Obama, Farrakhan, Russert and Us

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I confess, as a Jew, I was left squirming in my seat as I watched Tim Russert grill Barack Obama last night about what one TV commentator later casually referred to as “the Jewish issue.” How did Jews wind up being a campaign “issue”?

In part, it’s Russert’s fault. The “Meet the Press” host and debate moderator tossed out the issue of antisemitism before a national audience — and he did so clumsily. His line of questioning conflated a number of issues, mixing together Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism, Obama’s pastor’s own kooky views and Jewish anxieties about Israel.

At one point, Russert correctly noted that Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has said that Farrakhan “epitomizes greatness” and has traveled to Libya with the Nation of Islam leader to meet Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Then Russert proceeded to fire off the following muddled mess of a question: “What do you do to assure Jewish Americans that, whether it’s Farrakhan support or the activities of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan ‘epitomizes greatness.’”

Now, it’s one thing to raise the issue of Farrakhan’s putative endorsement of Obama (which, some argue, wasn’t really even an endorsement). But nobody — at least nobody who deserves to be taken seriously — has suggested that Obama is a fan of Farrakhan.

In any event, why should the issue of Farrakhan be framed exclusively in terms of Jewish sensitivities? Farrakhan’s a creepy character for a number of reasons — many of which have nothing to do with Jews. As Andrew Sullivan put it while live-blogging the debate, “why is it somehow only a question for Jewish Americans that Farrakhan is a fascist hate-monger? It’s a question for all Americans.”

The blogosphere is divided on Obama’s response. Some felt he handled the issue well. Commentary’s John Podhoretz wrote: “Obama says flatly that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is disgusting. He then says he wants to restore the frayed relationship between blacks and Jews.” Podhoretz then predicted that Obama would handily win Ohio’s Jewish vote.

Others, however, were disappointed. Huffington Post’s Taylor Marsh called Obama’s response “tepid” and pronounced herself “appalled.” Obama fan Andrew Sullivan tut-tutted: “He needs to get real on this. Weak, weak, weak.”

Indeed, Obama could have simply responded to Russert, “I think Farrakhan is a bigot, and I do not welcome his support.” Case closed. Instead, it seemed as if Obama was trying to walk a tightrope. Obama was clear from the get-go in condemning Farrakhan’s antisemitism. But, at least at first, he seemed hesitant to categorically reject his support. (There could be political reasons for this. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes, “If Obama denounces Farrakhan too strongly that would raise the eyebrows of the thousands of blacks who admire Farrakhan and his organization.”)

Hillary Clinton, however, in trying to capitalize on this, came off looking like she was trying to score a political point on a sensitive issue. The New Republic’s Noam Sheiber said she sounded “sanctimonious.”

The supposed connection between Obama and Farrakhan — i.e. two degrees of separation through his pastor and some unsolicited praise — is tenuous at best. Russert would have been on firmer ground had he focused his question solely on Obama’s pastor. Obama actually chose to affiliate himself with Wright, even taking the title of his campaign book, “The Audacity of Hope,” from one of his pastor’s sermons. Indeed, Wright would have delivered the public invocation at the launch of Obama’s campaign kick-off if not for the campaign’s inexplicably last-minute realization that Wright is kind of controversial.

Why, of all the pastors in the world, did Obama pick one who admires Farrakhan, pays visits to Libya’s anti-American dictator and saw in the September 11 attacks proof that “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”?

That, too, would have been a touchy question. But at least it would have had the virtue of being a fair one. And, who knows, Obama might even have had a half-decent response. (Indeed, he recently offered some context on this matter in a meeting with Jewish leaders in Ohio.)

My guess is that Obama was probably drawn to Wright because, for all his ridiculous rhetoric, he has also managed to build a congregation that is spiritually vibrant and socially engaged. That said, it’s safe to say that the issue of his pastor won’t be going away anytime soon — and Obama may soon be wishing he had selected a less controversial spiritual leader.

UPDATE: The JTA has a good roundup of some of the reaction from the blogs.

UPDATE II: The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman tells JTA that Obama’s denunciation of Farrakhan was good enough for him.

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