Understanding Obama’s empathy


NEW YORK (JTA) – Barack Obama has spent months fending off successive waves of highly misleading and outright false e-mail campaigns, but this week the Democratic front-runner found himself scrambling to respond to an indisputable YouTube-documented outrage: the inflammatory sermons of his longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

“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,” the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. declared from his South Side of Chicago pulpit just days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Two years later Wright told his followers, “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people.”

A few months ago he told worshipers that only Obama, not Hillary Clinton, “knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture controlled by rich white people,” and asserted that “Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country and lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people.”

With the news channels repeatedly airing the clips and the controversy gaining momentum, Obama responded Tuesday with a hastily scheduled speech explaining his relationship to his pastor and tackling the larger related issue of race in America.

It was a somber, balanced, methodical and nuanced appeal to unity that, intentional or not, was almost the exact opposite in form and substance of the fiery images of his spiritual mentor flooding the airwaves in recent days.

Obama’s address reinforced the themes of hope, healing, change and progress that have deeply inspired his followers, Jewish and otherwise. His eloquent mix of censure and understanding, not only for his pastor, but blacks and whites in general, has and will continue to be praised in many circles of American society.

It is precisely the Illinois senator’s emphasis on empathy, however, that is most alarming to the more thoughtful pro-Israel hawks, more so than any barrage of e-mails highlighting his Muslim middle name or family roots.

As Obama suggested in his speech, some will work to keep the focus on Wright’s sermons and turn the election into a referendum on whether or not the candidate believes or sympathizes with his pastor’s “most offensive words.”

Shortly after the address, echoing many conservative pundits, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, told JTA that Obama had given his pastor “a pass by giving a basis and rationale for why Wright and other blacks feel the way they do.”

Hours later, the organization issued a statement calling on Obama to quit his church, citing a string of Wright’s most controversial comments and the church’s continuing support for its retiring pastor.

Put aside that the ZOA has worked with Israeli politicians who advocate transferring Arabs out of the country and with Christian leaders who speak of holy war with Islam, or that the organization’s logic essentially is the same line of thinking adopted by those in the black community who conclude that Zionism is about racism after unfairly drawing a straight line connecting American Jewish support for Israel and Israeli ties to South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.

This approach is simply detached from the reality of America’s past and present, as most of us still revere the founding fathers despite their embrace of slavery and many prominent political figures defend the flying of the Confederate flag despite the darker side of what it has historically symbolized.

In such a country, fair-minded people should not rush to dismiss Obama’s insistence that even though he rejects his pastor’s harshest condemnations of America, he can no more disavow the man who led him to Jesus than disown his white grandmother – “a woman,” he said, “who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

This is especially true given his willingness, perhaps more than any national political figure in recent memory, to acknowledge as legitimate both black bitterness over America’s racist legacy and white/immigrant working-class anger over busing and affirmative action.

The ability to see things from the perspective of the other and use those insights to transform policy is vital when it comes to writing a new chapter on race relations in America. On the domestic scene it’s a relatively risk-free trait.

For supporters of Israel, however, the dilemma is that at this time in the realm of foreign policy, such an approach is understandably unnerving and risky.

Ultimately the fundamental grievances of most blacks and whites in America have little or nothing to do with America’s decades-long support for Israel. Throughout the world, on the other hand, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has become a flash point, with the Jewish state facing disproportionate criticism and constant demonization.

Most American Jews in the end will be ready to accept Obama’s call for a more rounded understanding of Jeremiah Wright and the rest of black Americans. The fear, even among some liberal and moderate Jewish leaders and voters, is that Obama will carry this approach over to his effort to repair America’s relations with the rest of the world. What sort of understanding, they worry, is to be gained from Obama’s promised face-to-face meetings with anti-America and anti-Israeli dictators?

Obama and his defenders, including the Jews who know him best and longest, have a consistent response: He has an unwavering commitment to defending Israel against forces dedicated to its destruction, combined with the ability to improve America’s international image in a way that will ultimately improve Israel’s standing in the world and its security.

Too bad for them that there isn’t a YouTube video to prove that point.

(Ami Eden is the managing editor of JTA.)

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