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

JOHN MCCAIN WAS down in the polls — and, more troubling, down in projected electoral votes. The Republican needed to pick off a big state that had gone to Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
 
He narrowed his sights on Pennsylvania. Then narrowed his sights further on Philadelphia’s bedroom suburbs. Then narrowed his sights further: on the area’s roughly 250,000 Jews.
 
As a constituency, Philadelphia-area Jews are historically Democratic and relatively small (Jews statewide represent just 2.3 percent of the Keystone State population), but they’ve proven occasionally receptive to Republicans and have the power to tilt a close race. McCain dispatched his best friend, Orthodox Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, on a synagogue tour of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and ran ads in Jewish newspapers. Still, polling stubbornly suggested Jews were going for Barack Obama. By the time someone hit SEND on an e-mail letter that would appear in the in-boxes of 75,000 Pennsylvania voters, a desperate situation had grown more desperate still.
 
The letter, paid for by the state Republican Party, was, putting it mildly, decidedly unoptimistic about an Obama presidency. “In the 5,769 years of our people, there has never been a more important time for us to take proactive measures in order to stop a second Holocaust,” it began, adding that Israel faced “immeasurable threats” from its neighbors, especially Iran. “We did not write this letter to scare you,” the letter’s writers continued, and then promptly did, describing Barack Obama as an advocate of voter-registration fraud, a terrorist associate, and a person who sympathized with agents of radical Islam. “Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision.  … Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let’s not make a similar one this year!”
 
What made the fear-mongering noteworthy was the letter’s three prominent signatories: I. Michael Coslov, a steel magnate and officer in Philadelphia’s Jewish Federation — which advocates for and promotes Jewish causes — who’d donated $25,000 to McCain; real estate developer Mitchell Morgan, who’d hosted a fund-raiser at his Bryn Mawr manse for McCain that hauled in a tidy $1.5 million; and attorney and former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman.

The letter’s vitriol quickly turned it into news. The New York Times cornered Newman in a brief telephone interview, during which she confirmed she’d helped write it before quickly passing the phone to Bryan Rudnick, a Florida campaign operative whom the state Republican Party subsequently blamed and fired for the mess. At the same time, the Obama campaign, through State Representative Josh Shapiro — tapped to handle Obama’s Jewish outreach in the Philly ’burbs — pounced. Obama campaign surrogates stoked the fire by suggesting Coslov had been speaking tacitly on behalf of the entire Jewish Federation. “The feeling among the Federation was that this was intolerable,” says one Federation leader who doesn’t want to be identified talking about the group’s internal affairs. “It was considered by almost everybody who read it to be anywhere from extremely to utterly inappropriate. But then Obama stirred the pot, insisting that the letter was coming from senior ranks at the Federation. That’s how they played it. There was a lot of hand-wringing.”

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.

The restaurant’s chef-owner, 30-year-old Michael Solomonov, pops by our table. Solomonov has become something of a star in restaurant circles. When he overhears our conversation, he pulls up a chair, still in his chef’s whites. His parents still live in Israel, and he self-identifies as a passionate Zionist. Yet as dinner winds down, I find myself surprised that his views seem more moderate than those of a lot of other people in the Philadelphia Zionist community, such as the hard-liners who believe that giving an inch to the Palestinians will result in nothing less than Israel’s destruction. To many, the Zionists’ intransigence seems antiquated, unenlightened. But for those whose families were slaughtered 70 years ago, the position “Never Again” means not incurring any risk waiting to find out whether your enemies actually mean what they say — that they want to kill you.
 
“One of the only good things [Ariel] Sharon did was move out of Gaza,” Solomonov says, “and the first thing the Palestinians did once the Israelis were gone was burn everything to the ground.” His feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict are deeply personal — his younger brother was killed by Hezbollah snipers just days before he was due to get out of the army. “I guess my view of borders is skewed,” he says.
 
Hadar’s wife, Penny, interrupts. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but I think Israel has done enough. It’s time for the Palestinians to do something.” She was disturbed by much of Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric, particularly his campaign promise of a clean slate in Arab-Palestinian negotiations. “How can it possibly be a clean slate after all that’s happened?” she asks. “It’s not a clean slate.”
 
I look over at Rachel, who’s been talking with Penny for much of the dinner. Talking, that is, about anything but Israel. It occurs to me that Rachel’s opinion is really most relevant, since she represents the vast majority of Philadelphia — and by extension, American — Jews: She identifies as a Jew only culturally, never attends services, has no express intention of marrying a Jew, and, though she’s visited Israel and found it to be “one of the most beautiful, interesting places I’ve ever been,” seems to see it more as exotic tourist destination than ancestral homeland.
 
“Obviously, I support Israel,” she says quietly. “But honestly, I don’t really know that much about it to have an opinion.”
 
