Israel takes center stage at feisty presidential forum in S.F.

The main course was a night away, but that was no reason not to enjoy a spicy appetizer.

Around 100 people showed up Oct. 6 to a Jewish Com- munity Relations Council- sponsored debate between two party representatives in San Francisco — even though Barack Obama and John McCain would be squaring off the very next night in Tennessee.

The attentive and well-behaved audience inside Congregation Emanu-El’s Martin Meyer Sanctuary was rewarded with insight into “issues of importance to the Bay Area Jewish community” (just as the advance materials had promised) as well as a steady stream of vitriol. The “Monday Night Football” game being played at the same time had nothing on the hard hits these two men delivered.

Larry Greenfield, the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, derided Obama as an “inexperienced leftist” and later added, “I don’t like the Chicago politics of Barack Obama and his people. In their guts, in their kishkes, they know they’ve never been pro-Israel.”

Jeff Bleich, a California delegate for Obama and the past president of the State Bar of California, said McCain’s specialty during the campaign has been to “demonize and divide.” And, he added, “How can we expect you to govern if you’re going to feed us that type of propaganda?”

The 90-minute event was smoothly moderated by Michael Krasny, host of “Forum” on KQED radio. He began his remarks by reinforcing stern warnings already issued by host Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan and JCRC President Cheryl Feiner: no catcalls, no cheering.

The audience kept quiet, but the speakers let it fly, especially on the topic of Israel.

“I was in the front row of the AIPAC Convention [in June] when Barack Obama said he was for an undivided Jerusalem,” Greenfield said. “Then the Palestinians got on the phone to him, and he recanted the next day.

“Obama is naïve. This is a person unqualified to be the president of the United States on the Israel issue alone.”

Bleich, an Oakland resident who was named 2006 Attorney of the Year by California Lawyer magazine, said Obama “has said unequivocally he will stop at nothing to protect Israel.”

Obama “is advocating tough, strong diplomacy, which is now what the Bush administration is doing,” he said. In fact, Bleich added, most everyone is now in favor of this approach, “except John McCain.”

Greenfield stressed that McCain “is not quick on the trigger … I trust John McCain to make sober and realistic judgments about military matters.”

Bleich ticked off a long list of Jews supporting Obama — from Dennis Ross, director of policy planning in the State Department under President George H. W. Bush and special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton; to Lester Crown, one of the world’s richest people according to Forbes magazine; to Daniel Kurtzer, ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.

He also said the Kurtzer endorsement should be taken as a major sign that Obama is a friend to Israel. “Kurtzer has never been partisan before,” Bleich said. “He staked his entire career on not stepping out.”

Greenfield said he never hears Obama address “radical Islam” or jihad, then turned to Bleich and intoned, “What are you proposing to stop jihad? To stop the slide of Europe into Eurabia?”

Added Greenfield: “The Palestinians say they’re stalling the peace talks, waiting for the election because they feel they’ll get a better deal from Barack Obama.”

At many times during the event, Greenfield followed the lead of the McCain campaign by attacking Obama’s past.

Countered Bleich: “I’m not attacking John McCain on being some stooge of a radical group. I’m attacking him on his record.”

“JCRC Presidential Forum: Election 2008” continues 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. Information: [email protected] or (510) 839-2900 ext. 217. The series wraps up 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Way, Burlingame. Information: [email protected] or (650) 961-1922.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.