Pro-Israel group attacks Sestak in Pennsylvania Senate race

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The race for Pennsylvania’s junior Senate seat between Democrat Rep. Joe Sestak and former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey is heating up and American policy toward Israel is taking center stage.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest populations of Jewish voters of any state in the country and, like Jews nationally, Jewish voters in the state tend to vote for Democrats. In the 2008 presidential election, for instance, President Obama won more than 80% of the Jewish vote in Pennsylvania. While Sestak supporters are adamant that their candidate will continue this trend, Sestak’s questionable record on the U.S.-Israel relationship is raising red flags in Pennsylvania’s Jewish community.

Last week, a newly formed national group composed of evangelical Christians and Jews called the Emergency Committee for Israel launched an advertisement campaign in Pennsylvania accusing Sestak of hostility toward Israel. In the ad, the group criticizes Sestak for a 2007 speech in front of a group they say is sympathetic to the terrorist group Hamas, affixing his name to a congressional letter pushing for Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza, and for not signing a letter reaffirming the strong bond between the U.S. and Israel.

Perhaps the most troubling of Sestak’s questionable actions is the 2007 speech he gave in front of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group cited as an unindicted co-conspirator in a 2004 Hamas funding case.

The content of Sestak’s speech to CAIR has also raised concerns. In it, Sestak is complimentary of the group and suggests that Muslims have been victims of a hostile American society — going so far as to seemingly compare the plight of Muslims in America today to Jews during the Holocaust.

“CAIR does such important and necessary work in a difficult environment to change such perceptions and wrongs – from racial profiling and civil rights to promoting justice and mutual understanding – at a time when it is challenging to be an American-Muslim and pass, for example, through an airport checkpoint,” he said. “The Jewish people have passed through – and still confront – many of the same challenges, some so horrific that one gentle man was moved to write after visiting the horror of Auschwitz: ‘Forgive them not Father, for they knew what they did.’”

Jonathon Dworkin, Sestak’s press secretary, takes issue with the idea that Sestak is not sensitive to Israel’s security concerns.

“As a former three-star Admiral who directly participated in the defense of Israel, Joe Sestak’s commitment to Israel’s security is beyond question,” Dworkin emailed The Daily Caller. “In fact, top Israeli military officials have come to Admiral Sestak, who also headed the Navy’s anti-terrorism unit after 9/11, to discuss their security issues. He has always voted in the interest of Israel’s security. Given Congressman Toomey’s radical Wall Street-first agenda and his votes against aid to Israel, it is no wonder that Joe’s political opponents have no choice but to attempt to distort his record.”
Noah Pollak, executive director for the Emergency Committee for Israel, told The Daily Caller that while Sestak may say he is a friend of Israel, his actions speak for themselves.

“The fact is he signed a letter that employed a phrase – ‘collective punishment’ — commonly used to defame Israel,” Pollak said. “This letter also lays the blame for the situation in Gaza on Israel, when Hamas started the war and can end the blockade any time it wishes by stopping its attacks. The fact that Sestak signed such a statement shows a lack of understanding of the threat Israel faces.”

Pollak continued by saying his group’s message is resonating.

“Clearly our criticism has struck a chord. Yesterday, Sestak sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, a corrupt dictators’ club whose main activity is trashing Israel, requesting that they appoint unbiased people to their investigation of the flotilla incident,” Pollak said. “Why is he validating a UN investigation of Israel that has no chance of being fair?”

On the ground in Pennsylvania, Jewish voters find themselves caught between the two candidates. While the Jewish community is generally socially liberal, many Jews are also fiercely concerned about Israel’s security.

Rabbi Greg Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen typifies this dichotomy. “When it comes to social issues I am a Democrat…When it comes to foreign policy I am quite conservative,” he told The Daily Caller. “I do get very concerned when Sestak does things like condemn the flotilla without even a mention of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive for years by Hamas.”

Marx continued, “Right now I am very much between the two parties and quite frankly I don’t know how I am going to vote.”

Mike Schatz, executive director of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, told The Daily Caller that he hasn’t yet decided which candidate he will support.

“At least we seemed to know exactly where Senator Specter stood on these issues,” he said, referring to Sen. Arlen Specter who was recently defeated by Sestak in the Democratic primary in May. “I think now it might be too early for me to say. Call back in thirty days.”

The latest Rasmussen Reports survey has Toomey polling with 45% support among “Likely Voters” while Sestak had 38%, 6% preferred some other candidate in the race, and 12% were “Undecided.”