The strength of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is his use of sweeping rhetoric that attempts to bring everyone together. Typically, this is best done in general terms, but with little reference to specifics.
When Obama was drawn into a specific discussion of the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, he gave an answer that left me cold.
Here it is in part:
“I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this presidential campaign. And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel’s. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct, and that the United States is in a special relationship with them, as is true with my relationship with the Jewish community.
And the reason that I have such strong support is because they know that not only would I not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form, but also because of the fact that what I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community.”
So, the first part of an answer calling for him to distance himself from Farrakhan amounts, basically, to a “some of my best friends are Jewish” response. And then he devolves into articulating his campaign’s talking point on Israel. Awkwardly, I might add. I mean, what does Obama mean by continuing to repeat “they?” Israel, Israeli Jews, American Jews? I have no idea. Then, since he’s on the topic of Israel, one might think he might make reference to Israel’s security or the threat Israel faces either from terrorism or enemy nations, such as Iran.
But it was bizarre because the primary concern American Jews have about Farrakhan is domestically-based: his record criticizing the Jewish religion and American Jews. Farrakhan’s prominence in the African-American community is relevant to American Jews who live here in this country. Israel is a secondary issue.
Furthermore, despite the praise that Obama is winning on MSNBC and elsewhere for “cleaning up” a potentially unfortunate answer, I found his rejoinder to Clinton’s call that he “reject” Farrakhan’s support disturbing: “I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There’s no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word ‘reject’ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.”
What is this, the Harvard Law Review? To me, the Farrakhan question called for a straight-forward rejection without this lawyerly “concede the point” business.
Despite numerous e-mails from concerned relatives and some hysterical e-mail traffic, I’ve refrained from opining on the questions of Obama and the Jewish community and Obama and Israel. Most of it is way, way out of line. But there’s no question that Obama seems completely out of his comfort zone here, which, coupled with some of his foreign policy advisers, makes me worry about where a President Obama would come down when he is tested in the Middle East. His comments singling out a political party in Israel — again without reference of Israel’s security position– for criticism were also bizarre.