Friday, May 23, 2008

What’s in a Name?

It has been reported that Senator Obama is now putting a stronger emphasis on the Jewish vote, especially in Florida – a key state for the national election. It has also been reported that as part of this effort Senator Obama, in a recent appearance in a Florida synagogue, asked the audience not to judge him according to his skin color or his name, referring in part, I assume, to his Muslim middle name – Hussein.

I found this appeal offensive and worrisome. It should surprise no one that some American Jews have certain concerns with Senator Obama’s candidacy: his past statements about negotiations with Iran, his short public record on matters of foreign policy and Israel, his affiliation with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the general sense he gives of a naïve belief in the effectiveness of talks and negotiations and of an overly strong reluctance to use force when needed. For many American Jews (naturally not for all) these factors raise questions as to the decisions and sentiments Senator Obama will have as president, if elected; questions that do not arise in the case of Senators Mccain and Clinton.

These are perfectly legitimate concerns. To an extent I have them myself. It is certainly possible that these concerns are misguided or based on misconceptions, but they are definitely understandable and are by no means illegitimate or irrational. In addition, these concerns have absolutely nothing to do with Senator Obama’s name or skin color (which for me, if anything, make him more appealing rather than less for reasons of multiculturalism, diversity, variety and historic justice etc). While I have no doubt that some voters, including some Jewish voters, question and even oppose Senator Obama for illegitimate reasons, to attribute these tendencies to the “Jewish voters” by raising them in a synagogue during Senator Obama’s “Jewish campaign in Florida” is offensive an unfair. It almost rises to a covert accusation of racism and has the effect of delegitimizing and silencing legitimate concerns. In fact, this statement may make some people even uneasier with Senator Obama rather than help build trust. Also, Senator Obama’s continuous statements about his many Jewish friends do not help either.

Senator Obama needs to dispel these concerns by doing two things: (1) make clearer statements about his values and future policies and, (2) convince people that he in fact means what he says about where his loyalties lie and that he will have the resolve to do what he promises. Lately Senator Obama has made all the right statements, but some of his trust building tactics leave something to be desired.

To be clear, this is no more than a critical observation. I am neither mortally offended by Senator Obama nor do I think that he has committed an unforgivable sin. In fact, I may very well end up voting for him. However, as of now, while I would really like to be convinced, I am still on the fence.

Posted by Ori Herstein