It is this figurative shrugging-off of the topic by so many casual Jews that has the Zionists here so upset, resulting in both their renewed vigor to fight for Israeli sovereignty at any cost and the occasional over-the-line gesture — like a letter comparing electing Barack Obama to the Holocaust — that exposes their collective frustration.

The average American Jew is seven years older than his non-Jew counterpart; more than half of American Jews are marrying non-Jews. Worse still, the Jewish birthrate is significantly lower than the average American birthrate. At the same time, young Jews are becoming increasingly removed from Israel. “Will the Zionists become extinct?” the Jewish Exponent asked on the 100th anniversary of the modern Zionist movement, adding that “we face a drastic change in Jewish thinking, as every major Jewish membership organization fears possible extinction in [the 21st] century.” A 2007 study reported that only 48 percent of Jews younger than 35 agree that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy; just 54 percent say they are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The journalist Anshel Pfeffer of the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote in January that the de-Zionification of Jews in the Diaspora could be seen in their reaction (or lack thereof) to the latest Gaza offensive. “A vast number,” Pfeffer wrote, “I hesitate to say the majority, are just not that interested.”
 
All of which has a fair segment of the Jewish leadership in a panic. And nowhere is that panic more evident than in Philadelphia, which may explain why the Obama letter got postmarked here. For area Zionists, what is at stake is more than just political posturing. What’s at stake, they say, is the survival of Judaism itself.
 
Gary Erlbaum, the multimillionaire owner of Greentree Properties in Ardmore, is one of the region’s most high-profile, vocal proponents of Zionism. He’s described his efforts to preserve Judaism, especially to prevent intermarrying, as “hand-to-hand combat.” “It is most troubling,” Erlbaum tells me of Jews’ declining population numbers, and the accompanying dearth of involvement in Israeli advocacy and politics. “The beauty of America is how open we are and how walls have fallen and doors have opened, and Jews have taken the path that most other groups have taken, which is to become assimilated. I have no problem with Jews being good Americans, which I think is imperative. But losing our culture and our religion is a disaster.”
 
PHILADELPHIANS HAVE LONG held conflicting opinions about Zionism. Even though seminal Zionist meetings were held in the city (it was here that the first American Jewish Congress voted for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1918, its delegates proceeding to Independence Hall to float the Jewish flag from a window and sing “America” and “Hatikvah”), many Philadelphians, at least before the Holocaust, remained quiet to the cause. Following World War II, however, a shift took place. Philadelphia Jews, long the subject of deeply entrenched anti-Semitism, gained wider acceptance.

The result is that today, the Philadelphia region — ranked eighth in the world in Jewish population (in the U.S., only New York, L.A. and the Miami area have larger populations) — has emerged as something of a hotbed for Zionist thought and influence. This is the city where Daniel Pipes, the controversial academic and neoconservative accused by some of Islamaphobia, chooses to headquarter his influential pro-Israel think tank, the Middle East Forum. Philadelphia is also the address of the influential Morton Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

When we meet at a City Avenue hotel near his home, a jetlagged Klein tells me deep religiousness isn’t a Zionist prerequisite. “I’m a traditional Jew who goes to synagogue on Saturday, but not as religious as someone who really deserves to be called a religious Jew is,” he says. With his trademark round spectacles and receding gray hairline, he looks more like a tweedy professor at Temple (no pun intended) than the leader of a hard-line movement to preserve, protect and defend Israel at any cost.
 
He arrived home just a day earlier from Israel, where he met with members of the government, including his friend Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he dined. (Netanyahu’s ties to the area are strong; his family immigrated here when he was a teenager, and he graduated from Cheltenham High School.) Klein believes the media is biased against Israel, and says its focus on Palestinian suffering in coverage of Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza, as opposed to the 50-plus daily rocket attacks on Israel that precipitated it, demonstrates a double standard. I ask him if he has any sympathy for the Palestinians. “Tell me why I should feel sorry for the people who voted for Hamas,” he replies. “Why did they vote for a terrorist organization? If the German people wanted peace with the world, would they have supported Hitler?”
 
It is this line-in-the-sand posturing that led not only to the Obama letter, but to a new definition — at least in Philadelphia — of politics making strange bedfellows. Take Gary Erlbaum: While his philanthropy to Jewish causes is noted, it’s his political involvement with the GOP that’s raised eyebrows. He was a donor to Freedom’s Watch, a lobbying group that the Washington Post reported was “conceived at a Florida meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition” by a group of Bush administration aides, many of them Jewish neoconservatives whose doctrine of preemption defined the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Philadelphia Jews were, in fact, well represented: Richard J. Fox, the real estate mogul who heads the hard-right Jewish Policy Center, which opposes the Middle East peace process in Israel, was a founding donor; so were Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, and John Templeton of the Templeton Foundation.
 
