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Fear Factor

Please read our clarification of this editorial here.

When the dust settles, the uproar over Barack Obama’s religious beliefs will have taught us little about the candidate and his loyalties that we don’t already know. If we look closely, however, we can learn a great deal about American Jews and their anxieties. More pointedly, we can penetrate the mystery of the power of the so-called Jewish lobby.

As most Americans have heard by now, rumors flying around the Internet suggest that the Illinois senator is secretly a radical Muslim. It’s rumored that he took his oath of office on a Quran, that he was educated in a Saudi-funded Muslim academy in Indonesia, that he’s some sort of Manchurian candidate plotting to take the reins of government and launch a jihad. It sounds almost comically implausible, but some people — too many, it seems — take it as fact. The Obama campaign vigorously denies the whole thing as a tissue of lies from beginning to end.

Awkwardly, certain elements of the story are almost certainly correct. That casts a shadow over all the denials.

The entire affair is described, on both sides, as a struggle for the hearts and votes of American Jews. In fact, though, the reports first surfaced a year ago on decidedly non-Jewish conservative Web sites. Red-state Christians are buying into them at least as fast as nervous Jews are.

Most surprising, a parade of Jewish politicians and organizational leaders, the elite of what’s called the Jewish lobby, has spoken out aggressively to reject the rumors and defend Obama — but it hasn’t helped much. Early indications are that Jewish voters will spurn Obama in numbers large enough to hurt him. And all the efforts of the vaunted Jewish establishment haven’t convinced them otherwise.

That’s the secret of Jewish lobbying success: It’s not about the professional influence-peddlers and fundraisers. It’s about frightened, angry Jews, thousands of them, determined to stop anyone they suspect is against them. Once they get going, no one can talk them out of it. They feel powerless and vulnerable before enemies great and small, and they have the clout to do something about it. And they don’t always check the details before hitting the barricades.

The fuss began a few weeks ago, when Obama campaign aides began noticing rumors circulating through mass e-mail messages, to the effect that the candidate was secretly a radical Muslim. Campaign officials concluded that the e-mails were targeting Jewish voters, to scare them away from Obama. Some decided that the rumors were deliberately started by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In mid-January, at the campaign’s behest, top officials of nine national Jewish organizations issued a joint statement condemning the “attempt to drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion.” Three days afterward, seven Jewish members of the Senate did the same. In an “open letter to the Jewish community,” the senators wrote that “as Jewish United States Senators,” they deplored the “malicious and fictitious attacks” on Obama.

Nine of the nation’s most influential Jewish organizations, seven United States senators: If ever there was a concentrated deployment of American Jewish power for a single cause, this was it. And yet, curiously, the statements don’t seem to have had much effect.

Published reports and word-of-mouth from New York to Miami suggest that considerable numbers of Jewish voters will not back Obama, because they’re not sure he’s not their enemy. The rumors may be true or false, they reason; Obama may or may not be a secret Muslim radical. But why risk it? If there’s any danger of antisemitism, the thinking goes, you err on the side of caution. You don’t take chances.

One prominent Orthodox activist, founder of a pro-Israel PAC and a former president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, bluntly told a local weekly last week that he wouldn’t vote for Obama and couldn’t imagine anything that would change his mind. A news report on the controversy, published on the English-language Web site of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, drew dozens of online comments from readers who insisted that Obama must be a secret Islamist, regardless of what anyone says. Some, secure in their anonymity, argued that he must be a Jew-basher because most African Americans are.

Reports of Obama’s supposed Muslim leanings began surfacing a full year ago, not in anonymous e-mail blasts but in signed articles published openly on conservative Web sites. One of the first appeared on, an arch-conservative site based in central California. Other sites picked it up immediately. A few days later, Obama’s staff issued a statement that the senator had “never been a Muslim.”

Two months later, though, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times showed that Obama had indeed attended a Muslim school in Indonesia, albeit not a fundamentalist academy. He later transferred to a Catholic school, where he was registered as a Muslim and apparently took required classes in Islam.

A childhood friend was quoted as saying that Obama occasionally attended Friday prayers at the mosque with his stepfather. The Obama campaign responded with an amended statement that the senator had never been “a practicing Muslim.”

Since then, the rumors have been kept in circulation through amateurish, endlessly recycled e-mail blasts, punctuated by occasional updates in mainstream news outlets.

Many of the e-mails are launched by Jews worried that an Obama administration will undermine Israel. Other messages travel through Christian networks. One massive blast targeted Christians in South Carolina on the eve of last month’s primary. News reports indicate that they were widely read and believed, despite all the public denials.

Why did it take the Obama campaign a full year to mount a serious response? In part, it might have been timing, since the first balloting was months away. In part, the candidate might have been reluctant to respond to the smears in a way that implied that calling him Muslim was an insult.

But the biggest factor was the unwillingness of Jewish liberals — Obama backers and others — to take the e-mails seriously. For years, liberals have dismissed Jewish conservatives and pro-settler hawks as insignificant, too few in number to make a difference. Consistently, liberals have failed to appreciate the conservatives’ secret weapon.

Accusations of antisemitism take on a life of their own. Once the A-word is in play, the defenses go up, and they don’t come down until it’s proved that there’s no danger. Moderate and liberal Jews who don’t share the conservatives’ agenda will give the benefit of doubt to the accusers. Thus the Jewish hawks have the final say, and the burden is on the candidate to avoid falling afoul of them.

Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Almost certainly not. Was he ever a Muslim? Almost certainly yes.

Does it matter? Well, it shouldn’t, but it evidently does matter to some folks, and it will continue to do so until liberals come up with some better answers.

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