14 March 2008

14 March 2008 - Obama needs to dump Wright. But can he?

In Barack Obama's clumsy attempts to convince Jewish voters that he does not share the anti-Israel (and anti-American) views of his pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, Obama has explained that he does not share all of Wright's views--that he is "like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with." He told a Jewish gathering in Cleveland that Wright's animosity should be understood in context:

"[Wright] 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. So there have been a couple of occasions where he made comments with relation, rooted in that. Not necessarily ones that I share. But that is the context within which he has made those comments."

This does not, cannot, suffice. First of all, that was more than twenty years ago. What explains Wright's animosity towards Israel today? Second, the tension between blacks and Jews in urban America goes back further than that, and it is not because of Jewish support for Israel. Obama's attempt to shift the blame onto Israel is troubling. Third--and Obama should know this--Israel never supported the policy of apartheid, nor did it always have good relations with South Africa during the apartheid era.

Wright's hatred for Israel is of a piece with his other hateful views. It is tainted by bigotry that cannot be washed away with "context." The fact that Obama doesn't see what's fundamentally wrong with Wright's approach is deeply concerning. He needs to cut ties with Wright--both for strategic and principled reasons. But can he? Wright has been involved with Obama's campaign, his book, and his personal life. Dumping him now would be seen as inauthentic, and some Obama supporters would accuse him of "selling out."

Some of my pro-Israel friends, particularly those who believe Israel needs to make concessions to get the peace process moving, respond to all of the above with a shrug. (One even sent me the text of Obama's Cleveland remarks in the hope that it would convince me that Obama is good for Israel.) I take a different view. I think that both Israel and the Palestinians are more likely to make the necessary compromises for peace if the U.S. places Israel's security needs first. Obama says he will do that, too, but the systematic demonization of Israel is a big part of why Israel is still unsafe.

Obama has not reacted strongly enough to that yet. In his words, you can see the fragile, precarious attempt to distinguish between antisemitism and hatred of Israel: "I have never heard anything that would suggest anti-Semitism on part of the Pastor," he said. Obama ought to recognize the connection between the two--and that Wright's attacks on Israel, which include the accusation that Zionism contains "white racism," cross the line. A good policy on Israel does not begin with such exquisite hair-splitting. Time to stop making excuses, and start making choices.

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