to the Lab school where my kids go as well. He is a respected scholar, although he vehemently disagrees with a lot of Israel’s policy.”

But then Obama pushed back, launching a broader defense of his associations, while acknowledging that some past relationships have caused people in the Jewish community concerns.

“To pluck out one person who I know and who I’ve had a conversation with who has very different views than 900 of my friends and then to suggest that somehow that shows that maybe I’m not sufficiently pro-Israel, I think, is a very problematic stand to take," he said. "So we gotta be careful about guilt by association.”

Obama said that members of the U.S. Congress have expressed anti-black sentiments but they are still his friends and it doesn’t mean that he avoids dealing with them.

During his closing remarks, Obama launched his fiercest defense of the rumors about his background and heritage, and the e-mail campaign that has targeted him during the course of the campaign –- making the one last case to Jewish voters that he is pro-Israel.

“If you get one of these e-mails that says I’m a Muslim — not true, never been a Muslim — this is just stuff that is designed to make people suspicious," Obama said. “There is not a single trace of me being anything more than a friend of Israel and a friend of the Jewish people. … And so I would just ask –because this is part of, I think, the tradition of the Jewish people — is to judge me by what I say and what I’ve done, don’t judge me because I’ve got a funny name, don’t judge me because I’m African American and, you know, people are concerned about sort of memories of the past. I mean, I was reading the New York Times article today and it was troubling — because it’s exactly what I am fighting in the African American community when I hear anti-Semitic statements.”

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