WASHINGTON -- The Sunday meeting with Cleveland area Jewish leaders was not on the schedule Sen. Barack Obama's campaign gave reporters, but the stop in Mayfield Heights, hosted by Ron Ratner, a major fund-raiser for Obama, was one of the most important of the day. More than a year into his run for president, Obama is still explaining his record, relationships and religion to Jewish voters.
Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have been competing for Jewish support and stressing their pro-Israel credentials.
A Clinton campaign Jewish community organizing guide includes the plea, "Make sure you are registered to vote -- and bring your bubbe," using the Yiddish word for grandmother.
Obama is taking criticism from the left and the right as he is facing crucial votes in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with significant Jewish populations.
On Sunday, Ralph Nader, announcing another run for president on NBC's "Meet the Press," was critical of Obama's strong support for Israel, saying Obama "was pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois before he ran for the state Senate." (Asked to react, the Obama campaign said, "Barack Obama's long-standing support for Israel's security is rooted in his belief that no civilians should have to live with the threat of terrorism." ) The new issue of Newsweek features a story using a familiar expression for a headline, "Good for the Jews? Hillary Clinton's surrogates are questioning Obama's commitment to U.S.-Israeli relations."
The Obama campaign Sunday afternoon revealed that the Ohio meeting took place, attended by about 100 Jewish community activists, including some rabbis, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Eric Lynn, the Obama campaign's Jewish liaison, and Obama. The campaign provided a transcript that included answers and not questions. The campaign said it was releasing the transcript because "it addresses a number of the commonly asked questions about his faith, the Muslim e-mails and his position on Israel."
Obama told the group he has "an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel."
Starting most overtly in South Carolina -- where Obama was the subject of e-mail attacks saying he was a Muslim -- Obama has been explaining to audiences he is a Christian despite his middle name, Hussein. On Sunday, Obama told the Jewish group his Kenyan grandfather was a Muslim and he has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years. "This is an improvement because you don't think I am Muslim," Obama said.
However, the pastor of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has created problems for Obama in Jewish circles. A magazine connected to Wright honored Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and last month Obama said he condemned "the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan" and disagreed with a decision to honor him.
Wright, Obama said Sunday, "is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with. And I suspect there are some of the people in this room who have heard relatives say some things that they don't agree with, including, on occasion, directed at African Americans. ... I am not suggesting that's definitive."
Obama also distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser in the Jimmy Carter administration who traveled to Iowa with Obama when he made an Iraq speech.
"I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally," Obama said. "He's not one of my key advisers. I've had lunch with him once. I've exchanged e-mails with him maybe three times. He came to Iowa to introduce ... for a speech on Iraq."
The Republican Jewish Coalition has been critical of Obama's plan, if elected president, to call "a summit in the Muslim world." Executive Director Matt Brooks said he was "deeply troubled" by the proposal.