The senator, his pastor and the Israel lobby
- Interesting comments on the role of Israel in American politics and the
partisan role of the ADL, by Ali Abunimh, co-founder of the Electronic
The senator, his pastor and the Israel lobby
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 31 March 2008
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 citizens.
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 tension."
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 1987).
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
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One
Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
(Metropolitan Books, 2006).
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]