Erlbaum, who claims to be “unimpressed by zealots of either party,” also helped lead an effort to attract Jews — ­particularly Orthodox ones — to support Rick Santorum in his failed U.S. Senate reelection campaign, helping to raise well more than $1 million. Santorum is a devout Roman Catholic conservative who vehemently opposes abortion and has conflated homosexual sex with bigamy, incest and adultery; in short, he is a man whose ideology would seem almost totally at odds with the vast majority of Philadelphia Jews. “I think that Jews need to be flexible in their thinking, and that our allies and the allies of Israel and the believers in strong national defense are not necessarily in one party or the other,” Erlbaum says. “Nor are they necessarily people we would agree on every issue with.”

In other words, a friend of Israel is a friend of ours — the rest doesn’t matter. For proof, one need look no further than a building tucked into the woods of Deptford Township, the international headquarters of Friends of Israel, a nonprofit evangelical Christian organization that raises $9 million for pro-Israeli causes and evangelism annually, publishes a magazine read by 250,000 people in 151 countries, broadcasts a radio program carried on 700 stations throughout the United States, and leads trips to Israel for evangelicals. In many ways it transcends the Freedom’s Watch alliance as an odd pairing. Consider that in New Testament biblical prophecies, the second coming of Christ is based on the proviso that Jews return to a reestablished Jewish nation in the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria; it’s only then that the Antichrist will rise, setting the stage for an epic battle between God and Satan. Which is another way of saying that for evangelicals, the relationship is rooted in the role Israel will play as a means to the ultimate end: the Apocalypse.
 

AS FOR JEWS who take the view that peace in the Middle East can only come through a two-state solution, or who advocate for the rights of the Palestinians, a prominent Philadelphia Zionist explained to me that they fall into one of two camps: either “they’re well-meaning but ignorant of the facts” or “they’re simply vicious.”
 
Among the vicious, then: Noam Chomsky, the linguist, philosopher, professor and political dissident who has written extensively about Israeli-Arab relations. He recalls growing up in East Oak Lane in a virulently anti-Semitic Philadelphia. “Look, if you take a look at Jewish opinion, especially among younger Jews, commitment to Israel is very limited,” he says. “Most don’t care, and there’s a reason for that. By now, Zionism means support of the state of Israel no matter what it does. And that position is just inconsistent with the general, more or less liberal values of the Jewish community.”
 
Chomsky argues that the Zionists have created an atmosphere in which criticizing Israel is akin to committing anti-Semitism, which is only disaffecting more and more of the middle-of-the-road Jews who make up the bulk of the populace.
 
Linda Holtzman is the senior rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk, which was founded in 1988 by 30 families who followed Rabbi Brian Walt after he left his post at Congregation Beth Israel in Media after stirring up controversy by criticizing the Israeli government’s actions during the first intifadah. Holtzman has received hate mail and been shunned by many in the Jewish community for expressing a more progressive brand of Zionism, which she says “loves Israel while also being open to doing everything that loving something makes one responsible to do.”  
 
“The Philadelphia community by and large expresses blanket acceptance of everything Israel does, and for those of us who don’t, it is a very challenging place to live,” she says. “There are other rabbis who are prepared to argue with Israel’s policies and who actually think it’s more helpful to Israel to give honest critique rather than blanket support, but those rabbis in Philadelphia are very few. There is an extreme reaction from much of the Philadelphia Jewish community. There is not much of a dialogue.”

 

Indeed, Bruce Schimmel, the founder of the City Paper, wrote of how disheartened he was to attend a pro-Israel rally in Love Park last January and watch 250 anti-­incursion protesters (many of them Jews) protesting the 2,500 pro-Israel protesters. But most disheartening, he said, was the way the Jewish Federation used the protest to assert that 95 percent of local Jews unilaterally support Israel’s actions in Gaza. “For just beneath this flag-waving, many Jews living in America are deeply conflicted about the Israeli-Palestine issue, just as many Jews living in Israel are,” Schimmel wrote. “And, sadly, by fabricating a public fiction of Jewish unanimity, the people of the Bible have been reduced to hurling epithets.”

 

It’s this sort of frustration that has led Schimmel to work with the Jewish Dialogue Group, a nonprofit founded eight years ago by 34-year-old Northeast Philadelphia native Mitch Chanin that facilitates and moderates group conversations among Jews of varying political persuasions. In a testament to just how fraught with peril such conversation can be, some of the group’s techniques are derived from psychotherapy. Over the course of some 200 dialogues, Chanin says, he’s been encouraged by the results. “There’s a whole set of things they care about that are much deeper than what you see on a placard at a protest, or in a headline, or on a bumper sticker,” he says. “I’m surprised by how many different kinds of ambivalent opinions one person might have.”

It’s a dialogue. And in a weary, tiring, exhausting battle among Philadelphia’s Jews to sort out what’s true, it’s a start.

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