Jewish leaders are condemning e-mails attacking Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for secretly being a radical Muslim who attended a Wahhabi madrassa, false allegations that have been circulated on many Jewish and other list-serves.
Referring to â€œhateful e-mails that use falsehood and innuendo to mischaracterize Senator Barack Obamaâ€™s religious beliefs and who he is as a person,â€ officials from nine national Jewish organizations sent an open letter to the Jewish community Tuesday â€œreject[ing] these efforts to manipulate members of our community into supporting or opposing candidates.â€
The non-partisan, multi-denominational coalition of leaders noted that they were not endorsing any candidate, but felt that â€œattempts of this sort to mislead and inflame voters should not be part of our political discourse and should be rebuffed by all who believe in our democracy.â€
Obama, whose middle name is Hussein and who spent some of his childhood in Islamic Indonesia, has faced a whispering campaign about his background since before he even announced his candidacy for president.
But the volume and vitriol of the attacks have intensified following his victory in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, which has propelled him in the polls.
Several Jewish organizational leaders noticed an increase in the number of e-mails they were receiving post-Iowa and in the run-up to February 5, when 22 states will be voting in the Democratic primary. They include some of the nationâ€™s largest by population and by Jewish community (New York, California, Illinois) and could well determine who becomes the presidential nominee for both parties.
â€œJews have suffered smear campaigns in the past and we should be sensitive and responsive to these kinds of attacks,â€ said Nathan Diament, director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Diament was joined by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and several heads of nonsectarian organizations in signing the letter.
Obama himself refuted the Internet accusations, as well as the suggestion that he took the oath of office with a Koran, during a Democratic candidatesâ€™ debate in held Tuesday night in Nevada, which will on Saturday host the next Democratic primary.
In response to a question for an MSNBC moderator alluding to the e-mails in circulation, Obama said, â€œLetâ€™s make clear what the facts are: I am a Christian. I have been sworn in with a Bible.â€ His campaign has also posted a fact sheet stating that, â€œBarack Obama is not and has never been a Muslim. Obama never prayed in a mosque. He has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian who attends the United Church of Christ.â€ It also explains that Obamaâ€™s father, a Kenyan immigrant whom his mother divorced when he was two, was raised as Muslim but was â€œa confirmed atheistâ€ by the time he came to America, and that his stepfather practiced a â€œbrand of Islamâ€ that also accommodated beliefs such as animism and Hinduism.
While he occasionally visited an Islamic center as a child in Indonesia, the suggestion that he was educated at a Wahhabist madrassa has been utterly discredited.
Though the Internet chatter about Obamaâ€™s Muslim ties might be false, that doesnâ€™t mean it couldnâ€™t hurt him in a campaign.
â€œWe could be in for a really ugly campaign from the far right,â€ said someone in the Jewish community involved in the drafting of the letter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. â€œI fear itâ€™s going to be a problem for him in the future. Itâ€™s no reason for anybody not to vote for him now or in the future, but everyoneâ€™s got vulnerabilities.â€ He said that the Obama campaign asked for the letter to be drafted, an assertion confirmed by other Jewish leaders but not immediately by the campaign itself.
â€œTheyâ€™re clearly nervous and deservedly so,â€ he said of the request. â€œThis e-mail chain has made it around a million times.â€ The fallout isnâ€™t necessarily limited to Obamaâ€™s campaign. Some in the Muslim community have been distressed by the way in which the discussion of Obamaâ€™s background has been handled.
Safiya Ghori, the government relations director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said the debate has been framed as refuting â€œallegations that Barack Obama is a Muslim,â€ continuing, â€œItâ€™s as if thatâ€™s a stain, and nobody wants that stain.â€
Diament said the salient issue for the letter was not a question about Obamaâ€™s religion, but that he was incorrectly being tied to â€œjihadistsâ€ who want to attack America.
Tensions over identity politics have already been running high this past week as the Clinton and Obama camps have sparred over race and the respect accorded to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen added to the mix when he criticized Obamaâ€™s unwillingness to speak out against a magazine linked to Obamaâ€™s church which had praised the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
On Tuesday, Obama said in a statement, â€œI decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. The magazine, Trumpet Magazine, is published and edited by the daughters of its founder, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Chicagoâ€™s Trinity United Church of Christ, to which Obama belongs.
The magazine, which advocates an â€œAfrican diasporaâ€ identity, gave Farrakhan the 2007 â€œRev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award.â€ In the statement from the Obama campaign, the senator said, â€œI assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree.â€
Cohen, whose op-ed appeared Tuesday morning, noted, â€œitâ€™s important to state right off that nothing in Obamaâ€™s record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan.â€ Nevertheless, Cohen called on the senator to publicly state his position.
Obamaâ€™s statement was greeted with praise from the ADL, which â€œwelcomed Barack Obamaâ€™s statement strongly condemning the anti-Semitism of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.â€ As the ADL noted, â€œfor nearly 30 years as the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan has repeatedly made hateful statements targeting Jews, whites and homosexuals. Farrakhanâ€™s bigoted and anti-Semitic rhetoric has included statements calling whites â€œblue eyed devilsâ€ and Jews â€œbloodsuckersâ€ who controlled the slave trade, the government, the media and various black individuals and organizations.â€
Obama has previously noted his differences with Wright, particularly his views on Israel.
The letter from the Jewish leaders was signed by Diament and Saperstein as well as by top officials from the United Jewish Communities, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.