A Philadelphian's Perspective on the Election

by Burt Siegel, former Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and JSPAN Board member It is one week after election day as I write this, and the very term President (elect) Obama sounds like music to many of our ears. Someone once pointed out that almost none of the US presidents had names ending in a vowel - (Coolidge, McKinley and Kennedy are it, if you count y as a vowel) - and they maintained that "ethnic" names are more likely to have vowel endings than those of WASPS. One way or another, Obama sounds wonderful. The outcome of the recent election, no doubt, pleased nearly all JSPAN members. Those of us who have dedicated so much of our time and energy to help create, if not a racially blind society, at least a near-sighted one, had to be especially thrilled. On election day, my wife Barbara and I worked in Obama headquarters on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia. It is not a section of the city I know very well, if at all. The demographics are of a largely Roman Catholic population, the skins are mostly white, the collars blue. The neighborhood men and women who came in and out of the office that day were named Joe, Patrick, Peter, Mary and Kate. They were out on the streets going door to door asking neighbors to do something few had ever done before: vote for a black man. While it was true that these neighborhoods voted in higher numbers for Michael Nutter than they had for previous African American mayoral candidates, they probably had accommodated themselves to having a black mayor by now, but this was for the President of the United States, surely the most emblematic as well as powerful post in our nation. I was also struck by the composition of the people staffing the office; Jewish college students down from New York, a retired parochial school teacher, African American housewives, off- duty fire fighters. When people came into the office to report about the positive responses that they received while canvassing, they were greeted with cheers, hugs and high-fives. A portrait of how America should be and hopefully is what it is becoming! I was especially thrilled that once more the Jewish community gave a higher percentage of our votes to an African American candidate than did other whites, a higher percentage, in fact, than Kerry, Gore, Carter, Truman or Stevenson received. But during the course of the campaign the appeals directed to the Jewish community to vote for John McCain were some of the most disturbing we have ever witnessed. That they didn't work is certainly heartening. That they were so frequent, so blatant and pandered to our deepest, darkest, most subliminal fears, is deeply distressing, however. While it is certainly common for a campaign to imply that one candidate's thinking is more in tune with that of a target audience, in this case the Jewish community, I can't recall another campaign where a candidate was so demonized, his views so distorted, his associates, no matter how peripheral, so vetted for their every statement about Israel or the Middle East. Even more disturbing was the use of Holocaust imagery to infer that a lack of opposition to Obama was in some way similar to allegedly insufficient opposition to the rise of Nazism. Sadly, however, it was not the McCain campaign professionals who orchestrated these efforts, but members of the Jewish community who supported his campaign. Accusations of anti-Semitism, of willingly associating with anti-Semites or of animus to Israel are much too serious to be tossed around without thought given to the consequences of such actions. I recall, many years ago, then Congressman Bill Gray's hurt and anger regarding accusations made based on his quite minimal relationship with an African American congressman with a record of anti-Israel votes. Bill said that he saw a tendency on the part of some in the Jewish community to never fully trust African American elected officials regarding support for Israel. This was in spite of a very supportive voting record on the part of the vast majority of members of the Congressional Black Caucus. While no one can predict with total assurance the level of an Obama administration's support of Israel, I am quite confident that he will continue to demonstrate the strong commitment to Israel's security that he expressed repeatedly during the course of his campaign and is reflected in his Senate voting record. The tendency to make assumptions based on our worst fears, more than on any evidence, simply is unhealthy and we should say so loudly when confronted by it. Both President-elect Obama and the Jewish community deserve more.