WASHINGTON (JTA) – In a series of speeches otherwise notable for their defiant tone against his real and perceived enemies, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. sounded some conciliatory notes toward Jews, casting them as fellow strugglers against inequity and for peace.
But an outburst in a question-and-answer session and an analysis of what lies behind his remarks reveals that the Jewish community may still have reason to be less than comfortable with the former pastor to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Wright launched a media blitz this week just as Obama entered the final stretch of his bid to become the Democratic nominee for president.
The media has highlighted inflammatory passages from Wright’s past sermons in which he suggests that white racism remains pervasive and U.S. foreign policy helped bring about terrorist attacks on U.S. targets. These remarks have dogged Obama’s campaign.
The Wright factor may have contributed to his defeat in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, where he lost to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), 55 percent to 45 percent. In the Jewish community, where the pastor issue has come up repeatedly, Clinton beat Obama 62 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls.
The candidate has sought to distance himself from his former pastor, calling Wright’s rhetoric “offensive.” On Tuesday, campaigning in North Carolina ahead of next week’s primary, Obama delivered his sharpest denunciation to date of the the preacher he once said nurtured his Christian identity.
“The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago,” Obama said. “His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.”
In three major appearances over the last few days, Wright confronted what he said were the distortions in a campaign against him created primarily by Republicans but taken up also by Clinton advocates.
The appearances included a PBS interview last weekend with Bill Moyers; a dinner Sunday of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and a speech Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.
The most strident of his speeches came at the press club, where Wright said the “corporate media” had ripped his statements from their context. That context, he said, was the African-American church that has remained invisible for too long.
“Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country,” he said there.
“This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright,” he said later during a question-and-answer session. “It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. This is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.”
Also in the session, Wright addressed his association with Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam leader in lectures in 1984 said Israel represents a “gutter religion” and that Jews in general had corrupted the word of God through “false religions.”
Wright said he disagrees with Farrakhan on some issues but also admires him.
“Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion,” he said. “And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for.”
The distinction between Zionism and Judaism will not placate many Jews. Nor will suggestions that to criticize comparisons between Israeli policies and apartheid is somehow “vilification.”
“How many other African Americans or European Americans do you know that can get 1 million people together on the mall?” he said, referring to the 1995 Million Man March that Farrakhan organized. “He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.”
Wright’s overall emphasis was on the liberation theology that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s. He often grounded that theology in the Old Testament texts Christians share with Jews.
“The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive,” he said. “Liberating the captives also liberates those who are holding them captive.”
Outlining such captor-captive dichotomies the evening before in Detroit, Wright placed both Jews and blacks in the “captive” category, criticizing groups who saw the “different” as “deficient:”
“In the past we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient,” he said. “Christians saw Jews as being deficient. Catholics saw Protestants as being deficient. Presbyterians saw Pentecostals as being deficient. Folks who like to holler in worship saw folk who like to be quiet as deficient, and vice versa. Whites saw black as being deficient.”
As if to underscore such solidarity, he started the NAACP speech with a nod to what he said were his Jewish and Muslim supporters.
“I would also like to thank sister Melanie Maron, the former executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the current executive director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Jewish committee,” he said. “I would like to thank my good friend and Jewish author, Tim Wise, for his support.”
Yet such thank-yous could undermine Wright’s efforts at conciliation. Wise is a Louisiana writer who has written extensively about white racism and tackled expressions of anti-Semitism on the left. But he also has repudiated Zionism as nationalist chauvinism while failing to address the chauvinism inherent in the Arab and Islamic movements that deny Israel’s existence.
In 2000, decrying Jewish pride in the selection of U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Wise in Z Magazine described Judaism in the United States “as typified by an ‘objects culture’ of mezuzahs, dreidls and stars of David on the one hand; a popular culture of food, Jewish comedy and entertainment on the other; and all of it topped off by a ‘problems culture’ preoccupied with Israel and anti-Semitism: a negative identity based on real and potential victimhood.”
Wise’s claim that national chauvinism is intrinsic to Zionism jibes with Wright’s earlier reported views that equate the Palestinian experience with the experience of others who have been colonized.
However, at the press club, Wright said he did not equate Zionism with apartheid.
“Where did I liken it to that?” he said when asked why he compared Israeli policies to South Africa’s formerly racist system. “Jimmy Carter called it apartheid. Jeremiah Wright doesn’t ‘liken’ anything to anything. My position on Israel is that Israel has a right to exist; that Israelis have a right to exist, as I said, reconciled one to another.”
He continued: “Palestinians and Israelis need to sit down and talk to each other and work out a solution where their children can grow in a world together and not be talking about killing each other, that that is not God’s will. So my position is that Israel and the people of Israel be the people of God who are worrying about reconciliation and who are trying to do what God wants for God’s people, which is reconciliation.”
Such expectations reflect the reductive brand of liberation theology espoused by Wright, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish policy groups.
“If you’re the perceived more powerful, you’re always wrong, and if you’re the perceived more weak, you’re always right,” said Gutow, “and that’s not the way to deal with the Middle East, and Israel and the Palestinians.”
Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi originally from Texas, also took issue with Wright’s claims that his controversial style is a function of the African-American church.
“I have been in a lot of black churches over the years, certainly in the South, and these are not the kinds of messages I heard,” he said.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said Wright’s radical views were typical of the generation that fell between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. era with its black-Jewish cooperation and the current resurgence of cooperation among young blacks and Jews.
“I have encountered a new leadership in black America committed to bringing black-Jewish relations back to where it was,” he said, referring to Obama’s own pledge to do so. “What many see as an obstacle, I see as an opportunity of righting the Wrights of the world.”
Wright’s recognition of Maron suggested an attempt at outreach to Jews and others.
Maron’s duties at the Chicago AJC chapter included organizing AJC tours of the United States for up-and-coming European civic and political leaders aimed at explaining American pluralism. Maron coordinated visits to Wright’s Trinity United Church.
Speaking to the online Washington Independent last week, Maron remembered Wright addressing a German delegation in German.
“It was a powerful and warm, welcoming experience,” she told the Independent. “My experience with Trinity and Rev. Wright personally was always very positive.”
Maron did not return requests for comment, but AJC spokesmen emphasized that there was otherwise no relationship between the AJC and Wright.