It saddens me that American politicians have to go through a kind of ritual where they swear that they are the most pro-Israel politician that has ever lived. In some ways it reminds me of how annoying the anti-Castro Cuban pandering has been throughout my whole life. It’s not so much the positions that are espoused that bother me as the way it closes down any flexibility in solutions to break the deadlocks. I consider myself both opposed to the Castro regime in Cuba and pro-Israel (although some would look at my positions and call me pro-Palestinian). But that’s the point of these rituals…to narrowly define the parameters of debate and, therefore, policy options. We can see this process unfolding today in Boca Raton.

Barack Obama today will try to assuage Jewish voters who are concerned about his support for Israel, some of his foreign-policy advisers, his association with a former pastor and even his middle name…

… Obama, 46, will discuss Middle East issues at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida, to defuse the criticism, which his campaign said ignores a consistent pro-Israel record.

The Democratic presidential candidate has repeatedly expressed his commitment to Israel’s security and has rejected the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return. He also backs a plan that has angered Palestinians to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and recently drafted legislation calling for the economic isolation of Iran.

Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and one of the Illinois senator’s strongest Jewish supporters, said Obama would talk about his staunch support for Israel and outline his commitment to thwarting Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon.

Obama has an “A-plus record” on Israel, said Wexler, 47. “This is going to be a big boost.”

It’s good that Obama is doing some direct outreach to the Jewish community because they’ve been subjected to a lot of disinformation aimed at arousing doubts about his commitment to Israel. And, whatever the merits of Obama’s Middle East policies, he certainly doesn’t err on the side of being too friendly to the Palestinian cause. Concerned Jewish voters need to know that. In fact, it appears that they need to know a lot more.

Much of the criticism of Obama “is not about his voting record; it’s about his mindset, his temperament and his background,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, a New York-based Jewish newspaper. “People are freaked by his middle name” and “they’re not examining the source” of the information.

It should be common knowledge in the Jewish community that ‘Hussein’ is an Arabic, not Muslim, name. As for Obama’s first name, surely people remember the Israeli Prime Minister that negotiated with Yassar Arafat at Camp David in 2000. His name was Ehud Barak. Does that mean that Obama has a Jewish first name?

It’s always difficult to discuss the issue of Jewish support for Israel and its intersection with American politics. Part of the problem is that the reality fits into some of the more unfortunate traditional stereotypes about Jews. To be blunt, the Jewish community is small in absolute numbers but have traditionally been a vital source of campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. And, while their numbers are few, they can be a deciding factor in states like Pennsylvania and Florida that have the power to determine Electoral College outcomes. It’s a challenge to even acknowledge those facts without getting accused of anti-Semitism.

Ironically, Obama has created the exact kind of conditions where he might be free to pursue a more officially balanced approach. He’s done this by creating an enormous small money donor base that makes him unreliant on any single lobbying group for campaign cash. He’s also done it by expanding the map so that he has avenues to victory that do not depend on winning Florida. These exact same conditions, combined with generational changes, have allowed Obama to loosen up his rhetoric regarding Cuban policy. But he obviously does not yet feel free to do the same on Israeli policy. He has come down against the right-of-return (something I agree with, but that should be a point of negotiation, not official policy), for moving the embassy to Jerusalem (something I see as needlessly provocative), for economic isolation of Iran (again, something that should be set by changing conditions, not locked in stone), against foreign aid to Hamas (hard to hold to, given conditions on the ground in Gaza), etc. By adopting the hardline on all these issues, Obama doesn’t distinguish himself from any other American presidential politician. And that worries me only because it raises doubt that he will have the needed flexibility to achieve a breakthrough where his predecessors have failed.

And, it needs to be said that the hardline on the Palestinians is anything but an official Jewish-American (or even Jewish-Israeli) position. But it’s a strong enough position within those communities that it takes courage to stand up to them.

Traditionally, Jews have overwhelmingly favored Democratic candidates, yet Obama isn’t doing as well with these voters as some of his predecessors. In a recent Gallup poll, Obama gets the support of 61 percent of Jewish voters, compared with 32 percent for the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain. The last Republican to score that high was Ronald Reagan, who had 40 percent in 1980.

Ronald Reagan got 40% of the Jewish vote partly because he won the election in a landslide, but also because of concerns that President Carter had forced Israel to give up too much in the Camp David Accords. The ongoing Iranian Hostage Crisis was also a factor. Given the ease with which Obama’s opponents have been able to sow doubt in the Jewish community about his commitment to Israel (his middle name, his past associations) it is easy to see why he found it politically expedient to take hardline positions. And I’m not questioning his sincerity so much as hoping that he has a more nuanced and flexible approach than he is forced to put on display today in Boca Raton. Peace in the Middle East and lasting security for Israel has not and will not be achieved using strictly hardline approaches. History has taught us that.

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