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Do we have clean hands?

The Obama slurs and the 'empathy deficit'

by Dan Shallman

January 31, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Last Sunday, to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Barack Obama delivered a courageous sermon at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Notably, after recalling our country's dismal treatment of African-Americans throughout much of our history, Obama challenged his own community to acknowledge the intolerance and anti-Semitism in its midst. In so doing, he has challenged all of us–Jews included–to look deep inside our own hearts and minds to break down the barriers that divide America.

"If we are honest with ourselves," Obama observed, "we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community."

Clearly alluding to the likes of black anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan and Leonard Jeffries, Obama recognized that "the scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community."

"We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down," Obama continued, "we can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate."

Unfortunately, it has become clear in recent weeks that those who traffic in lies, fear, and hate–about Senator Obama–have found a receptive audience among some in the Jewish community.

By now, you have probably seen the e-mails. They bear ominous titles, such as "Who is Barack Obama?" Despite his strong Christian faith, they falsely accuse him of being a secret Muslim who took the oath of office on the Koran. Despite his strongly pro-Israel voting record and policy positions, they accuse him of secretly favoring the Palestinians.

None of this is true, yet the virus spread. Although the allegations had been debunked long ago, these e-mails again began circulating widely in the Jewish community following Obama's victory in Iowa. While there is no way to quantify how many received them, there is no question that all too many simply passed them along to their friends and family with an "FYI" and a click of the "forward" button. So many, in fact, that the heads of several leading Jewish organizations felt compelled to issue a powerful letter condemning the attacks.

Nevertheless, how could such false and hateful slurs gain such purchase within our community in the first place? How could Jews–subject to vicious lies for thousands of years–fall prey to such a smear campaign? If we are honest with ourselves, as Obama was with the African-American community, can we say that our hands are clean of bigotry and intolerance?

I do not pretend to know what is fueling the irrational paranoia about Obama by some in the Jewish community. Regardless, this episode should remind Jews that we too have much work to do. We too must confront ignorance and intolerance within our community. Yes, we marched for civil rights in the 60's. Yes, we have led the fight against the genocide of Muslims in Darfur through Jewish World Watch. Yes, we have saved thousands of Ethiopian Jews from famine and disease and given them hope for a better life in Israel through Operation Promise. And we have done so not to prove that we are color blind or free of religious bias, but because we were once "strangers in the land of Egypt"; because we see ourselves in the struggles of others for equality, justice, and freedom.

But somewhere along the way, in the heat of this campaign, some of us have forgotten that empathy is an essential aspect of being Jewish. In his sermon in Atlanta, Senator Obama argued that there is an "empathy deficit" in America, "an inability to recognize ourselves in one another."

As we engage in the very Jewish tradition of self-analysis, perhaps we should focus on our own empathy deficit.

Dan Shallman is an attorney in private practice in Los Angeles. He is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Public Integrity and Civil Rights Section of the U.S. Attorney's Office. He is Co-Chair of EMET, the Young Legal Division of the Jewish Federation. The views expressed herein are his own.

On Monday, minutes before he was to be enthusiastically endorsed by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Obama made a conference call to some members of the Jewish press to discuss these rumors and to detail his positions on anti-Semitism, the Palestinian 'right of return,' and American support of Israel. Click here for an MP3 audio file of the conference call.

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