WASHINGTON (JTA) – In a bid to quell growing unease about his relationship with a black preacher known for strident rhetoric, Barack Obama described the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s views on America – including its relationship with Israel – as fundamentally “distorted.”
Obama addressed the issue during a hastily scheduled speech in Philadelphia, days after the media began airing video clips of Wright’s harsh condemnations of American policy, including an assertion that the United States brought the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks upon itself.
Wright is Obama’s longtime pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, an Afrocentric church on Chicago’s South Side.
In a sermon shortly after the attacks, Wright said, “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards.”
On Tuesday, Obama dedicated most of his speech to addressing Wright’s general criticisms of the United States and the wider topic of race in America, but also spent a few moments addressing the claim about Israel.
“The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial,” Obama said. “They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America. A view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
Obama’s speech comes after weeks of escalating tensions in the Democratic race, as well as mounting concerns among some party leaders and activists that the contest between Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was becoming increasingly polarized along racial lines.
At the same time, the continuing revelations about Wright’s comments have triggered a new wave of criticism of Obama from Jewish Republicans and conservatives eager to tie the Democratic candidate to his pastor.
Wright has praised Louis Farrakhan and once traveled with the Nation of Islam leader to meet with Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
But some Jewish organizations praised Obama’s speech.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the specific reference to Wright’s anti-Israel views was reassuring.
“From our perspective the specific reference and to condemn radical Islam is a sensitivity to our community,” Foxman told JTA just after Obama completed his speech.
In a post to its Washington blog, the Orthodox Union directed readers to Obama’s rebuttal of Wright on the Israel point, while adding that the speech was “much broader” than just a rejection of the pastor’s remarks and “worth reading in full.”
Among those criticizing Obama was former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who addressed the topic during a convention Sunday organized by the United Jewish Communities.
“The statements that your clergy make when you join give a little bit of an indication of your own sense of right and wrong, and you cannot just divorce from that,” Fleischer said, speaking to more than 1,000 donors younger than 45 who are active in the Jewish federation system.
“If my rabbi had made those statements, I would have left the synagogue immediately,” said Fleischer, an active board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “It really troubles me that Barack Obama only waited until now to speak out about this issue.
“He was like a typical politician: It became a controversy, so he distanced himself. This is a very worrisome sign to me.”
The Zionist Organization of America – a group that has worked with Israeli politicians who advocate transferring Arabs out of the country and with Christian leaders who speak of holy war with Islam, without endorsing or opposing either view – planned to call on Obama to quit his church.
After Obama’s speech Tuesday, ZOA President Morton Klein said the organization had not changed its view. Klein, who graduated from the same public high school in Philadelphia as Wright, said that Obama gave his pastor “a pass by giving a basis and rationale for why Wright and other blacks feel the way they do.”
Many of Obama’s defenders say it is unfair to hold him accountable for everything his pastor says.
In addressing the same UJC gathering at which Fleischer spoke, one of Obama’s top Jewish surrogates – former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer – said “we would not want to be judged by rabbis who sometimes say ridiculous things.”
“We would hope that we would be strong enough to denounce them, as the senator has done with his pastor,” Kurtzer said.
In response to some of the criticisms of Obama, liberal pundits have noted that the presumptive Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has embraced the support of several Christian conservative clergymen, including John Hagee, who have made offensive statements.
After several days of mounting criticism, McCain said that if Hagee indeed had ever made anti-Catholic remarks, then he condemned them.
As for Obama, in his speech Tuesday he strongly criticized Wright’s remarks, but also said the pastor’s views must be understood in the context of the racism blacks have suffered. He also urged Americans to accept a fuller image of Wright and their relationship.
“The truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man,” he said, referring to the inflammatory remarks. “The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor.
“He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine, who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over 30 years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.”
If anything, Obama said, such views must be heard if America is to move forward.
“Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point,” he said. “We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”
Even while praising some parts of the speech, Foxman echoed concerns over Obama’s insistence on contextualizing Wright.
“I think there is a great deal of sincerity and eloquence in trying to communicate the scars of racism in our country,” Foxman said. “For us, the ADL, we’re disappointed and troubled and distressed by an effort to excuse and rationalize. Pain does not justify bigotry and anti-Semitism.”
(JTA managing editor Ami Eden contributed to this report from New York.)