Doni Remba, co-founder of Jewish Alliance for Change, charges that “people on the Right are waging a campaign of lies and smears and innuendo” to discredit the Democrat in the eyes of Jewish voters.
Photo by Robert Wiener
August 14, 2008
He spent five years living in Israel, working as a Hebrew-English translator for high officials in both Likud and Labor governments. Much of his adult life has been spent as an active participant in Chicago’s Jewish community.
For the past few months, Gidon Doni Remba has been working hard from his home in West Orange to convince fellow Jews that “Barack Obama’s views on Israel are great. He will be as pro-Israel as anyone else out there in the public sphere.”
Remba cofounded the Jewish Alliance for Change, a progressive group that supports the Democrat’s bid for the White House.
Because the alliance is a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization, it is legally barred from having any direct connection with the Obama campaign. Remba works as its full-time paid consultant, backed by “a very active group of volunteer lay leaders and a small paid staff,” all trying to overcome discomfort with the Illinois senator expressed in some sectors of the Jewish community.
Remba blames “a campaign of lies and smears and innuendo” for causing Obama problems among some Jews. “People on the Right take anything that sounds like it can be twisted and turn it into something that will scare Jews about Obama,” he charged.
Remba and Obama became acquainted at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, when Obama was a lecturer at its law school and Remba was a graduate student in political philosophy. Remba also taught Jewish history and Hebrew at KAM Isaiah Israel, the oldest congregation in Chicago. The synagogue is located directly across the street from Obama’s home in Hyde Park.
“The Chicago Jewish community considers Obama to be nothing but its best ally and friend,” Remba said.
And yet, he is concerned that there is “a 15 to 20 point gap between where Bill Clinton and Al Gore polled with the Jewish community in exit polls and where Obama is polling now. That means in a constituency that has voted three-quarters Democrat and is now voting less than that, there is a gap that Jews wanting to help Obama need to help remedy.”
To that end, Remba said, his group plans to focus voter education efforts on swing states including Florida, Ohio, and, to a lesser extent, Nevada and Virginia.
“The problem lies with older Jewish voters in a few key states who would otherwise vote for a Democratic presidential candidate,” he told NJ Jewish News in an interview at a West Orange coffee shop.
A key weapon will be several short videos his group will post on the Internet and distribute as DVDs and video cassettes.
One will feature “many Israelis who feel very positively about Obama.” Another will have “prominent Chicago Jews who have known Obama for 10 years talking about why he is a great friend of the Jewish community.”
A third will focus on “Rabbis for Obama.”
One high hurdle for Obama is the fallout from his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama has called Wright’s views on America — including its relationship with Israel — fundamentally “distorted.”
Yet many Jewish voters want to know why Obama remained a part of Wright’s church for two decades.
Remba argues that Wright took part in many interfaith activities with Chicago Jews and that the senator “wasn’t aware of some of Wright’s views which are offensive to us.”
One issue Remba said he plans to address is “a reality that there are some older Jews whose experience with black Americans is such that they maintain some biases against blacks. We are dealing with deep-seated fears and biases, and for some people they may be hard to get over.”
But it won’t all be defense. Remba will also make the case that Obama tops presumptive Republican candidate Sen. John McCain on issues many Jewish voters consider crucial.
“We are going to remind people that if you are a senior worried about Social Security, McCain is going to be very bad for you and Obama is going to be very good for you,” he said.
Remba believes Obama is “much more in synch with Jewish values of tikun olam, while McCain favors special interests and the oil companies and the most wealthy sector of American society.”
A different path
As for Israel, Remba won’t merely tout Obama’s strong voting record (although he will) but he will try to make a case for Obama as the stronger candidate in regard to Israel’s security. To do so, Remba said, he hopes to convince voters that McCain is a continuation of Bush administration policies that caused the “deterioration of the neighborhood around Israel.”
“Barack Obama’s views on Israel are great.
He will be as pro-Israel as anyone else out there….”
“Bush’s policies for the last eight years have weakened Israel’s security,” said Remba. “The war in Iraq empowered a Shi’ite government that is an ally of Iran. Iran has progressed toward a nuclear weapon precisely because Bush has allowed it to get stronger and avoided real diplomacy with them. Hizbullah has gotten stronger. Hamas has come into power.
“All of Israel’s biggest enemies have gotten stronger because of Bush’s policies. McCain will keep going down that same path.”
Remba also argues that Obama “will be better for Israel than McCain,” because, he said, “I don’t see that McCain believes in diplomacy. It is an extremely powerful weapon that strengthens the security of Israel and the United States.”
Remba described his own background as “eclectic. My dad was an atheist Israeli, my mom’s family belonged to an Orthodox shul, and I don’t know what we were.”
Born in New York, he grew up in Cranford, was a member of a Conservative synagogue, and attended an Orthodox summer camp. He studied at a mixture of public and religious day schools, then split his college years between Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Remba was a translator in the Israeli prime minister’s office from 1977 to ’78, during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process. He cofounded and for six years served as president of Chicago Peace Now, an affiliate of Americans for Peace Now.
From 2007 to February 2008, he was executive director of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance.
As he maps out his strategy, Remba said he is optimistic about Obama’s chances, in the Jewish community as well as with the entire electorate
“I believe he is going to win, but the worst mistake people can make is to be complacent,” he said. “I believe that we who are working to strengthen the Jewish vote for him will be successful by Election Day.”