WASHINGTON (JTA) — The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.
The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.
Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.
But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.
The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.
Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.
Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.
But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They’re looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.
Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.
“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”
Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.
Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.
In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”
The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.
Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.
“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.
At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.
“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.
“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that’s how I’ve used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)
The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.
Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn’t see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.
“I’d like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we’re not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”