Long accustomed to rallying to Michael Jackson's defense, Israeli fans of the American pop king were adamant on Thursday that he was innocent of anti-Semitism.
Responding to the audio tapes broadcast Wednesday on ABC's Good Morning America, in which Jackson was heard using anti-Semitic language in a voice message to one of his former advisers, several active members of Jackson's Israeli fan club told The Jerusalem Post that they did not believe the tapes reflected the true nature of Jackson's beliefs. Long-time Jackson friend Uri Geller was more ambivalent, however.
The spokesperson for Israel's Michael Jackson fan club, 23-year-old Sharona Gordon, traveled as far as California during Jackson's child molestation trial there earlier this year to show her support for him.
"I listened to the tapes broadcast on ABC," Gordon said. "What I heard was a bunch of tapes put together - they make a good scoop for the media, but they don't reflect the Michael I met." Gordon, who has met Jackson on more than one occasion, including during a visit to his Neverland ranch with other fans, said that Jackson showed a love for Israelis.
"We gave him an Israeli flag, and he waved it three times when we came to support him during his trial," she said. "He also loved the Star of David I brought him, and he has always maintained that he loved Israel."
Asked how she would respond if the allegations against Jackson proved to be true, Gordon said she could not imagine such an option. "He is constantly talking about a connection between all peoples," she said. "All his songs are about this, and he has never cared about people's religion or beliefs - he always treats people simply as people."
The tapes released by ABC are part of a lawsuit filed against Jackson by two of his former advisers, Dieter Wiesner and Marc Schaffel. Wiesner is suing Jackson for $64 million, while Schaffel is suing him for $3m. in a separate lawsuit.
Gordon said that, in contrast to the trip she took to support Jackson when he faced criminal charges, she would not undertake a similar journey in this case.
"This is a civil lawsuit, and there are so many lawsuits like this directed at him - we can't travel to every one," she said.
Both Gordon and other Israeli fans of Jackson's interviewed by the Post argued that the lawsuits being brought against him for his taped remarks were proof that the tapes had been taken out of context to serve as an excuse for extracting money from the pop star.
"I never stopped believing he was a good person," said Hila Hanan. "Today, my interest in him is no longer because of his music, but because of his desire to help people."
"It doesn't make sense - he is surrounded by Jewish lawyers and friends," she added.
Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe, the mother of two of Jackson's children, Prince and Paris, revealed last year that she - and consequently their children - was Jewish. According to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who once served as Jackson's spiritual confidant, Rowe released this information because she was concerned with Jackson's turn to the Nation of Islam.
In an interview with the Post, Boteach recounted that he had taken Jackson to visit then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon back when Sharon was "a pariah" in early 2001, and that Jackson expressed "support for Israel when no one else would."
"I remember a lot of the Arabs called for his CDs to be banned after that happened," Boteach said, adding, "Michael told me when he would pray at the Wailing Wall he found it one of the most spiritual experiences of his life."
Now, he said, he was disappointed. "He always told me how America has a lot of racism, how he hates racism of any kind... And now it turns out, or so it seems, that this was a sham."
Boteach said he was "aghast" at the comments, and that he found them "disgusting and vulgar." In a statement issued to the press, he wrote, "I watched in sadness the tragic and catastrophic decline of Michael Jackson since disowning him more than four years ago. But even I never believed that he would fall so low and become a racist, bigoted anti-Semite. I pray that Michael finally seeks out the serious spiritual and psychological help he needs to rediscover the inspiration he once brought millions."
Hanan said that while she would feel resentment towards Jackson if the allegations turned out to be true, even then "it would not annul his contribution to humanity." Hanan also expressed a sentiment shared by other local fans - that the lawsuits filed by Schaffel and Wiesner were not the appropriate way to respond to the allegedly anti-Semitic remarks made by Jackson.
"Even if I thought he was anti-Semitic, I wouldn't sue him for money," Hanan said. "I don't think it's the appropriate way to approach this issue. It only reinforces the idea that that claim is a way of making money and gaining media attention, and plays into the anti-Semitic notion that Jews are money-grubbers."
Illusionist and long-time friend of Jackson's Uri Geller told the Post that he had not heard the tapes. "It's very difficult to authenticate tapes that were played on television," Geller said, saying he had no definite idea whether it was actually Jackson speaking on them. "It's hard for me to imagine him saying that."
"I'm trying to track Michael down somewhere in Bahrain to speak to him and find out what he has to say," Geller added. Jackson has resided in the Persian Gulf emirate since he was acquitted on molestation charges last June.
"He was my best man [at my wedding]," Geller told the Post. "He wore a kippa under my huppa, and he never showed any sort of hatred of Jews in my presence."
Geller said he even remembered being in a London cab with Jackson on one occasion in the company of American magician David Blaine. "I told them the story of how Moses turned the stick into a snake, and I remember Michael said 'Well, the Jews are the chosen ones.'" Geller said Jackson repeated the same statement on another occasion, when introduced by Geller to Ariel Sharon.
Nevertheless, Geller said that "If it is real, and if he did really say these things, then I'm appalled, shocked and saddened. If indeed he said that, he will stop being my friend," he added. "I will eradicate him, and will have nothing to do with him. I will cancel the word Michael in my lexicon."
Geller made reference to the lyrics Jackson used in a 1995 song called "They Don't Care About Us," which contained the line "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me. Kick me, kike me." According to Geller, Jackson - who later excised the lines from the song - also apologized to Geller and said he was trying to give an example of what racism is. "The reason why I think it might be true," Geller said, "is that many times I have heard Michael say silly things, irrational things, I even have some crazy messages on my answering machines, but nothing anti-Semitic."
Reacting to the tapes, on which Jackson allegedly referred to Jews as "leeches," the Anti-Defamation League said on Wednesday that the pop music icon "has an anti-Semitic streak" and hasn't learned from his past mistakes.
"It seems every time he has a problem in his life, he blames it on Jews. It is sad that Jackson is infected with classically stereotypical ideas of Jews as all-powerful, money-grubbing and manipulative," said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL's national director.
"It is important now for Mr. Jackson to stand up and acknowledge that his words are hurtful and hateful," Foxman said. "He needs to show his fans that he rejects bigotry and is truly serious about stamping out, in his words, 'the ugliness of racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping.' This can only begin with an apology to Jews everywhere, especially those fans who have been deeply hurt and offended by his words."
Jason Silberman and Daniel Sterman contributed to this report.