Washington Jewish Week/JTA — A moment of silence. That’s what Jews worldwide were demanding at last summer’s London Olympics in memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.
The Obama White House wasted little time releasing a statement supporting the gesture.
But Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, and himself the director of the Salt Lake City Olympics, said virtually nothing.
For that he was openly criticized by Barbara Berger, a Maine resident and the sister of the late David Berger, one of the Munich 11.
At some time in the top-floor office of the Washington DC public relations firm of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, a detailed research document noting Berger’s criticism of Romney was put together and distributed.
It would be one of thousands of news releases, op-eds and social networking posts that were directed at undecided Jewish voters.
Describing the working space as an “office” is generous. Standing up in what the group called the Jewish Media Hub meant not hitting one’s head on a rafter.
There, a staff of 10 full- and part-timers generated information. It was done under the radar. There was a battle, if not a war, going on with Republicans for the undecided Jewish vote. On the floors below, Steve Rabinowitz and Matt Dorf were still working independently with their clients, and it was business as usual.
On the top floor, though, getting a message to Jewish voters was the priority.
Rabinowitz had to raise half a million dollars to fund the effort. Hub staffers were up against the tens of millions of dollars going for the same vote provided by the Sheldon Adelsons of the world. A game-changer could have been Romney’s trip to Israel last summer, an effort to back up his rhetoric against Iran. The Obama administration, for its part, had provided Iron Dome protection to Israel, as well as other significant support, but many Jewish voters reported remained unconvinced.
The Hub was a nonprofit loosely affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council. It could send op-eds and press memos pointing out positive aspects of Obama’s policies and negative elements of Romney’s. To remain a non-profit, however, it couldn’t urge that a voter choose one candidate over another.
“With all of the predictions from the right-wing media, Obama got overwhelming support from the Jewish community despite tens of millions of dollars to attempt to smear his record on Israel’
Two weeks before Election Day, with the campaigns sprinting toward Nov. 6, the Hub went into overdrive, drafting and/or placing more than 15 op-eds, including pieces by former New York Mayor Ed Koch; Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz; former UN Ambassador Nancy Soderberg; Stuart Milk, the nephew of the late civil rights leader Harvey Milk; the last three presidents of JCPA; an Israeli and a Palestinian writing on Romney and Middle East peace; NJDC leader David Harris; former Rep. Mel Levine; the three co-chairs of Rabbis for Obama; and noted attorney and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. That was in just two weeks.
The Hub also wrote, edited and publicized a Barbra Streisand video for NJDC that garnered more than 75,000 YouTube views. The Hub promoted a viral email from Michigan Sen. Carl Levin that was sent to more than 150,000 Jews in battleground states. It also arranged interviews with Jack Lew, the president’s chief of staff.
The Hub started in early July, when Aaron Keyak was hired to be its leader, managing more than 10 staffers. Keyak said the goal was to “talk to Jews where they live.”
“We were basically a rapid-response media war room,” said Keyak, who came to the Hub after serving on the staff of former New Jersey Rep. Steve Rothman. “We were responding at times minute by minute to events of the day. We had all the data and research at our fingertips. If there was an issue on Romney and Iran, we were able to move faster and in a smarter way than anyone else doing media outreach.”
The Hub had prepared documents such as op-eds in anticipation of some subjects that would come up in the media, such as the debates or Romney’s trip to Israel.
“We were also proactive,” said Keyak, “because we had a specialty area. We were churning out all of these memos, and we were in constant contact with reporters.”
He said the Hub was fluent when it came to issues such as the president’s support for Israel. That fluency extended to other foreign policy issues such as Iran, but the Hub knew that Jewish voters also held social issues near and dear.
“We knew that 90 percent of Jews are pro-choice,” he said. “We knew that 80 percent of Jews were in favor of same-sex marriage. So it wasn’t difficult to paint Romney as out of step with the Jewish voters. But we had to get that message out. We were more than happy to engage on issues of Israel and Iran, but the biggest differences between the two were social issues. As the Republicans worked to reach out to its base, it only pushed away Jewish voters in even greater numbers.
“This was all about informing the Jewish voters about their choices in this election. With all of the predictions from the right-wing media, Obama got overwhelming support from the Jewish community despite tens of millions of dollars to attempt to smear his record on Israel.”
‘We knew that 90 percent of Jews are pro-choice. We knew that 80 percent of Jews were in favor of same-sex marriage. So it wasn’t difficult to paint Romney as out of step’
Keyak, who also previously worked for the NJDC, had been talking with Rabinowitz for a while about the project. Both knew the GOP was going to come after the Jewish vote.
“We wanted to make sure we combated their smear campaign against Obama to the best of our ability,” Keyak said. “It’s something Steve has done for his whole career.”
The Hub worked with reporters covering the Jewish vote in nationally known newspapers such as the Washington Post and New York Times. It also placed articles or op-eds in Jewish newspapers reporting on battleground communities. Op-eds included bylines from former and current members of Congress and other high-visibility supporters, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg (New Jersey), Dr. Zeke Emanuel, former AIPAC President Steve Grossman, and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, as well as former presidents of Hadassah, Jewish Women International and the National Council of Jewish Women.
The Hub also created websites such as israelquiz.org, which compared the Israel records of Presidents Bush, Reagan and Obama with Romney’s. It created a video of residents of Sderot, the Gaza border town, praising the president on the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
On Facebook, a Hub graphic asked Romney what he meant by “doing the opposite of President Obama” on Israel. There was also the “Jewish Test,” a site asking people to respond with their positions on 10 issues.
All of this was in addition to sometimes hourly advice to key campaign staffers, the Democratic National Committee, the White House and other non-profits on how to send a message to the Jewish community and remain in touch with the most widely read reporters covering the Jewish vote — as much as the law permitted, said Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz said he felt the Obama campaign was taking the challenge seriously, hiring Ira Forman a year and a half before the election as a connection to the Jewish community.
But Rabinowitz and Dorf thought there was a tremendous need for more.
“Obama was under tremendous attacks from the right,” said Rabinowitz. “There was a lot of money behind the attacks from people who were more concerned about bringing down Obama than keeping Israel as a bipartisan issue. They’ve spent years attacking Obama. And it had to be responded to. We had to do something.”
Forman, the Jewish outreach director for President Obama’s re-election staff, said the Hub “was amazing.”
Getting back to the Olympics’ moment of silence, the Hub staff saw an opening.
“Romney,” said Rabinowitz, “had been completely silent on it. We thought we could make some hay of it. The White House went ahead and issued a statement in support of the moment of silence. Romney was hammered pretty well, including by David Berger’s sister.
“We could be critical of Romney; we just couldn’t say, ‘Don’t vote for him,’ but we could be hypercritical. Everything else we did, though, was informational.”
Both Rabinowitz and Keyak felt exhilarated and a bit tired when it was all over.
“We had a good time, we worked hard, the NJDC did great stuff, as did the campaign,” Rabinowitz said. “We tried to help them along.”