Politics: Holy War

A controversial anti-Obama letter that rocked the Jewish community — and the reputations of the prominent Philadelphians who signed it — brought the conflict in the Middle East to the banks of the Schuylkill

Indeed, a week after the letter was sent — just days before the election — Newman changed her story, issuing a formal apology and claiming that Rudnick had drafted the letter and she hadn’t read the final version. (Rudnick, for his part, told the Times he had approval from officials at several levels.) Newman’s apology notwithstanding, amid rampant rumors that she was being forced out by the firm’s disgusted brass, it was later announced that she was leaving her position with the gilded law firm Cozen O’Connor. (Newman later denied being ousted.) Coslov, too, apparently suffered; according to the Jewish Federation leader, the man who before the letter had been widely expected to become the organization’s next president emerged from the controversy significantly cut down, and resigned. “The larger story to me is that this was the cherry on the top of the effort many Republicans used to divide the Jewish community,” Josh Shapiro says. “And what we saw was that it not only didn’t work, it clearly backfired.”
 
Did it?
 
The stats would appear to back up Shapiro: Obama won almost 80 percent of the area Jewish vote, slightly more than Kerry or Gore. The letter was, if not forgotten, brushed away. (Newman and Coslov declined to comment for this story, and Rudnick told me, “I’m really not doing interviews on this anymore, nor do I think it’s a newsworthy topic.” Morgan’s only comment was, “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that when a Democrat wins, Republicans will support him. Barack Obama’s my president, and I support him.”) So it’s all over. Except where it’s not.
 
Because like a lighthouse that momentarily catches glimpse of something real in the dark, the letter threw a spotlight on a war being waged far from the morass that is the Middle East — a war for the soul of Jews right here in Philadelphia.  
 

IT IS PERHAPS a sign of the times that Ground Zero for discussions of invective letters, Gaza incursions and other iterations of Jewish politics is also one of the city’s trendiest restaurants. Since its opening a year ago, Zahav, the Israeli eatery in Society Hill, has quickly become one of those see-and-be-seen spots favored by Philadelphia’s Jewish intelligentsia.
 
I’ve come in search of one of those political conversations. I’m having dinner with three friends, all of them Jewish, all in their mid-30s but disparate in background: Rachel is half-Jewish, of faraway Eastern European descent and totally disconnected from her religion; the others are an Israeli immigrant and his American wife, both “semi-Orthodox.”
 
Between courses of hummus and baked fish, Hadar, the immigrant, recalls what life was like in Israel: endless roadblocks, the constant threat of violence. “And this is peace?” he asks. He equates Israel giving more land away to the Palestinians with Americans being asked to give back parts of the country to Indian tribes: “If I give you New Jersey and Los Angeles, is that enough?” Still, he expresses real sympathy for the Palestinians, who he believes have been used as a political soccer ball by extremists with ulterior motives.

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