May 1, 2008
Rev. Wright’s outreach to Jews still unsettling for many
In a series of speeches otherwise notable for their defiant tone against his real and perceived enemies, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. sounded some conciliatory notes toward Jews, casting them as fellow strugglers against inequity and for peace.
But an outburst in a Q-and-A session and an analysis of what lies behind his remarks reveals that the Jewish community may still have reason to be less than comfortable with the former pastor to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Wright launched a media blitz this week just as Obama entered the final stretch of his bid to become the Democratic nominee for president. On Tuesday, Obama expressed outrage over Wright's latest comments.
The media has highlighted inflammatory passages from Wright's past sermons in which he suggests that white racism remains pervasive and U.S. foreign policy helped bring about terrorist attacks on U.S. targets. These remarks have dogged Obama's campaign.
The Wright factor may have contributed to his defeat in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, where he lost to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), 55 percent to 45 percent. In the Jewish community, where the pastor issue has come up repeatedly, Clinton beat Obama 62 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls.
The candidate has sought to distance himself from his former pastor, calling Wright's rhetoric "offensive." Campaigning Monday ahead of next week's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, Obama again repudiated the preacher he once said nurtured his Christian identity.
"He does not speak for me, he does not speak for the campaign," Obama said.
In three major appearances over the last few days, Wright confronted what he said were the distortions in a campaign against him created primarily by Republicans but taken up also by Clinton advocates.
The appearances included a PBS interview last weekend with Bill Moyers; a dinner Sunday of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and a speech Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.
The most strident of his speeches came at the press club, where Wright said the "corporate media" had ripped his statements from their context. That context, he said, was the African American church that has remained invisible for too long.
"Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country," he said there.
"This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright," he said later during a Q-and-A session. "It has nothing to do with Sen. Obama. This is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition."
Also in the session, Wright addressed his association with Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam leader in lectures in 1984 said Israel represents a "gutter religion" and that Jews in general had corrupted the word of God through "false religions."
Wright said he disagrees with Farrakhan on some issues but also admires him.
"Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion," he said. "And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for."
The distinction between Zionism and Judaism will not placate many Jews. Nor will suggestions that to criticize comparisons between Israeli policies and apartheid is somehow "vilification."
"How many other African Americans or European Americans do you know that can get 1 million people together on the mall?" Wright said, referring to the 1995 Million Man March that Farrakhan organized. "He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That's what I think about him."
Wright's overall emphasis was on the liberation theology that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s. He often grounded that theology in the Torah texts Christians share with Jews.
"The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive," he said. "Liberating the captives also liberates those who are holding them captive."
Outlining such captor-captive dichotomies the evening before in Detroit, Wright placed both Jews and blacks in the "captive" category, criticizing groups who saw the "different" as "deficient":
"In the past we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient," he said. "Christians saw Jews as being deficient. Catholics saw Protestants as being deficient. Presbyterians saw Pentecostals as being deficient. Folks who like to holler in worship saw folk who like to be quiet as deficient, and vice versa. Whites saw black as being deficient."
As if to underscore such solidarity, he started the NAACP speech with a nod to what he said were his Jewish and Muslim supporters.
"I would also like to thank sister Melanie Maron, the former executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the current executive director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Jewish Committee," he said. "I would like to thank my good friend and Jewish author, Tim Wise, for his support."
Yet such thank-yous could undermine Wright's efforts at conciliation. Wise is a Louisiana writer who has written extensively about white racism and tackled expressions of anti-Semitism on the left. But he also has repudiated Zionism as nationalist chauvinism while failing to address the chauvinism inherent in the Arab and Islamic movements that deny Israel's existence.
In 2000, decrying Jewish pride in the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Wise in Z Magazine described Judaism in the United States "as typified by an 'objects culture' of mezuzahs, dreidls and stars of David on the one hand; a popular culture of food, Jewish comedy and entertainment on the other; and all of it topped off by a 'problems culture' preoccupied with Israel and anti-Semitism: a negative identity based on real and potential victimhood."
Wise's claim that national chauvinism is intrinsic to Zionism jibes with Wright's earlier reported views that equate the Palestinian experience with the experience of others who have been colonized.
However, at the press club, Wright said he did not equate Zionism with apartheid.
PBS interview with Bill Moyers
Wright answers critics at the National Press Club in Washington