Senator Barack Obama addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC) forum on Foreign Policy in Chicago, March 2007. (Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty

US senator Barack Obama was widely hailed for his 18 March speech calming the
media furor about the sermons of his pastor for twenty years Reverend Jeremiah
Wright. Wright’s remarks, Obama said, “expressed a profoundly distorted view of
this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is
wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees
the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies
like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of
radical Islam.”

It might seem odd for Obama to mention Israel and “radical Islam” in a speech
focused on US race relations, especially since Wright’s most widely reported
comments were about America’s historic and ongoing oppression of its black

But for months, even before most Americans had heard of Wright, prominent
pro-Israel activists were hounding Obama over Wright’s views on Israel and ties
to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In January, Abraham Foxman, National
Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), demanded that Obama denounce
Farrakhan as an anti-Semite. The senator duly did so, but that was not enough.
“[Obama has] distanced himself from his pastor’s decision to honor Farrakhan,”
Foxman said, but “He has not distanced himself from his pastor. I think that’s the
next step.” Foxman labeled Wright “a black racist,” adding in the same breath,
“Certainly he has very strong anti-Israel views” (Larry Cohler-Esses, “ADL Chief
To Obama: ‘Confront Your Pastor’ On Minister Farrakhan,” The Jewish Week, 16
January 2008). Criticism of Israel, one suspects, is Wright’s truly unforgivable
crime and Foxman’s vitriol has echoed through dozens of pro-Israel blogs.

Since his early political life in Chicago, Barack Obama was well-informed about
the Middle East and had expressed nuanced views conveying an understanding
that justice and fairness, not blinkered support for Israel, are the keys to peace
and the right way to combat extremism. Yet for months he has been fighting the
charge that he is less rabidly pro-Israel than other candidates — which means now
adhering to the same simplistic formulas and unconditional support for Israeli
policies that have helped to escalate conflict and worsen America’s standing in
the Middle East. Hence Obama’s assertion at his 26 February debate with Senator
Hillary Clinton that he is “a stalwart friend of Israel.”

But Obama stressed that his appeal to Jewish voters also stems from his desire
“to rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African
American community and the Jewish community.”

Obama has not addressed to a national audience why that relationship might have
frayed. He was much more candid when speaking to Jewish leaders in Cleveland
just one day before the debate. In a little-noticed comment, reported on 25
February by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Obama tried to contextualize
Wright’s critical views of Israel. Wright, Obama explained, “was very active in the
South Africa divestment movement and you will recall that there was a tension
that arose between the African American and the Jewish communities during that
period when we were dealing with apartheid in South Africa, because Israel and
South Africa had a relationship at that time. And that cause — that was a source of

Obama implicitly admitted that Wright’s views were rooted in opposition to Israel’s
deep ties to apartheid South Africa, and thus entirely reasonable even if Obama
himself did “not necessarily,” as he put it, share them. Israel supplied South
Africa with hundreds of millions of dollars of weaponry despite an international
embargo. Even the water cannons that South African forces used to attack
anti-apartheid demonstrators in the townships were manufactured at Kibbutz Beit
Alfa, a “socialist” settlement in northern Israel. Until the late 1980s, South Africa
often relied on Israel to lobby Western governments not to impose sanctions.

And the relationship was durable. As The Washington Post reported in 1987,
“When it comes to Israel and South Africa, breaking up is hard to do.” Israeli
officials, the newspaper said, “face conflicting imperatives: their desire to get in
line with the West, which has adopted a policy of mild but symbolic sanctions,
versus Israel’s longstanding friendship with the Pretoria government, a
relationship that has been important for strategic, economic and, at times,
sentimental reasons” (“An Israeli Dilemma: S. African Ties; Moves to Cut Links Are
Slowed by Economic Pressures, Sentiment,” The Washington Post, 20 September

In 1987, Jesse Jackson, then the world’s most prominent African American
politician, angered some Jewish American leaders for insisting that “Whoever is
doing business with South Africa is wrong, but Israel is … subsidized by America,
which includes black Americans’ tax money, and then it subsidizes South Africa”
(“Jackson Draws New Criticism From Jewish Leaders Over Interview,” Associated
Press, 16 October 1987). As a presidential candidate, Jackson raised the same
concerns in a high profile meeting with the Israeli ambassador, as did a
delegation of black civil rights and religious leaders, including the nephew of
Martin Luther King Jr, on a visit to Israel. For many African Americans, it was
intolerable hypocrisy that so many Jewish leaders who staunchly supported Civil
Rights and the anti-apartheid movement would be tolerant of Israel’s complicity.

Thus, Reverend Wright, who has sought a broader understanding of the Middle
East than one that blames Islam and Arabs for all the region’s problems or
endorses unconditional support for Israel, stood in the mainstream of African
American opinion, not on some extremist fringe.

That is not to say that Jewish concerns about anti-Semitic sentiments among
some African Americans should simply be dismissed. Racism in any community
should be confronted. But as they have done with other communities, hard-line
pro-Israel activists like Foxman have too often tried to tar any African American
critic of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism. Why must every black candidate to
a major office go through the ritual of denouncing Farrakhan, a marginal figure in
national politics who likely gets most of his notoriety from the ADL? Surely if
anti-Semitism were such an endemic problem among African Americans, there
would be someone other than Farrakhan for the ADL to have focused its ire on all
these decades.

By contrast, neither Senator Joe Lieberman (Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 and
the first Jewish candidate on a major party presidential ticket), nor Senator John
McCain have been required so publicly and so repeatedly to repudiate extremist
and racist comments by Israeli leaders or some well-known radical Christian
leaders supporting the Republican party. Foxman, whose organization devotes
enormous resources to burnishing Israel’s image, has rarely spoken out about
the escalating anti-Arab racism and incitement to violence by prominent Israeli
politicians and rabbis.

That is no surprise. African Americans, Arab Americans and Muslims all share
some things in common: individuals are held collectively responsible for the
words and actions of others in their community whether they had anything to do
with them or not. And the price of admission to the political mainstream is to
abandon any foreign policy goals that diverge from those of the pro-Israel,
anti-Palestinian lobby.


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