Dear Senator Obama
On Friday, 2 March, the morning news reported that Senator Barack Obama would be speaking to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at a meeting in Chicago. There, the announcer said, the Senator and presidential candidate would provide more information about his views on Israel. Well, I thought: much like Catholics kissing the Pope’s ring, a speech to AIPAC is, unfortunately, a requirement for anyone seeking the presidency. In and of itself, however, a speech to a political interest group is only that; for truth of content, we must look further. So, I looked at the Obama campaign web site and, indeed, more information was available, including an an article from the Chicago Sun-Times (dated 1 March 2007) about how the Senator is a stalwart Israel defender. In fact, referencing a speech the Senator gave to an audience in Cape Town, South Africa, the article concludes:
The crowd, clearly hostile to Israel, expected Obama to bash Israel on Lebanon. He did not. They were surprised.
They just did not know Obama well enough to realize who they were dealing with.
Undecided about a 2008 presidential favorite, and generally unhappy with the range of options, I nonetheless admire Senator Obama’s pluck, and he seems refreshingly un-bogged-down by some of the troublesome baggage of Senators Clinton, McCain, etc. A candidate’s views on Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be the determining factor in my selection process, but these decisions matter – and particularly whether a candidate has a sense of what must be done to encourage peace-making on both sides of the problem. In this light, the Sun-Times article on Obama’s views was not an auspicious sign, because no-holds-barred support for Israel will not lead to peace. Moreover, since AIPAC likes to present itself as representative of the American Jewish community writ large, a speech to this group is no mere campaign whistle-stop.
I decided to call Senator Obama’s campaign, ahead of the speech, to let the campaign know that the American Jewish community is not monolithic in its views or its votes – and to see what kind of a response I received. Things went down hill rapidly from there.
The web site lists a toll-free number (866-675-2008), which first got me a recorded Obama telling me about his commitment to work for a better America. Shortly after that finished, the system clicked in the background, and then I found myself listening to a woman introduce herself (she gave me her name, which I will withhold for her benefit), followed by the reading of a statement about Senator Obama’s campaign; then she asked me what she could do for me. She had a bit of a twang in her voice and she sounded rather young, and her reading of the statement was clear but not especially impassioned; I could not discern much beyond that.
I said that I was calling because I had heard that Senator Obama would be speaking to AIPAC, and that, having read the article on his web site, I wanted to express a different perspective on Israel, as an American Jew, a voter, and a potential Obama supporter. The woman said that her schedule didn’t show a record of the AIPAC speech, and she paused for a minute to check again, confirming that she did not know about it.
Well, I said, that didn’t matter, since the Senator’s web site said it was happening. More importantly, a picture of the Senator’s views on the subject was beginning to take shape, and so I thought it important to register formally a comment with the campaign that (as I’ve written above) the American Jewish community is not monolithic in its views or its votes. I said that how America handled Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was important to me as a voter, but not necessarily in the way that a candidate might assume from listening to AIPAC. I elaborated further, for a good 60 seconds.
To cut to the chase: the response from the woman on the other end of the phone was underwhelming. She made no attempt to repeat some position point from the Senator’s campaign documents, she didn’t comment, or say something like “That’s very interesting, sir, I’m sure the Senator will appreciate knowing this.” I could have been ordering diapers or dog food, in fact, because after a pause appropriately long enough to suggest she’d heard what I said, I heard, “Great, well, can I have your name?” Sure, why not. I gave the woman my name, an e-mail address, and some other contact info. Then she asked me if the campaign can send me information; sure, I said. Then she asked if I’d be willing to consider finding ways to support the Senator’s campaign; sure, I said, send me some info, I’m undecided at this point, and cannot commit, but happy to consider it.
I hear typing in the background, the clickety-click of a keyboard. Then she said to me, “And what message would you like to give to the Senator?”
Well, at this point, the message I’d like to give is: Senator Obama, this probably isn’t the best way to run a campaign. I may not have been naïve enough to think that calling the Senator’s campaign phone number would get me connected with some Bright Young Thing fresh from a West Wing viewing, someone who would do his or her best to explain to me why their candidate was the best and why my vote matters... That would have been naïve, not to mention hopeful – hopeful in the way that Obama himself suggests voters should be. Much too naïve, clearly, since this conversation was deadeningly clinical and disengaged from any political substance. As things wrapped up, I went for broke and asked the woman who she was really. “I work at a call center,” she told me. She does not work for the Obama campaign, then? No, she’s in Texas, working for a call center; they help take calls for the campaign; she told me she works for a company called ACD Direct; a quick check of their site reveals this is, indeed, their business. “Anything else I can do for you today?”, she wanted to know? Nope, I think she’s done quite enough.
A Message to Senator Obama
After this auspicious start, I decided to use the web site “Contact Us” tool on the Senator’s campaign site to reiterate my message. I had, in truth, no real belief that this would get a better response than the phone call I’d just completed, but as a friend of mine says, “God loves a trier.” Indeed. Here is my message to Senator Obama – and here is the automated reply I received [note: this is a PDF file]. At this point, I don’t expect to hear much more from the Senator’s campaign, but I’ll reiterate my message once again:
I am writing because I think Senator Obama is an interesting candidate, and I’m a New Yorker who does not like or support Senator Clinton. When I heard that the Senator would be speaking to AIPAC – and when I saw the article on the Obama campaign web site – I felt it was necessary to make my voice heard because American support for Israel is an issue that’s important to me.
Senator Obama should know that the American Jewish community is not monolithic. I am a Jew, living in New York; I’m religiously committed, and I support Israel’s right to exist. But I disagree deeply with the perspectives on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are articulated by the likes of AIPAC. I think it’s important for Senator Obama to know that – to know that there are potential voters, Jewish voters, who would like to see a change in U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine and towards the conflict as a whole. We do not all agree with or support AIPAC.
That, Senator Obama, is my message. What happens from here is up to you. I harbor no illusions.