Do Florida Jews Hold Key To White House?
In recent US presidential elections, the Sunshine State has proved to be a critical battleground. And in 2008, with its substantial Jewish community, it seems set to play that role again.
But while they've tended to lean towards the Democrats in the past, as Erica Morris of the South Florida Jewish Journal reports, this time around they could scupper Obama's campaign.
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It seems the Jewish community, usually a national cheerleader for the liberal-leaning Democratic Party, has some qualms about Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the party's nominee for the upcoming presidential election. The issue is of particular interest in Florida, as the state's Jewish population eclipses most other areas in terms of sheer quantity. The decisions of Jewish voters will have a large impact on Florida's 27 electoral votes, making up one-tenth of the 270 national Electoral College. If Republican hopeful Senator John McCain can sway enough members of the Jewish community, he'll be one step closer to those 27 votes and even nearer to the White House come inauguration day.
"There is a lot of unease about Obama," said Jessica Epstein, 34, a member of the Young Democrats of Miami. "The Jewish community sees him as being vague, almost ambivalent about Israel. If he would make a stronger case for himself, act more declaratively, Jewish voters might be more comfortable with him as a choice of candidate."
Obama won no points earlier this year when it was revealed that his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, called Judaism a "gutter religion". Obama promptly uninvited Wright from political rallies, but the damage seems to live on.
The nominee's religious background has also been used as fodder for challengers. A self-proclaimed Christian, Obama's father and stepfather were both practicing Muslims and Obama briefly attended a Muslim school while living in Indonesia as a child.
Some constituents are also displeased with Obama's calls for negotiation, perhaps even compromise, in the Middle East. While some Republican candidates, like McCain, are against the idea of placing responsibility on the part of the Israelis, Obama seems to think peace between the Palestinians and Israel can only come through mutual exchange.
"Some people take issue with the way he's voted regarding Israel's arms," said Joe Greenberg, 48, a member of the Miami-based Jewish Americans for Obama.
"He voted to ban cluster bombs, one of the main weapons used by the Israeli Army. But they're also used by the Palestinians. It's a two-way street, and Obama's acknowledging that there needs to be concessions on both sides."
Obama's recent selection of Senator Joe Biden as a vice presidential candidate might add a new level of respect to the campaign, as some perceive Biden as more pro-Israel than his running mate. The Jewish American Committee, an organisation that rates politicians based on their record toward Israel, ranks Biden as near perfect.
Within the political world, Obama has won support from Jewish Democrats like Robert Wexler, a member of Congress representing Florida.
"As president, Barack Obama will strongly support Israel's right and capability to defend itself, ensure Israel's qualitative military advantage and finally make progress toward the goal of a two-state solution that preserves Israel's security as a Jewish state," Wexler said in a speech about Obama's recent trip to Israel.
Still, some voters are concerned that these platitudes amount to an all-talk-and-no-show-mentality.
"There's a sense that Obama might be avoiding addressing this issue," Greenberg said. "There's been a lot of discussion about his stance on Israel; that he hasn't come out and gotten to the heart of it.
"I think we're going to need to hear some strong ideas from him, for the Jewish voters to feel satisfied."
The significant chorus of concerns seems to rest not so much on policy or statement, but more, on a feeling that Obama might not be able to provide the kind of staunch response towards Israel that some Jewish voters are looking for in a candidate. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen.
One certainty, though, is that the Jewish voter must be a responsible one. This voting season places tremendous accountability in the hands of the Jewish community and one can't afford to underestimate their own political efficacy.
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