Obama, Democrats rising star, known for harmony with Jews

boston | Barack Obama spent a recent Sunday campaigning in black churches in suburban Chicago, explaining the Swahili origins of his first name, which means “blessed.”

His final stop was a Jewish center for the aged, where he told the same story — but added a note about the word’s etymological relationship to its Hebrew counterpart, baruch.

“And he pronounced ‘baruch’ impeccably,” marveled Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who had spent the day with the man all but sure to become the third African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Obama, whose keynote speech was arguably the highlight of this year’s Democratic Party convention in Boston, did not come by the pronunciation by chance.

“His connection with the Jewish community was one he made early on,” Schakowsky, who is Jewish, said at the convention.

Long before March, when he achieved national prominence by trouncing a crowded field of rivals in the Democratic primary for one of Illinois’ U.S. Senate seats, Obama and the Chicago Jewish community eagerly had sought each other out, with the goal of reforging the classic black-Jewish alliance of the 1960s.

“Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish community in Chicago,” Obama said in a phone interview from southern Illinois, where he and his family were on a campaign tour.

Obama said rebuilding the alliance has been a critical element of his campaign.

“The foundation of so much progress in this country has been based on our mutual interest in civil liberties and civil rights,” Obama said. “The support of the Jewish community was critical in the civil rights movements in the ’60s, and the efforts at liberating African Americans from Jim Crow expanded opportunities and reduced anti-Semitism. We’re a people who share a history of oppression. America’s better when we work together.”

Alan Solow, a backer of Obama’s from his first run for state Senate eight years ago, likened Obama to Martin Luther King Jr., who had close relations with Jewish leaders.

“He has reached out to the Jewish community, and the Jewish community has reached out to him,” Solow said in a phone interview.

“Obama has reached out, has shown up at Jewish community events, has expressed concern — including support for Israel — in a way that is reassuring,” said Jay Tcath, director of Chicago’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

Signs of Obama’s outreach include attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Washington policy conference in May. All congressional candidates get an automatic invitation to the AIPAC conference, but attendance — especially by those who aren’t incumbents — is considered a serious commitment to the pro-Israel community.

Obama has yet to visit Israel — invitations coincided with his two daughters’ births, he said — but plans to do so soon.

Robert Schrayer, a leading Chicago Jewish philanthropist, said he decided to raise money for Obama after the candidate sought a meeting with him.

“We couldn’t find any areas in which we disagreed,” he said, in discussing abortion rights, gun control and Israel. “He knew quite a bit about the history of Israel.”

Obama’s foreign policy speech in June to Chicago’s Council on Foreign Relations emphasized the U.S. alliance with Israel.

“Our first and immutable commitment must be to the security of Israel, our only true ally in the Middle East and the only democracy,” said Obama, who has a degree in political science and international relations from Columbia University. “The administration’s failure to be consistently involved in helping Israel achieve peace with the Palestinians has been both wrong for our friendship with Israel, as well as badly damaging to our standing in the Arab world.”

In a release this week, the Republican Jewish Coalition accused Obama of criticizing Israel’s West Bank security barrier, citing a pre-primaries statement to the Chicago Jewish News.

However, Obama’s full quote appears to be direct criticism of the Bush administration, saying its alleged neglect of peace efforts created the circumstances for the building of the fence.

In follow-up comments, the RJC said that view was problematic as well. “The failure of the peace process has zero to do with the Israelis and zero to do with the United States and has everything to do with Yasser Arafat,” said Matt Brooks, the group’s executive director.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.