Barack Obama dropped by a Boca Raton synagogue today, where during his town hall meeting, he was asked about his relationship with Israel and the Jewish community - something that has plagued his candidacy as rumors over his religion have caused concern. As he wrapped up his prepared remarks, Obama invited "the tough questions" - which was exactly what he got.
The first questioner wondered why he didn't change his name back to Barry - the name Obama went by as a child. Obama acknowledged the name sounds Muslim and said he wanted to clear up the matter. "My father was from Kenya and Barack actually interestingly enough means the same as Baruch. It means one who's blessed. And the reason—the reason that that's interesting is that it's the same Semitic root. The same source. My father was basically agnostic as far as I can tell, and I didn't know him. He left as I said when I was two years old. So I was raised by my mother who was from Kansas. And it's true they called me Barry when I was young, but as I got older, I thought it was important to acknowledge this other side of my heritage and so I was called Barack," he explained.
For good measure, he observed, "You've had a prime minister named Barack in Israel. It should be pretty familiar to this audience." The crowd applauded.
Two questions later, Obama was asked about his connections to a pro-Palestine scholar named Rashid Khalidi as well as proof that he has pro-Israel friends and advisors. The questioner rambled on a bit and as the crowd got restless, Obama cut off the man as diplomatically as he could. "There's a question in there that's important. Let me respond to the question," he said.
Obama acknowledged that he knows Khalidi, as they both were on the faculty at the University of Chicago and their kids attended the same school. Yes, he's had conversations with the controversial figure, but said, "To pluck out one person who I know and who I've had a conversation with who has very different views than 900 of my friends and then to suggest that somehow that shows that maybe I'm not sufficiently pro-Israel – I think is a very problematic stand to take."
Obama said part of his job as an elected official was to listen to different perspectives - even if he does not agree with them. "We gotta be careful about guilt by association," he warned. He also ticked off a few names of friends and advisors who are known to be pro-Israel. "I have to be very cautious about this, because you know, you remember the old stereotype about somebody says, ‘well I'm not prejudice, some of my best friends are Jewish.' Right? Or, ‘I'm not prejudice, some of my best friends are black.' So I hesitate to start listing them out," he said. But since the man asked…
Obama drew applause when he answered a question on what he would have to say to the Iranian President should he engage in direct diplomacy with the controversial leader. Obama explained that while he does not find Ahmadinejad's language relating to Israel acceptable, the way the Bush Administration has not been effective. "How is it that the Bush, Cheney, McCain policy has been good for Israel? …I don't see how it's been good for Israel. "
Near the end of the lengthy event, Obama shot down rumors that he is, in fact, Muslim. "If you get one of these emails that says I'm a Muslim, not true, never been a Muslim. This is just stuff that is designed to make people suspicious and I watch this - I'm amazed that people are reading this stuff. By the way, if you get an email from a Nigerian whose trying to, who says you can make a lot of money if you send him a thousand dollars, don't send your money or your bank account. I mean we don't believe stuff, when, you know, they are advertisements that say we can enhance your uh…we don't believe that stuff when it comes over email, why would you believe an email about me?! Don't believe it, go to the source," he said as the crowd laughed.
Turning serious, he said, "There is not a single trace of me being anything more than a friend of Israel and a friend of the Jewish people and I think, and so I would just ask, because this is part of, I think the tradition of the Jewish people, is to judge me by what I say and what I've done, don't judge me because I've got a funny name, don't judge me because I'm African American," he said. "If my policies are wrong, then vote against me because my policies are wrong. You know, if I'm not honest, if I'm not truthful, [don't] vote for me for that reason, but don't vote against me because of who I am," he said.
The candidate has met with two other Jewish groups on the campaign trail - the first in Cleveland was closed to press (the campaign provided a transcript) and the second was open to just a pooled press. This was the first of its kind open to the general media at large and on his public schedule.