Ads target Jewish voters
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Rep. Joe Sestak has lashed back at a television commercial questioning his support for Israel, one of two recent ads from outside groups that offer sharply contrasting portrayals of the Democratic Senate nominee's position.
Contending that it has multiple inaccuracies, Mr. Sestak's campaign has asked Comcast to cease running one ad, which is sponsored by a group of prominent neoconservatives calling itself The Emergency Committee for Israel.
The Delaware County congressman describes himself as an ardent supporter of Israel, and no critic has cited any vote in Congress in which he has failed to support a position favorable to Israel. But this is not the first time that Mr. Sestak has been dogged by questions on an issue vital to many of the Jewish voters who are normally a reliable Democratic constituency, as well as a significant source of campaign contributions.
The ad, sponsored by a group whose members include prominent conservative figures including William Kristol and Gary Bauer, states that Mr. Sestak "raised money for an anti-Israel organization the FBI called a front group for Hamas. Sestak signed a letter accusing Israel of 'collective punishment' for blockading Hamas in Gaza. Sestak refused to sign a bipartisan letter affirming U.S. support for Israel."
The first statement refers to Mr. Sestak's 2007 appearance at a Philadelphia dinner sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Mr. Sestak said the ad is false in asserting that he raised money for the group, as his appearance was separate from a subsequent fundraising portion of the event, a distinction that does not satisfy at least some critics of the episode.
Mr. Sestak's rebuttal includes the fact that Gov. Ed Rendell, who is Jewish, also appeared at the event and that his own speech forcefully challenged his audience to speak out against enemies of Israel.
After praising CAIR's role in promoting understanding, Mr. Sestak said, "That is why it is my and your just duty is to condemn not just terrorism -- as you have done -- but also condemn the specific acts and specific individuals and groups by name, associated with those acts, such as Hamas and Hezbollah."
Criticizing the ad in an appearance last week on MSNBC, Mr. Rendell said of CAIR: "That's a group I have spent time with and I've worked with and they're very positive in what they do in Pennsylvania."
In May 2007, subsequent to the Philadelphia appearances by Mr. Sestak and Mr. Rendell, CAIR was named as one of 307 unindicted co-conspirators in a Texas case charging a separate organization with funneling money to Hamas. CAIR strongly denies any involvement with the group and has never itself been charged.
The conservatives' ad also criticizes Mr. Sestak for joining 53 other members of Congress in signing a letter "accusing Israel of 'collective punishment' for blockading Hamas in Gaza."
Asked to comment on the ad, Pat Toomey, Mr. Sestak's Republican opponent, emphasized that its conservative sponsors were independent of his campaign. He did, however, criticize Mr. Sestak for signing the letter taking exception to aspects of the Gaza blockade.
The letter to the Obama administration did not oppose the blockade per se, but urged that certain provisions be eased for humanitarian reasons. Mr. Sestak has said separately that he supported the blockade.
More broadly, he bristles at the suggestion that he is anything less than devoted to Israeli security.
"I would put my life on the line for Israel and have done it with heartfelt passion," he said. While serving in the U.S. Navy, Mr. Sestak noted, he had a central role in planning and executing Reliant Mermaid, the first joint naval maneuvers between Israel and Turkey.
But Mr. Sestak still faces challenges in rebutting his critics on the Israel issue. The letters sections of the Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, and the Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia newspaper, have featured multiple letters questioning his pro-Israel bona fides. Before and after the primary in which he defeated Sen. Arlen Specter, opponents took out ads in the Exponent criticizing his candidacy.
"Jews are taking a wait-and-see attitude to see how this plays out," said Rabbi Alvin Berkin, rabbi emeritus of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
"I admire Joe Sestak -- I'm a former Navy chaplain -- but it does concern me, some of his positions, with CAIR. We had Specter, who could not have been more committed to Israel's well-being. Those are big shoes to fill on a number of levels. We certainly need to be convinced that Sestak is OK."
The anti-Sestak commercial prompted another Jewish lobbying group, J Street, to leap to his defense with its own ad praising his record on Israel.
"The far right is attacking Joe Sestak over Israel," the J Street ad states. "They won't tell you that in Congress Sestak consistently votes for aid to Israel. Or that as a Navy admiral, he helped strengthen Israel's defenses. Joe Sestak courageously supports American leadership to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supports a two-state solution, just like the majority of Americans who care about Israel's and America's security."
That ad may prove an effective rebuttal to many Pennsylvania supporters of Israel. But it also has the potential to be a double-edged sword in light of some of the fissures with the American Jewish lobbying community. J Street characterizes itself as a strongly pro-Israel organization, but it is perceived as being to the left of some older, more established pro-Israel groups -- notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- and has been more willing to criticize the Israel government on issues such as the spread of settlements in East Jerusalem.
"It is factually correct that Sestak has not been a friend and supporter of Israel," said Cyril H. Wecht, himself a former Democratic Senate nominee.
"Among individuals and groups and organizations that are strongly pro-Israel and not among the J Street crowd or the pacifists and so on there is extensive dissatisfaction, apprehension and concern vis a vis Sestak," said Dr. Wecht.
Another Democratic figure active in the Jewish community acknowledged that he has heard concerns over Sestak on Israel issues. But Marcel Groen, the chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, downplayed their likely impact.
"I don't know," he said, "in terms of how people are voting, what we're talking about here is a nuance on how strong you are on your pro-Israel position."
Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political consultant who is Jewish, was even more dismissive of the political impact of the ads.
"I think it's ridiculous," he said. "To me, this is about raising money so consultants can have a piece of a [television] buy. ... It will have minimal impact at best.
"I can't believe that at the end of the day that Jewish voters who agree with Joe Sestak on every other issue are going to turn around and vote for Pat Toomey. Maybe the real target here is evangelical Christian voters who are part of Toomey's base. I just think it's bizarre."
State Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery County, who chaired Barack Obama's Jewish Community Leadership council in Pennsylvania during the 2008 election, said Mr. Sestak faced challenges similar to ones that confronted Mr. Obama, whose middle name and associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fanned concerns among some Jewish voters.
"The thing I found was that the senator had done a great job of voting the right way, standing up for the right positions and having a really stellar record on Israel, but the campaign was having a problem conveying that record."
He noted, however, that the November exit polls showed Mr. Obama receiving 79 percent of the Jewish vote.
"What you're seeing in this campaign is these third-party groups attempting to exploit an unknown among Jewish voters -- this was not a major issue in the primary, so much of the public does not know Joe Sestak's record," he said. "It's early. While I'm sure the candidates feel they're in the home stretch, very few people have tuned in yet so there's still plenty of time for the congessman to clearly articulate his position on Israel and the Mideast."
First Published July 25, 2010 12:00 am