Chicago Sun-Times
The scoop from Washington

Sweet column: Before Jewish group, Obama distances himself from Brzezinski; says Farrakhan fan Rev. Wright like an "old uncle."


WASHINGTON -- The Sunday meeting with Cleveland area Jewish leaders was not on the schedule Sen. Barack Obama's campaign gave reporters, but the stop in Mayfield Heights, hosted by Ron Ratner, a major fund-raiser for Obama, was one of the most important of the day. More than a year into his run for president, Obama is still explaining his record, relationships and religion to Jewish voters.

Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have been competing for Jewish support and stressing their pro-Israel credentials.

A Clinton campaign Jewish community organizing guide includes the plea, "Make sure you are registered to vote -- and bring your bubbe," using the Yiddish word for grandmother.

Obama is taking criticism from the left and the right as he is facing crucial votes in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with significant Jewish populations.

On Sunday, Ralph Nader, announcing another run for president on NBC's "Meet the Press," was critical of Obama's strong support for Israel, saying Obama "was pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois before he ran for the state Senate." (Asked to react, the Obama campaign said, "Barack Obama's long-standing support for Israel's security is rooted in his belief that no civilians should have to live with the threat of terrorism." ) The new issue of Newsweek features a story using a familiar expression for a headline, "Good for the Jews? Hillary Clinton's surrogates are questioning Obama's commitment to U.S.-Israeli relations."

The Obama campaign Sunday afternoon revealed that the Ohio meeting took place, attended by about 100 Jewish community activists, including some rabbis, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Eric Lynn, the Obama campaign's Jewish liaison, and Obama. The campaign provided a transcript that included answers and not questions. The campaign said it was releasing the transcript because "it addresses a number of the commonly asked questions about his faith, the Muslim e-mails and his position on Israel."

Obama told the group he has "an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel."

Starting most overtly in South Carolina -- where Obama was the subject of e-mail attacks saying he was a Muslim -- Obama has been explaining to audiences he is a Christian despite his middle name, Hussein. On Sunday, Obama told the Jewish group his Kenyan grandfather was a Muslim and he has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years. "This is an improvement because you don't think I am Muslim," Obama said.

However, the pastor of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has created problems for Obama in Jewish circles. A magazine connected to Wright honored Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and last month Obama said he condemned "the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan" and disagreed with a decision to honor him.

Wright, Obama said Sunday, "is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with. And I suspect there are some of the people in this room who have heard relatives say some things that they don't agree with, including, on occasion, directed at African Americans. ... I am not suggesting that's definitive."

Obama also distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser in the Jimmy Carter administration who traveled to Iowa with Obama when he made an Iraq speech.

"I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally," Obama said. "He's not one of my key advisers. I've had lunch with him once. I've exchanged e-mails with him maybe three times. He came to Iowa to introduce ... for a speech on Iraq."

The Republican Jewish Coalition has been critical of Obama's plan, if elected president, to call "a summit in the Muslim world." Executive Director Matt Brooks said he was "deeply troubled" by the proposal.


To the Editor,
I am deeply troubled about what Barak Obama said to the Jewish community of Cleveland yesterday as was reported this morning in the Chicago SunTimes:,CST-NWS-sweet25.article

1. Obama is a public figure and he should cut ties with any organization, church or other entity that has even the remotest connection to anti-Semitism, racial segregation or anything connected with taking rights away from people. Is it permissible to join a country club that excludes African Americans or Jews and say, "well I don't agree with it...but they have a great golf course"?

2. When asked about Reverend Wright, the pastor of his church to which he has belonged for 20 years and who Obama has said provides him with inspiration, he said that he doesn't always agree with what the Reverend says and justified it to the Jewish audience by saying....well, don't you have family and friends who sometimes say racist things??? Well I personally can answer that question with a resounding NO and would hope that most of the people in that audience can also. If someone I knew made a racist remark I would try to get them help and counseling, but I would have to say that I would not be able to continue to call that person a friend. I am very proud of the fact that I can unequivocally say that none of my family, friends, or colleagues would ever fathom to be involved in any organization associated with anything remotely racist.

3. My family has always belonged to a synagogue and I understand the deep relationship and bond that is formed with your spiritual advisor. I am very proud of the fact that any Rabbi that I have called my spiritual advisor or sought counsel from has always treated everyone equally and would never promote anything that had any association with racism. Quite frankly it is hard for me to understand how one can seek spiritual counsel from someone like Reverend Wright and not share in his or her beliefs. In my mind justifying membership in a church that is exclusive and espouses hateful views, and having such a deep personal relationship with a minister who is anti Semetic shows a lack of character and moral fiber.

Thank you,

Ellen Rosen

As an observant Jew and supporter of Israel, I have no problems whatsoever with Barack Obama. Obama plainly thinks for himself and his not the pawn of his minister Rev. Wright. I must strongly disagree with commenter Ellen Rosen who thinks that one cannot seek spiritual counsel from someone unless that person accepts all the political and social beliefs of his or her rabbi or minister.

Finally, it is absolutely critical to distinguish between a person who is an anti-Semite and a person who is willing to associate in some way with an anti-Semite like Farrakhan. I've seen zero evidence -- none -- that Reverend Wright is an anti-Semite or hostile in any way to Jews. Obama has no associate with Farrakhan at all. So there is basis for smearing Obama as in any way an anti-Semite.

This is more of a response to Ellen Rosen,

If you can say that no one in your family has or will ever make a racist remark...your fooling yourself.

If Obama is what he says he would be consistant with his character to associate with everyone and think for himself. That kind of person leads people to change. Of course someone like Hillary would just distance herself...that's all she would be capable of doing. I think Barak Obama believes he can influence people.


Dear All,

To ensure that I am not simply being taken in by the substantial Obama charisma, I have made numerous phone calls to Rabbis, journalists, and other members of the Jewish community in Chicago. I have heard only positive and supportive comments about Senator Obama. This afternoon I spoke with State Senator Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew, who has been a good friend of Barack's for 6 years. They shared a suite when Barack was in the Illinois State Senate and Senator Obama has been a Shabbos guest in his home. Senator Silverstein put together - and Barack Obama co-sponsored - Illinois Senate Resolution SR0346, entitled "Yassar Arafat-Terror Attacks" which "Urges Palestinian Authority Chairman, Yassar Arafat, to end the encouragement, support, and praise of terror attacks against Israeli civilians that emanate from areas under his direct jurisdiction." Senator Silverstein says, "Barack is a mentsch. What you see is what you get. He is not a polished guy trying to pretend to be pro-Israel for political reasons. He really means what he is saying."

The bottom line is, I am now convinced that Barack's very supportive attitude towards Israel is not something he has adopted as a Presidential candidate but is his long held and fundamental position.


Contrary to his claims, Barack Obama's words cannot be trusted. Exelon, NAFTA, Iraq, ad nauseam. He has been running for the presidency since his days in the Illinois State Senate. Ergo, his failure to produce even one piece of significant legislation as a US Senator.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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