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Forward clarifies Obama editorial — sort of

The Forward newspaper took a lot of heat for an editorial last week slamming insinuations in the Jewish community that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim agent (see JTA’s coverage of the issue here and here). Critics said the editorial, rather than debunk the claims, lent credence to them. Here’s the quote that got people riled up.

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.

“Where does that ‘almost’ come from, in regard to a person who for decades has fervently prayed in a Christian church?” wrote Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the liberal Jewish Renewal rabbi and founder of the Shalom Center, in a letter to the Forward.

The Forward also printed an op-ed from Illinois Senator Dick Durban which accuses the paper of giving credence, “however partial,” to the rumors.

A blogger at the website Jewlicious also took the Forward to task, but for different reasons.

A clarification posted on the Forward website this week aimed to clear up the misunderstanding, but it didn’t address the core question: Why are claims that Obama is a Muslim almost certainly untrue.

So I asked Forward editor J.J. Goldberg. Reached last night, Goldberg said the claims against Obama are that he is secretly a Muslim and that as president he would sympathize with America’s enemies. The answer to that question, Goldberg said, resides solely in Obama’s head and there’s no way to know for sure what he truly believes.

“I can’t read his mind,” Goldberg said. “It’s fundamentally an unknowable. That’s as much as I can say.”

According to Goldberg, the point of the editorial was not to debunk the rumors, but to lay into liberals – and Obama staffers – for failing to counter the implicit suggestion that being a Muslim is something to be ashamed of.

“The whole thing strikes me as very distasteful,” Goldberg said. “If my editorial seemed a little unsympathetic to Obama in this campaign, it’s because of that.”

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