Washington - Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and icon of black antisemitism in America, is emerging once again as a prominent factor in the political arena, causing trouble not only for Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama but also for a number of other political candidates.
In a February 24 speech in Chicago marking the Nation of Islam’s “Saviours’ Day,” Farrakhan spent the better part of two hours praising Obama and declaring him “the savior.” Presumably aware of the negative impact his endorsement was likely to have on the Illinois senator’s presidential bid, Farrakhan went out of his way to avoid openly embracing Obama’s candidacy, warning that “the enemy” would use his words “to create controversy to stop our brother from the success that seems to be in his path.”
The words seemed almost prophetic. Two days later, during his February 26 primary debate with Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator faced serious questions about his alleged ties to the Nation of Islam leader.
“I have been very clear in my denunciation of his antisemitic comments,” Obama said at the nationally televised debate, only to be taken to task by Clinton for not explicitly rejecting Farrakhan’s support.
“If the word ‘reject’ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point,” Obama rejoined. “And I would reject and denounce.”
Obama is not the only black politician forced to contend with the issue this season. In Indiana, congressional hopeful Andre Carson is fighting claims about his family’s connection with Farrakhan. In Minnesota, Rep. Keith Ellison, who is up for re-election, has consistently been forced to answer questions about his past relationship with the Nation of Islam. And in Georgia, Cynthia McKinney, a former member of Congress who was embraced by Farrakhan’s movement, is working to resurrect her political career as a Green Party leader after losing her bid with the Democratic Party.
The issue of antisemitism among the American black community emerged strongly in the 1970s, after the peak of the civil rights movement. Although nearly all mainstream black leaders today publicly reject such prejudice, the issue has cast a long shadow on American politics and on relations between the African-American and Jewish communities. In this, it has had perhaps no more public a face than Farrakhan, the acting head of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan emerged as an icon of antisemitism in the black community in the early 1980s, winning him the title “Black Hitler” from at least one Jewish community leader. He later went on to embrace the moniker, arguing that Hitler was a “great leader” for his country and accusing Jews of leading the slave trade of bringing the “filth of Hollywood” to American homes. He has also taken strong anti-Israel stances, leading to his embrace of Arab leaders and to a now-infamous 1984 visit with Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi.
Ironically, it is this very trip that is now haunting the Obama campaign, because joining Farrakhan on his 1984 journey to Libya was none other than Minister Jeremiah Wright of the Chicago Trinity United Church of Christ, now known to most as Obama’s professed spiritual adviser. That the relationship could negatively affect the candidate was not surprising; indeed, according to the Times of London, Wright himself noted that “when [Obama’s] enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli to visit [Qaddafi] with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.” In addition to the trip, a publication founded by Wright and edited by his daughter lauded the Nation of Islam leader as a man who “epitomizes greatness.”
Obama has actively distanced himself from Farrakhan, and even went so far as to qualify his relationship to his minister. Wright, Obama told Jewish officials during a meeting in Cleveland on the same day as the Farrakhan speech, “is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don’t agree with.”
For Carson, the congressional hopeful from Indiana, the controversy hits even closer to home. The congressional seat for which he is running was held for a decade by his recently deceased grandmother, Julia Carson. At her funeral this past December, the Nation of Islam leader delivered a eulogy in which he declared his support for Andre Carson’s campaign.
“I didn’t necessarily coordinate the funeral,” Carson told the Forward, stressing that he was not the one who had invited Farrakhan. “I’m against any prejudice or discrimination. I greatly differ with him, and in Congress I will stand up and fight any discrimination, no matter what it’s base is.”
Carson enjoys the support of top Democratic leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But lingering concern about ties to Farrakhan has helped Carson’s opponent in the Democratic primary, State Rep. David Orentlicher, raise significant sums of money from Jewish donors both in Indiana and outside the state.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carson has a staunch defender in Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim to serve in Congress.
“He shouldn’t be blamed for a decision his grandmother made,” Ellison said. “He believes in the equality of all people, the inclusion of all people. Why not just move forward and focus on the needs of the people in his district?”
Ellison, who is expected to win re-election in November, knows all too well the impact ties with Farrakhan can have on a political campaign. Ellison was associated with the Nation of Islam in his college years and wrote articles in defense of Farrakhan. When he ran for office in 2006, he faced harsh criticism not only from the local Jewish community, but also from a number of national Jewish leaders.
Ellison’s denunciation of the Nation of Islam during his 2006 campaign eventually made strong supporters out of the local Jewish community, but suspicion toward Ellison has yet to completely dissipate.
After Ellison was invited to address this February’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Atlanta, organizers were confronted with a stream of complaints from Jewish members protesting the Minnesota congressman’s participation, according to sources in the JCPA.
For Cynthia McKinney, a former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia, the association with Farrakhan was not the only factor that led Jewish activists to oppose her re-election. McKinney, an outspoken progressive, did not denounce Farrakhan’s views and refused, while in Congress, to support a resolution condemning his antisemitic remarks. She also held a consistent anti-Israel voting record and opposed foreign aid to Israel. McKinney served five terms as a Democrat before losing her seat; she later served one more term as a Democrat before losing her seat again. Now she is in the midst of a campaign to become the presidential nominee for the Green Party. In a February campaign stop in Washington, D.C., McKinney blamed Republicans, conservatives and lobbying groups for supporting her opponents and making her lose her seat.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.