January 31, 2008
When the dust settles, the uproar over Barack Obama’s religious beliefs
will have taught us little about the candidate and his loyalties that we
don’t already know. If we look closely, however, we can learn a great
deal about American Jews and their anxieties. More pointedly, we can
penetrate the mystery of the power of the so-called Jewish lobby.
As most Americans have heard by now, rumors flying around the Internet
suggest that the Illinois senator is secretly a radical Muslim. It’s
rumored that he took his oath of office on a Quran, that he was educated
in a Saudi-funded Muslim academy in Indonesia, that he’s some sort of
Manchurian candidate plotting to take the reins of government and launch a
jihad. It sounds almost comically implausible, but some people -- too
many, it seems -- take it as fact. The Obama campaign vigorously denies
the whole thing as a tissue of lies from beginning to end.
Awkwardly, certain elements of the story are almost certainly correct.
That casts a shadow over all the denials.
The entire affair is described, on both sides, as a struggle for the
hearts and votes of American Jews. In fact, though, the reports first
surfaced a year ago on decidedly non-Jewish conservative Web sites.
Red-state Christians are buying into them at least as fast as nervous Jews
Most surprising, a parade of Jewish politicians and organizational
leaders, the elite of what’s called the Jewish lobby, has spoken out
aggressively to reject the rumors and defend Obama -- but it hasn’t helped
much. Early indications are that Jewish voters will spurn Obama in
numbers large enough to hurt him. And all the efforts of the vaunted
Jewish establishment haven’t convinced them otherwise.
That’s the secret of Jewish lobbying success: It’s not about the
professional influence-peddlers and fundraisers. It’s about frightened,
angry Jews, thousands of them, determined to stop anyone they suspect is
against them. Once they get going, no one can talk them out of it. They
feel powerless and vulnerable before enemies great and small, and they
have the clout to do something about it. And they don’t always check the
details before hitting the barricades.
The fuss began a few weeks ago, when Obama campaign aides began noticing
rumors circulating through mass e-mail messages, to the effect that the
candidate was secretly a radical Muslim. Campaign officials concluded
that the e-mails were targeting Jewish voters, to scare them away from
Obama. Some decided that the rumors were deliberately started by the
Hillary Clinton campaign.
In mid-January, at the campaign’s behest, top officials of nine national
Jewish organizations issued a joint statement condemning the “attempt to
drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on
despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion.” Three days
afterward, seven Jewish members of the Senate did the same. In an “open
letter to the Jewish community,” the senators wrote that “as Jewish United
States Senators,” they deplored the “malicious and fictitious attacks” on
Nine of the nation’s most influential Jewish organizations, seven United
States senators: If ever there was a concentrated deployment of American
Jewish power for a single cause, this was it. And yet, curiously, the
statements don’t seem to have had much effect.
Published reports and word-of-mouth from New York to Miami suggest that
considerable numbers of Jewish voters will not back Obama, because they’re
not sure he’s not their enemy. The rumors may be true or false, they
reason; Obama may or may not be a secret Muslim radical. But why risk it?
If there’s any danger of antisemitism, the thinking goes, you err on the
side of caution. You don’t take chances.
One prominent Orthodox activist, founder of a pro-Israel PAC and a former
president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, bluntly told a
local weekly last week that he wouldn’t vote for Obama and couldn’t
imagine anything that would change his mind. A news report on the
controversy, published on the English-language Web site of the Israeli
daily *Yediot Aharonot*, drew dozens of online comments from readers who
insisted that Obama must be a secret Islamist, regardless of what anyone
says. Some, secure in their anonymity, argued that he must be a
Jew-basher because most African Americans are.
Reports of Obama’s supposed Muslim leanings began surfacing a full year
ago, not in anonymous e-mail blasts but in signed articles published
openly on conservative Web sites. One of the first appeared on
FreeRepublic.com, an arch-conservative site based in central California.
Other sites picked it up immediately. A few days later, Obama’s staff
issued a statement that the senator had “never been a Muslim.”
Two months later, though, an investigation by the *Los Angeles Times*
showed that Obama had indeed attended a Muslim school in Indonesia, albeit
not a fundamentalist academy. He later transferred to a Catholic school,
where he was registered as a Muslim and apparently took required classes
A childhood friend was quoted as saying that Obama occasionally attended
Friday prayers at the mosque with his stepfather. The Obama campaign
responded with an amended statement that the senator had never been “a
Since then, the rumors have been kept in circulation through amateurish,
endlessly recycled e-mail blasts, punctuated by occasional updates in
mainstream news outlets.
Many of the e-mails are launched by Jews worried that an Obama
administration will undermine Israel. Other messages travel through
Christian networks. One massive blast targeted Christians in South
Carolina on the eve of last month’s primary. News reports indicate that
they were widely read and believed, despite all the public denials.
Why did it take the Obama campaign a full year to mount a serious
response? In part, it might have been timing, since the first balloting
was months away. In part, the candidate might have been reluctant to
respond to the smears in a way that implied that calling him Muslim was an
But the biggest factor was the unwillingness of Jewish liberals -- Obama
backers and others -- to take the e-mails seriously. For years, liberals
have dismissed Jewish conservatives and pro-settler hawks as
insignificant, too few in number to make a difference. Consistently,
liberals have failed to appreciate the conservatives’ secret weapon.
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.
Does it matter? Well, it shouldn’t, but it evidently does matter to some
folks, and it will continue to do so until liberals come up with some
Your editorial says:
"Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Almost certainly not."
I say: "Is J. J. Goldberg [editor of the Forward] a Christian? Almost certainly not. Even if he sang Christian hymns (as I did) in public elementary and junior high school.”
“Almost certainly not”? Where does that “almost” come from, in regard to a person who for decades has fervently prayed in a Christian church?
What in the name of God — literally — got into you?
Your editorial is a far less forthright stand against the smears than the rabbinic leadership letter. And dismissing those rabbis as “the Jewish establishment” versus “the people” is ridiculous.
On the one hand, their power compared with that of the Federations is miniscule. The fat cats of the Federations have a lot more to lose from a transformative Presidency than the rabbis, and many of the fat cats have far less commitment to ethical discourse.
On the other hand, you adulterate the ancient progressivism of the Forward into fake populism, giving a make-believe gloss of proletarian glamor to the paranoias you should be denouncing. Your editorial described the virulent effect of the “anti-Semite” smear on frightened Jews without clearly and nobly denouncing it.
With blessings that you recover your clarity and your menschklichkeit, remembering that emet, tzedek, and shalom — TRUTH, Justice, and Peace — are the three pillars on which the world must stand.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow