By BEN SMITH |
A Democratic group will try to neutralize concerns about Barack Obama among American Jews with a high-tech approach that uses the same communal networks through which rumors about Obama have spread.
The Jewish Council for Educational Research is launching a website, JewsVote.org, with a suite of political tools that embody the new political focus of merging cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned community. Where the presidential campaigns have pioneered software that allows supporters to place calls to undecided voters in key states, the Jewish group turns that model inside out, encouraging Jewish Democrats to carry Obama's message to friends and family.
"The goal of this website is to provide a series of powerful tools to Jews who are supportive of Obama and dismayed at the rumors that have made a lot of Jews question whether or not they can support Obama in the election," said Mik Moore, one of the group's founders.
"These rumors were spread through the community using the closed networks that exist in the Jewish community, and what these tools do is allow folks to communicate through these very networks," he said.
Moore, who is on leave from a job at Jewish Funds for Justice, a left-leaning group, drew some attention in 2004 with "Operation Bubbe," which sent more than 100 young Jews to Florida to try to persuade their grandparents ("Bubbe" is Yiddish for grandmother) and other retirees to support John F. Kerry. His new group will re-create that effort this fall under the rubric of "The Great Schlep."
The efforts mirror those of President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign and Obama's campaign this year in one key sense: Using new networking technologies to help supporters take a message not to strangers but to their friends and neighbors.
"People trust their social networks the most, and so information that you get from them about politics is way more persuasive than just hearing it over the ether," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal activist group MoveOn.org. "This is basically trying to leverage that to combat some of the vicious rumors that are going around in the Jewish community about Obama."
JewsVote is the latest mark of how hotly contested the Jewish vote is this year. Jews are typically a solidly Democratic voting bloc, voting at rates of up to 80 percent for the Democratic nominee in past elections. But Jews have been in the crucible of this year's election, in which the politics of the Middle East have been front and center — with Republicans accusing Obama of being weak in his support for Israel — and with false e-mailed rumors that Obama is a crypto-Muslim particularly widespread in the Jewish community.
In January, nine Jewish leaders — including some who often lean Republican — signed a letter denouncing "hateful e-mails that use falsehood and innuendo to mischaracterize Sen. Barack Obama's religious beliefs and who he is as a person."
The site is intended to play a role in the Democrats’ efforts this year, particularly in key Jewish communities in Florida and Ohio. But it also offers a roadmap to other, similar political efforts in the future, as online politics shifts from mass appeals and broad brushes to intense, small-scale appeals to social networks.
JewsVote offers several tools. Members can select from existing e-mails, or compose their own, to friends or relatives who have forwarded the ubiquitous anti-Obama missives. They are given "talking points" on a set of issues of concern to Jews, and encouraged to construct their own "phone banks" to call friends and family.
"Obama represents a different kind of black leadership, less interested in the confrontational tactics favored by many who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s," say the talking points on race. "Obama has repeatedly credited Jews, so many of whom were leaders in the struggle for civil rights, with making possible his success."
"Obama has said that he would not talk to Hamas or Hezbollah because they are terrorist groups," says another.
Moore said he thought Jewish people should be able to identify with Obama, and with his story.
"His personal narrative is a very Jewish narrative," he said, citing Obama's foreign father, his education, and his rise from obscurity.
"If Clinton was the first black president, you could almost say Obama would be the first Jewish president, in terms of his personal narrative being so closely aligned with what is, for many Jews, the typical American Jewish experience," Moore said.