By JEFF ZELENY
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Senator Barack Obama sought to assure Jewish voters here on Thursday of his commitment to the security of Israel and implored them to disregard the false stories and rumors about his beliefs, background and foreign policy views toward the Middle East.
“We must not negotiate with a terrorist group that’s intent on Israel’s destruction,” said Mr. Obama, of Illinois. “We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements.”
For nearly two hours, Mr. Obama tried to work through a deep-seated skepticism of his candidacy by some Jews. He was welcomed by warm applause that seemed to grow throughout the afternoon session at a synagogue.
Mr. Obama had sharp words for his Republican critics, singling out President Bush and Senator John McCain of Arizona as “counting on fear” and what he called a distortion of his stance on Israel and his plan to meet with foreign leaders. He said he would not negotiate with Hamas or Hezbollah unless they renounced ties to terrorism.
“If my policies are wrong, vote against me because my policies are wrong,” Mr. Obama told several hundred people gathered inside the synagogue, B’nai Torah Congregation. “Don’t vote against me because of who I am.”
First, he fielded questions about his name, which he acknowledged is probably at the root of false rumors about his being Muslim. He is a Christian, he said, and gently told one man, “People shouldn’t worry about my name.”
Then, another man was booed by neighbors when he questioned Mr. Obama about his associations with supporters of the Palestinians, specifically Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University and a Palestinian rights advocate. Finally, the man asked Mr. Obama for a list of Jewish supporters who could vouch for him.
“I have to be very cautious about this,” Mr. Obama said, “because you remember the old stereotype, ‘I’m not prejudiced, some of my best friends are Jewish,’ right? ‘I’m not prejudiced, some of my best friends are black.’ ”
Later, he said: “We’ve got to be careful about guilt by association. The tradition of the Jewish people is to judge me by what I say and what I’ve done.”
Mr. Obama sought to allay concerns about his willingness to engage in direct talks with foreign leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. A woman in the audience asked Mr. Obama what he would say to the Iranian president if he held such a meeting.
“I will do everything in my power from allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Obama said. “Their rhetoric towards Israel is unacceptable.”
Sylvia Skavronek, 77, who leads a Democratic club in Delray Beach, Fla., was seeing Mr. Obama for the first time. She said she walked in with a sense of uncertainty but left with a favorable impression of the man she believes will soon be the Democratic nominee. Yet she conceded Mr. Obama had work to do to introduce himself to Jews.
“He wasn’t my first choice, but he’s a great second choice,” said Ms. Skavronek, who initially supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. “All we want is a Democrat.”