US Jewish leaders slam anti-Obama emails

ObamaJewish 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 “hateful e-mails that use falsehood and innuendo to mischaracterize Senator Barack Obama ‘s religious beliefs and who he is as a person,” officials from nine national Jewish organizations sent an open letter to the Jewish community Tuesday “reject[ing] these efforts to manipulate members of our community into supporting or opposing candidates.”

The non-partisan, multi-denominational coalition of leaders noted that they were not endorsing any candidate, but felt that “attempts 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.”

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 nation’s largest by population and by Jewish community (New York, California, Illinois) and could well determine who becomes the presidential nominee for both parties.

“Jews have suffered smear campaigns in the past and we should be sensitive and responsive to these kinds of attacks,” 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 candidates’ 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, “Let’s make clear what the facts are: I am a Christian. I have been sworn in with a Bible.” His campaign has also posted a fact sheet stating that, “Barack 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.”

It also explains that Obama’s father, a Kenyan immigrant whom his mother divorced when he was two, was raised as Muslim but was “a confirmed atheist” by the time he came to America, and that his stepfather practiced a “brand of Islam” 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 Obama’s Muslim ties might be false, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t hurt him in a campaign.

“We could be in for a really ugly campaign from the far right,” said someone in the Jewish community involved in the drafting of the letter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I fear it’s going to be a problem for him in the future. It’s no reason for anybody not to vote for him now or in the future, but everyone’s got vulnerabilities.” 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.

“They’re clearly nervous and deservedly so,” he said of the request. “This e-mail chain has made it around a million times.” The fallout isn’t necessarily limited to Obama’s campaign. Some in the Muslim community have been distressed by the way in which the discussion of Obama’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 “allegations that Barack Obama is a Muslim,” continuing, “It’s as if that’s a stain, and nobody wants that stain.”

Diament said the salient issue for the letter was not a question about Obama’s religion, but that he was incorrectly being tied to “jihadists” who want to attack America.

Jerusalem Post, 17 January 2008