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Jewish voters cautious on Obama

PEMBROKE PINES — When Barack Obama's senior adviser on the Middle East took the microphone one Wednesday morning, he should have had it easy.

The topic? Obama's support of Israel. The sponsors? The local Democratic Club and Obama's campaign. The setting? The local synagogue.

"It might have taken a while for the Jewish community to get to know Obama," Daniel Shapiro told a group of 150 Jews at the Pembroke Pines Century Village, "but I think we're going to come out for him."

What followed was brief but awkward: Some clapped; others stared into the onion bagel crumbs on their plates.

"This is an important election that's going to shape America … but I just haven't decided yet," said 55-year-old Alan Oshinsky, one of a handful of people who left the synagogue still contemplating a vote for Sen. John McCain.

Each week, the Obama campaign wins over a few more Jews in its redoubled efforts to woo this usually dependable bloc of Democratic voters in Florida.

Several who attended Shapiro's speech last week said they believe many in South Florida's older Jewish communities are still suspicious of Obama. And the reasons are complex.

The tensions go back decades, said Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. It's the skirmishes after the fracturing of the civil rights coalition; it's Andrew Young, the country's first African-American ambassador to the United Nations, meeting illegally with the Palestine Liberation Organization; or it's Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan criticizing Jews.

"This is a generation of Jews that remembers and won't let go," Berlinerblau said.

Many older Jews also don't care for nuances in Obama's Middle East stance of being willing to meet with "appropriate Iranian leaders," as Shapiro explained to Jewish voters in Century Village. Berlinerblau said they'd prefer a hard-line, no-diplomacy route.

Still, McCain's choice of socially conservative Gov. Sarah Palin for a running mate has spurred some Jews to reconsider Obama.

"I wanted to be sure about Obama," said 63-year-old Fran Williams of Century Village in Deerfield Beach. "Palin helped me a lot with that."

Recently, South Florida Jews received calls from a poll funded by the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington that said it was testing its message by posing negative questions about Obama. Democrats called it push-polling, a tactic that's intended to spread fear and rumors.

Many hard-core Obama supporters at Century Village pressed Shapiro to explain why Obama isn't striking back harder.

"He's really got to be, really, a bit tougher," said Matthew Uttal, 57. "It's fine to be cerebral. But most of America isn't. Are we here to win or are we here to play?"

Jewish voters cautious on Obama 09/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 12:44pm]
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