Following Obama’s AIPAC speech, I decided to talk to attendees to get a better sense of how he was received. Obviously, speaking to about a dozen people out of a crowd of more than 7,000 isn’t very scientific, but of the people I spoke to, I would say the reaction was generally positive but not as enthusiastic as I would have thought, given the tremendous reception he received.
Bizarrely, the first person I randomly approached for reaction turned out to be my childhood synagogue’s cantor, who tutored me for my Bar Mitzvah and who I hadn’t seen in nearly 17 years.
An Obama supporter already, he thought the speech was “excellent,” and insisted that the stories circulating about Obama having an anti-Israel background were false. Was this a sign from the heavens that I better embrace the Obamasiah? I prefer to paraphrase the O-man himself: people have disagreements with their cantors all the time.
Making my way through the exiting crowd, I caught up with Lynn Oves of Atlanta, Georgia.
“Of course, he was speaking to a captive audience, and when he spoke to us, he told us everything that we wanted to hear,” Oves said. “I was very impressed. It was the first time I’ve seen him personally.”
Although she liked everything he said about Israel, she said she was still undecided, and had concerns about his lack of experience and about his relationship with Jeremiah Wright. “There are a lot of spiritual leaders he could have sought out, the fact that he stuck with him bothers me,” she told me.
While open to McCain, she said, “If he is going to just follow Bush, I’m not interested in that.” Oves is a critic of the current administration’s foreign policy, particularly in Iraq.
In his speech, Obama sought to reframe the Israel issue by arguing that the Jewish state’s security is more imperiled as a result of Bush’s presidency.
Another attendee wouldn’t talk to me about Obama at first, because he said his mom taught him, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I pressed him a bit further, promising not to use his name, and he told me that there is a huge gap between Obama’s talk and his past record on Israel.
Robert Zeidman of Cupertino, California, who described himself as a Republican, acknowledged that Obama is an “eloquent and practiced speaker” who told the crowd what he knew they wanted to hear. To Zeidman, there was little substance.
For instance, he noted, Obama called for “strong diplomacy,” but wasn’t clear about what that meant, and he called for sanctions even though the sanctions we have already applied haven’t accomplish anything. “I really didn’t see him offering solutions, ” he complained. “I saw him offering a lot of hyperbole and rhetoric appeals to this crowd, and that frightens me a bit.”
Talking to people over the course of the three-day conference, Zeidman said most people were supporting either McCain or Hillary Clinton, but not Obama.
“He did get a better reception than I was hoping for, though I talked to some of the people afterward, even the people applauding, said they were voting for McCain,” Zeidman said.
But Greg Millhauser of New York City, a Democrat who was leaning toward McCain before the conference, said he was now back to being undecided.
“(Obama) probably made a lot of progress with this group, because he addressed the concerns straight on,” Millhauser said. He later added, “”He was able to do a good job of addressing concerns about having an anti-Israel stance.”
Millhauser, who is 26, said he has done a lot of international traveling, and would like to see the America’s opinion around the world improve, and he thinks that perhaps Obama will help that cause by bringing about change.
The general sense I came away with after speaking to these attendees, plus a number of others who didn’t want to be quoted, was that people liked what they heard today, but they also aren’t sure what to think of the stories that have been circulating about Obama’s past views toward Israel.
I came away thinking that Obama’s ability to win over this constituency (many of whom are naturally inclined to support the Democratic nominee on economic and social issues), will depend on what else emerges from his past that we don’t already know, how much more comes out about his long associations with Israel bashers, and whether there is a more tangible record of him criticizing Israel at Arab community events in Chicago during his State Senate days than the accounts we currently have.