African-Americans and Jews were joined in a relationship long characterized by mutual respect and shared commitment to civil rights. But it was also one that often foundered on the sensitivities and resentments that both groups often could not rise above.
Yet now that the civil-rights movement, as well as fights over affirmative action and other hot-button issues, have faded from the top of the national agenda, blacks and Jews most often have little to do with each other.
But the presidential campaign of the first serious African-American contender for the White House has brought some of the old sensitivities and fears back to the surface.
A Feel-Good Story
Sen. Barack Obama's amazing climb from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of American politics is something that all Americans can feel good about. It is one thing to say that any American can grow up to be president, and another to see a black man have a more than reasonable shot at doing just that. Agree or disagree with his politics, but his ability to employ an uplifting brand of political rhetoric is an asset for any would-be president.
But for all the optimism the Obama campaign has generated, the bitter infighting among Democrats — as Sen. Hillary Clinton and her campaign teammate, and spouse Bill pull out the stops to win the presidency for her — indicates that race is still a very touchy issue in 2008 America.
As soon as Obama began his run, Internet rumors about him began to spread like wildfire. The fact that he had a Muslim father and spent part of his early life in Indonesia led many to buy into the notion that he is himself a Muslim, was educated in a fundamentalist madrassa, and even that he took his oath of office to the U.S. Senate on a Koran. On the fever swamps of the right, he was denounced as a jihadi mole and latter-day "Manchurian Candidate" subverting America.
The truth is that Obama is a practicing Christian. And he is far more a product of Columbia and Harvard, as well as of the same popular culture of the 1970s and '80s on which most Americans were reared, than the Indonesian schools where he spent a portion of his youth.
But it was no surprise that amid all the acrimony of this campaign, the organized Jewish world felt it must speak up strongly in Obama's defense. Last week, the heads of nine of the most influential national Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the United Jewish Communities, signed a joint letter denouncing the rumors about Obama.
Why, despite the fact that such groups usually avoid intervening in partisan tangles, did they do it?
As their statement indicated, the rumors about Obama were clearly intended to "drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate" because of "religion." They knew that the effort to pigeonhole Obama as a sympathizer with Islamists on the basis of innuendo would poison the view of him in the Jewish community as well as black-Jewish relations.
Though urban legends such as those are almost impossible to eradicate, the groups were right to take a stand. But when substantive questions were raised about Obama's associations, the reaction from some Jews was to treat them as being just as noxious as any lie.
Thus, when Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote last week about the troubling facts about Obama's membership in a Chicago church, whose pastor was a friend and supporter of Louis Farrakhan, the racist and anti-Semitic head of the Nation of Islam, he raised a question that some people didn't want to hear.
In response to queries about his closeness with Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose Trumpet magazine once lauded Farrakhan as a man who "truly epitomized greatness," Obama subsequently made it clear that he didn't agree with his church and strongly condemned Farrakhan. The candidate repeated his disgust with anti-Semitism in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech in King's own Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
That was more than enough for the ADL. And though some might still ask why he belonged to such a church (would any candidate get away with belonging to, say, a country club that practiced or advocated discrimination?), the case seemed closed.
What was equally interesting was the response to Cohen, a liberal anchor of the Post's Op-Ed page, from some on the left.
Novelist Michael Chabon wrote on HuffingtonPost.com that merely raising any questions about Obama and Farrakhan was itself illegitimate, even if the facts of this case were not Internet rumors. For Chabon, simply putting the words Obama and Farrakhan in the same article was "fear-mongering" and using the tactics of "propagandists of hatred." Chabon seemed to feel that anything written about a black that might alienate him from Jews was part of a racist mindset.
So for all the distance we have traveled toward King's vision of a colorblind society, it appears that some view any questions about a black as inherently tainted by prejudice. This is the same sort of false sensitivity that turned an otherwise unexceptionable statement from Hillary Clinton about the roles of both King and President Lyndon Johnson's in passing civil-rights legislation into a controversy.
But if Barack Obama is to be elected president, he can't be treated as a racial icon who must be treated with kid gloves and spared the examination to which other contenders must submit.
Jews and anyone else who oppose him simply because his father was a Muslim from Kenya offend the spirit of American democracy. But Jews like Chabon, himself a virulent foe of Israel, who insist that not even reasonable questions about his associations should be raised, are just as wrong. There are good reasons for Democrats to like Obama, but there are also serious worries about him. >Policy, Not Innuendo
Rather than obsessing about the religion of his father, we should be probing his inexperience and foolishly simplistic takes on Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Instead of the non-influence of a long-ago stay in a madrassa, Democrats need to be asking about the presence of confirmed Israel-bashers among his advisers, such as Jimmy Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brezhinski, and Robert Malley, a Clinton-administration staffer who's been a relentless apologist for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians.
>Policy, Not Innuendo
Candidate Obama can answer these questions just as he did the Farrakhan query, with statements that indicate that he, too, understands that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard really are terrorists, and that a precipitous skedaddle from Iraq would leave both the United States and Israel seriously weakened. A President Obama can debunk the accusations by fighting the Islamists, backing Israel against its foes and renouncing unfair pressure on it to make concessions to terrorists.
Concern about racism should motivate us to speak out when Obama or any African-American is treated unfairly. But even though black-Jewish relations remain sensitive, that shouldn't silence questions about a man who may well become president.