2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Jewish Leader to Obama : ‘Confront Your Pastor’


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Larry Cohler-Esses
The Jewish Week, Editor At Large

The leader of the Anti-Defamation League called presidential candidate Barack Obama’s spiritual mentor and pastor a "black racist" Tuesday and called upon the Illinois Democrat to "confront his minister" on his embrace of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman issued his call after an ADL press release put out earlier the same day "welcomed" an Obama statement unambiguously condemning "anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan." The Obama statement distanced the senator from a decision by his church’s magazine to honor Farrakhan with an award named for his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

[On Wednesday morning, as The Jewish Week went to press, Foxman left a voice mail message amending his remarks, saying, Rev. Wright  "embraces, awards and celebrates a black racist. I think [calling him] racist is going a little bit too far."]

In the November/December issue of the Trinity United Church of Christ’s Trumpet Magazine, published just prior to the award ceremony, Rev. Wright — who Obama credits with bringing him to Christianity, presiding over his wedding ceremony, baptizing his daughter and dedicating his Chicago home — states: "When Minister Farrakhan speaks, Black America listens. Everybody may not agree with him, but they listen. ... His depth on analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation is astounding and eye opening. He brings a perspective that is helpful and honest.

"Minister Farrakhan will be remembered as one of the 20th and 21st century giants of the African American religious experience," Rev. Wright declares.

According to ADL, as recently as Nov. 7, in a speech at his Chicago mosque one month prior to the Chicago church’s awards ceremony, Minister Farrakhan sermonized, "Do you know some of these satanic Jews have taken over BET [Black Entertainment Television network]? ... Everything that we built, they have. The mind of Satan now is running the record industry, movie industry and television. And they make us look like we’re the murder[er]s; we look like we’re the gangsters, but we’re punk stuff."

On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote about the award given by the magazine, which is published and edited by Rev. Wright’s daughters. "It’s important to state right off that nothing in Obama’s record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan," Cohen stressed. He noted that Obama’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrod, had told him this was one of any number of cases in which he and his minister "disagree."

"Fine," wrote Cohen. "[But] the Obama camp takes the view that its candidate, now that he has been told about the award, is under no obligation to speak out on the Farrakhan matter. ... He could be the next American president. Where is his sense of outrage?"

Cohen’s column came one day after Newsmax.com, a right-wing Web site, published a detailed story on the issue by Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post investigative reporter.

Obama’s statement, released Tuesday afternoon, declared, "I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree."

The ADL’s press release, put out soon after, welcomed Obama’s "condemnation of the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan, and his making clear that he did not agree with his church’s decision. ... Issues of racism and anti-Semitism must be beyond the bounds of politics. When someone close to a political figure shows sympathy and support for an individual who makes his name espousing bigotry, that political figure needs to distance himself from that decision. Senator Obama has done just that."

But in an interview with The Jewish Week, Foxman said this must be just a first step. "He’s distanced himself from his pastor’s decision to honor Farrakhan. He has not distanced himself from his pastor. I think that’s the next step. One can now expect from Sen. Obama that he confront his minister."

Ultimately, said Foxman, if Obama is unable to influence Wright to alter his stands, "I think he has an obligation to leave."

The Obama campaign did not respond to repeated efforts to obtain a response to Foxman’s remarks. A message left with the spokesperson for Rev. Wright’s church also went unanswered.

Early last year, Rev. Wright announced plans to retire from the pulpit this May. It could not be learned what status, if any, he will retain at the church, which he founded in 1972, on the city’s far South Side. The church bulletin currently lists Rev. Wright’s successor as "pastor" above the name of Rev. Wright, who is titled "senior pastor."

The church, which began with a handful of members, is now a powerhouse on the South Side, boasting members prominent in business, arts and culture. The Trumpet, which it sponsors, now has national distribution. Others the magazine honored with awards at Chicago’s Hyatt last November included jazz singer Nancy Wilson, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). The church itself, at 8,500 members, is now the largest within the United Church of Christ denomination.

