Obama spurns Pastor's 'distorted' views but won't disown him

Senator tries to stamp out controversy over comments about Israel and allay Jewish concerns.

Wright 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Wright 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama condemned former pastor Jeremiah Wright Tuesday for "profoundly distorted" views that include blaming Israel for the conflict in the Middle East, but did not repudiate his relationship with him. In a speech on race in Philadelphia, the site of the next party primary on April 22, Obama tried to stamp out the controversy swirling over tapes of Wright making statements such as "God damn America" and accusing Israel of "state terrorism against the Palestinians." The comments broke into the national political debate following an ABC News story last week, but much of his fiery rhetoric on Israel has long concerned segments of the Jewish community. Obama noted he had unequivocally condemned such comments in the past. "They expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country," Obama said Tuesday, "a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." He went on to say that these and other comments made by Wright, his long-time spiritual leader, "were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems." But later he said in his speech - already being termed historic for elsewhere presenting a frank take on the subject of America's racial divides - that he could "no more disown him than I can disown the black community," or his white grandmother who occasionally used anti-black slurs. That didn't sit well with some Jewish leaders, including Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. "You can't choose your relatives, but you can choose your pastor," Foxman said. While Foxman appreciated the specific reference to Israel, he described himself as "disappointed" with Obama's remarks, which also explored the origins of Wright's frustrations with America and anger at ongoing racism. "There was an effort to explain and rationalize bigotry," Foxman said. "Pain does not justify bigotry." "I don't think he justified it," countered long-time Democratic and Jewish community activist Steve Rabinowitz. "There's a difference between explaining and justifying." Rabinowitz, who supports Hillary Clinton, added, "He said everything he needed to say." On Monday, Clinton also came under attack for her ties to her religious denomination, the Methodist Church, at an event held in Washington for young Jewish leaders in the United Jewish Communities system. At a forum with campaign surrogates for the presidential candidates, Clinton advisor Ann Lewis was asked about the Methodist Church's efforts to divest from Israel. "She disapproves of divestment, and she says that whenever she's asked," Lewis said. The Clinton campaign was unable to produce any examples of the candidate herself speaking on the subject when asked Tuesday. Rabinowitz rejected the assertion by some that there has been a double standard in the Jewish community that hasn't subjected Clinton to as strict a scrutiny as Obama in terms of her associations. "It's a legitimate question about divestment. I think she's made clear where she is," he said. "But it doesn't begin to compare to Jeremiah Wright's comments." Former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, a backer of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, was also queried at Monday's forum about the endorsement the latter has received from former secretary of state Jim Baker and his ties to the religious Right. Eagleburger noted that McCain was "less than enthusiastically received" by the hard Right, which he referred to as "a serious problem in the Republican Party." Baker is a figure viewed uneasily by many in the Jewish community who recall him as someone who wasn't a warm friend of Israel and allegedly made disparaging comments about Jews. Eagleburger referred to Baker's role in ending Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and argued that this was of huge benefit to Israel and more significant than his part in holding up loan guarantees to the country because of settlement construction. Eagleburger, who was feted by the Jewish Agency at the Israeli Embassy later that day for his help in using Holocaust funds for Jewish camps in the former Soviet Union, added that if Baker's endorsement "is enough to turn you off [and make you] vote for one of these other candidates, I can't do anything about it."