WASHINGTON (JTA) – Was it an October surprise that surprised the surpriser?
Two prominent political bugbears whose very mention drives the “other side” into foaming denunciations – the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination stumbled on an anti-Semitic epithet, and Amir Taheri, a conservative whose writings about the Middle East have a habit of coming undone – collided this week, and sparks were flying.
Jackson said his views were distorted in an article by Taheri that quoted the Democrat as saying “Zionists” would lose their influence under an Obama administration.
Jackson’s denials did not keep Republicans from trying to use the remarks against U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in a fraught presidential election. Even a mainstream Jewish organization, the American Jewish Committee, blasted Jackson as “echoing classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
A report in Tuesday’s New York Post by Taheri, a writer who has in the past been accused of making exaggerated claims, said Jackson told the first World Policy Forum last week in Evian, France, that “Zionists who have controlled American policy for decades” would lose influence under Obama.
According to Taheri, Jackson told the forum that Obama promised “fundamental changes” in U.S. foreign policy, and said the most important changes would take place in the Middle East, where a President Obama would end “decades of putting Israel’s interests first.”
Jackson said that if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not resolved, the Middle East will “remain a source of danger to us all,” Taheri wrote.
“Barack is determined to repair our relations with the world of Islam and Muslims,” Taheri quoted Jackson as saying in an interview they conducted after Jackson delivered his remarks. “Thanks to his background and ecumenical approach, he knows how Muslims feel while remaining committed to his own faith.”
Jackson was quick to label the article a distortion.
“The recent column in the New York Post by Amir Taheri in no way represents my views on Middle East peace and security,” Jackson said in a statement released Wednesday by his Rainbow Push coalition.
“The writer is selectively imposing his own point of view, and distorting mine. I have a long-held position of a two-state solution to achieve peace in the Middle East. I stand forthrightly for the security and stability of Israel, its protection from any form of hostility, and a peaceful, non-violent resolution to co-existing with its Palestinian neighbors.”
Jackson also accused Taheri of seeking to “incite fear and division.”
Sources close to Jackson said some of the quotes in Taheri’s article were fabricated – Jackson never used the term “Zionists,” for instance, they said.
It was unclear if Taheri claimed to be in the room when Jackson made his remarks, or if others had reported the remarks to the writer.
Taheri, a favorite of conservatives who back confrontation with Iran, has a controversial past. Some of his writings on his native Iran have been debunked by experts as based on fabrications and distortions. Canada’s National Post apologized for his 2006 report that Iranian leaders planned to force Jews to wear a yellow insignia after the claim proved unfounded.
More recently, Taheri reported that Obama had tried secretly to persuade Iraqi leaders to stall the withdrawal of U.S. troops in order to prevent the White House from earning a success. Obama’s campaign and the White House both denied the substance of the report, and the Democratic camp accused Taheri of being in the pocket of the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP candidate.
In an editorial Thursday, the New York Post stood by the Jackson story, noting that in his statement, Jackson did not directly deny the quotes.
“He meant what he said,” an editorial said, “until things blew up in his face. Jesse Jackson needs to shut up and realize that his biggest enemy is his mouth.”
Taheri’s past didn’t prevent Republicans from trying to use the report to undermine Obama’s support in the Jewish community.
“Jesse Jackson confirmed the Jewish communities long-standing concerns with Barack Obama’s policies on Israel and the Middle East,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement.
The American Jewish Committee chimed in, without first checking the veracity of the report, Jackson’s advisers told JTA.
“Rev. Jackson’s remarks, which appeared in an interview with the journalist Amir Taheri in today’s New York Post, echo classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish power,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement.
McCain’s Florida campaign organized a conference call Wednesday trying to join Obama and Jackson at the hip.
“He’s had a close relationship” with Obama, said Ellyn Bogdanoff, a state representative. Adam Hasner, the majority leader in the Florida House, added: “This is consistent in our message that Senator Obama does not have a record that can give Jewish voters comfort.”
Jackson and Obama, in fact, frequently have been at odds. Obama has taken pains to distance himself from African-American leaders with controversial, confrontational pasts. Jackson earned notoriety during his 1984 campaign for referring to New York as “Hymietown,” but since has made amends with some Jewish leaders.
Jake Tapper of ABC noted that the alleged remarks reported in the Post “were recorded by a columnist” the Obama campaign “considers hostile in a tabloid newspaper it considers biased against them – from an interview with a man last publicly seen threatening to castrate Senator Obama.”
In July, Jackson was outraged enough at an Obama speech calling on young black men to assume greater family responsibilities that he threatened to “cut his nuts off.” That led Jackson’s son, a U.S. congressman and a co-chairman of the Obama campaign, to openly denounce his father.
The statement from the Rainbow Push coalition said that “Reverend Jackson is not a representative of Senator Obama. He has never had a conversation with Senator Obama about Israel or the Middle East, and was not characterizing Senator Obama’s views on these issues.”
Jackson, a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, told Taheri that he was not an Obama adviser, but called himself a “supporter” and a “neighbor.” He also called Obama “a member of the family.”
The Obama campaign responded to the remarks.
“Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is not an adviser to the Obama campaign and is therefore in no position to interpret or share Barack Obama’s views on Israel and foreign policy,” Obama national security spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said in a statement.
“As he has made clear throughout his career and throughout this campaign, Barack Obama has a fundamental commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and he is advised by people like Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Rep. Robert Wexler, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Senator Joe Biden who share that commitment,” Morigi said.
“As President, he will ensure that Israel can defend itself from every threat it faces, stand with Israel in its quest for a secure peace with its neighbors, and use all elements of American power to end Iran’s illicit nuclear program. No false charges can change Barack Obama’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”