In addition to his lauding of Rev. Farrakhan, Rev. Wright’s stands include strong criticism of Israel and Zionism — in stark contrast to Obama. Since his 2004 arrival in the Senate, Obama has strongly backed Israel on issues ranging from its bombing of Lebanon during the war of summer 2006, which killed hundreds of civilians, to its right to be free of U.S. pressure in negotiating with its enemies. The neoconservative New York Sun, among others, has praised Obama for his strong support of the Jewish state and sharply rebutted critics who charge otherwise. Lee Rosenberg, national treasurer of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington-based pro-Israel lobby, is a member of Obama’s finance committee and a longtime supporter, as is billionaire Jewish philanthropist and pro-Israel stalwart Lester Crowne of Chicago.

According to a New York Times profile last April, Rev. Wright has said that Zionism has an element of "white racism." Kessler, the Newsmax journalist, quotes Wright saying, "The Israelis have illegally occupied Palestinian territories for over 40 years now. Divestment has now hit the table again as a strategy to wake the business community and wake up Americans concerning the injustice and the racism under which the Palestinians have lived because of Zionism."

Kessler, who did not interview Rev. Wright, gives no source for the quote. The United Church of Christ denomination came out in support of disinvesting in companies that do business in Israel in 2005. But its leaders withdrew that resolution last year and passed one calling for further study of the issue.

The Times profile of Rev. Wright also notes that on the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he sermonized that the attacks were a consequence of violent American policies. Four years later, The Times reported, Rev. Wright wrote that the attacks proved "people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just ‘disappeared’ as the Great White West went on its merry way of ignoring Black concerns."

Asked about this, Obama told The Times, "The violence of 9/11 was inexcusable and without justification." He said he was not there for Rev. Wright’s sermon after the attacks but ventured, "It sounds like he was trying to be provocative."

"What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice," Obama told the Chicago Tribune in January 2007, when Wright announced his retirement plans. "He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics."

In his interview with The Jewish Week, Foxman appeared to allude to charges of racism that have been made against Rev. Wright and his church, based on false assertions that the church excludes whites as part of a self-styled Afro-centric focus and emphasis on "black liberation theology." A Newsweek fact-check of this charge last week found that the church has welcomed non-blacks to its services frequently. The report termed Rev. Wright "a fiery advocate for blacks and liberal causes, and a fierce critic of anti-black discrimination." But, it said, "we see no evidence that he preaches hatred or discrimination against whites."

"I would say he is a black racist," Foxman said of Rev. Wright. "Certainly he has very strong anti-Israel views. But I don’t think Obama sought out the church because of that."

The Times profile last April reported that ADL "says it has no evidence of any anti-Semitism by Mr. Wright." Asked about this, Foxman replied that anti-Semitism is not synonymous with racism.

"He’s for Africa for Africans," said Foxman. "But nothing I’ve seen would make me call him an anti-Semite."

Foxman recalled that in 1995, he publicly walked out on the synagogue of which he was a member for more than 20 years. Its spiritual leader, he concluded, was preaching extremist hatred against Israel’s leadership, whose promotion of the Oslo peace process the rabbi opposed. Unlike Rev. Wright and Obama, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky and Foxman had no long and close relationship with each other. Rabbi Pruzansky had only assumed the pulpit of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., one year earlier. Foxman’s long presence there, however, meant many strong ties to other members of his spiritual community.

"I don’t want to compare myself to Obama," said Foxman. "I left my synagogue. But I didn’t leave it immediately. I tried to have my rabbi change his views. I went to fellow congregants to see if they could have an impact on him. Only at a point in time where that didn’t happen, I resigned.

"I think the next step for Obama is to challenge his minister on these views," he said. "He may change his minister’s view, in which case, very good. If not, I think he has an obligation to leave."


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