Originally, State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153) — who has assumed an outsized role in promoting Obama within Pennsylvania's Jewish community — was slated to take part in a candidates' forum along with Scott Feigelstein, RJC's Philadelphia director, on Oct. 26 at Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation in Dresher. But now it's not clear exactly what is going to happen, or who is going to speak, at a program put together by the synagogue's seniors' group.
That's because, within the past few weeks, the Obama campaign apparently decided that surrogates such as Shapiro should not participate in programs with representatives of the RJC, an independent group, and should only engage with speakers sent directly by John McCain's presidential campaign.
The RJC has relentlessly tried to portray Obama, who's leading in state and national polls, as a candidate ill-suited to becoming America's next commander in chief.
Speaking on behalf of the campaign, Shapiro said that the RJC had run a smear effort against Obama through the full-page advertisements it's run in Jewish newspapers. In recent weeks, RJC ads have criticized Obama's choice of advisers — labeling some as anti-Israel or an-ti-Semitic — have claimed that his view of the Middle East is similar to Pat Buchanan's, and argued that his position on Jerusalem has been inconsistent.
"The smears and the untruths that have been told about Obama by the RJC are despicable," said Shapiro. "The RJC has politicized the issue of America's support for Israel, which should be a bipartisan or a nonpartisan issue. In politicizing the issue, the RJC is only undermining the American-Israel relationship."
As of press time, a McCain spokesperson did not return calls from the Exponent. Meanwhile, the RJC is arguing that the Obama campaign is effectively stifling debate over Middle East policy.
"They don't like to have to defend what are troubling issues and legitimate concerns for the Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC. "I think this comes across as a real act of weakness and desperation on their part."
Last week, former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine cited the Obama policy as the reason he withdrew from a scheduled Los Angeles debate with RJC California Director Larry Greenfield.
It's not exactly clear how the campaign's decision to avoid the RJC — which really has taken the lead role in the Republican party's outreach to Jews — will affect the Temple Sinai candidates' forum. Several other events around the country may also be affected.
Shapiro noted that the campaign had informed him of its decision shortly before a scheduled Oct. 6 debate with Feigelstein in Harrisburg — but he decided not to pull out of that event. But Shapiro said he asked the organizers of the Temple Sinai program, a senior group called Hazak, to find a substitute speaker, one not affiliated with the RJC.
Shapiro gave no indication that he planned to skip the Temple Sinai event. At the same time, Feigelstein said that an organizer had informed him of the Obama campaign's request and asked if he would step aside. But Feigelstein insists that, no matter what, he plans to show up and speak.
"I am very clearly going, and, if Representative Shapiro chooses not to show up, it is on them," said Feigelstein. "We believe in free and unfettered debate. Let people make up their own minds."
Judy Kaplan, an organizer of the event, could not be reached for comment. Steven Friedrich, the synagogue's executive director, said that an e-mail from Kaplan stated that a McCain representative would speak at the event, but he had no idea who.
"We are caught in the middle of this. We certainly did not expect to get national exposure over this," said Friedrich. "The purpose of this was simply to bring in representatives from both campaigns."
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said representatives of his group would continue to debate RJC members, but that he "sympathized" with the Obama campaign's decision.
Forman also said that the Obama campaign wasn't attempting to squash Jewish communal debate because "there is a whole McCain Jewish operation that is totally separate. The RJC is not the only voice out there for Republican Jews."
"Some of the RJC speakers have been totally beyond the pale," said Forman.
In fact, McCain's Jewish Advisory Coalition has been far less visible than its counterpart in the Obama campaign.
Obama's effort to isolate the RJC comes on the heels of a very public effort by J Street — a liberal group which advocates that the United States should embark on an intense and sustained diplomatic effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement — to convince Jewish newspapers to stop running some of the RJC's ads, calling them "revolting, Swift Boat-style attacks."
Another group, known as Rabbis for Obama, has also denounced some of the RJC's assertions, including one that claims Obama "is reckless on Israel."
Founded in 1985, the RJC is a well-funded, well-organized political operation with an exact budget that is difficult to pinpoint. Richard Fox, a major developer in the Philadelphia region, was among the group's founders and served as its first national president. Other Philadelphia-area residents, including Myles Tanenbaum, sit on its board of directors.
It's also been widely reported that billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has heavily bankrolled the RJC's ad campaign, including a new TV spot that ends with the words: "Concerned about Barack Obama's naive foreign policy? You should be."
Four years ago, the group certainly ruffled some feathers in its effort to boost Jewish support for President George W. Bush; ultimately, Bush increased his support among Jewish voters from 19 percent to 24 percent.
But, this time, the group, and the battle for the Jewish vote, has received attention perhaps like never before, largely due to the notion — supported somewhat by poll numbers — that Obama might not garner the overwhelming majority of Jewish votes that Democrats are used to receiving.
Theories as to why abound, and they range from questions about Obama's inexperience; his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; his stated willingness to engage in negotiations with Iran; and, perhaps, even the possibility that a small percentage of Jewish voters might not support a black candidate.
Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that, at the very least, the RJC has succeeded in making sure the Jewish vote isn't taken for granted.
"The RJC has really come of age in this election. It's a very potent force," said Windmueller, who writes regularly about politics.
Brooks asserted that the Obama campaign's decision is setting a bad precedent for future elections.
"We are not going to be intimidated and pressured by the Obama campaign," he said. "We think we have a compelling set of issues to talk about. If they choose not to be there, that is their decision."