Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama's Speech on Race and Racism

Several months ago, when I knew very little about Barack Obama I became friends with one of his major fundraisers, a Jewish lawyer living in DC, who has known Obama since their days together at Harvard law school. After a Shabbat lunch, in which I surprised my host with my opinions on Israel, he said, "Jerry, you are not a Clinton supporter; you are a Obama supporter." So I became an Obama supporter.

Shortly after that, I wrote a post called "Why I Still Support Obama." The fact that Obama was making a lot of so-called "pro-Israel" supporters nervous was sufficient reason for me to support him. Then the slurs and the rumours came, and I decided to contribute to the campaign.

Last night, in my Jerusalem apartment, I read Obama's speech on race in America, and I was blown away. I have not heard any presidential candidate, or an president, for that matter, give a speech like that in decades. I certainly have not heard any speech of that intellectual calibre by an Israeli politician.

It took political courage for Obama not to reject his pastor. Nor should he have. Sure, Pastor Wright has said some outrageous things for many Americans, but at the same time, he has done tremendous things for his community and in his personal dealings, and, according to Obama, has never discriminated between white and black. He was a mentor for Obama, and Obama was able -- as we all should be -- to filter out the stuff that he did not agree with and indeed condemned. If I didn't have that ability, I would have ceased going to Young Israel synagogues a long time ago.

Morality and people are complex. That is something I have learned repeatedly over the years. As an orthodox Jew I associate with some people who, on the one hand, adhere to a mafia-morality that is deeply offensive to me, but on the other hand, live exemplary personal lives.

Such is my former neighbor from the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, a close friend of our family, who was a big supporter of Meir Kahane. He and I used to have shouting matches in which he would say some pretty awful things of "The-only-good-Arab-is-a-dead-Arab" variety (I won't repeat what I said.)

One day, I ran into him as he was leaving an grocery store owned by an Arab. There was a bigger grocery store owned by a Jew that was closer to our homes. I turned to my neighbor and said, "Hey, I thought you were the guy who wanted to drive out all the why aren't you buying from Reuven's store?" He looked at me and said,

Reuven? He's a gonif. Imad? He's a mentsch.

I am not forgiving my neighbor his racism. And I don't want to excuse my own moral failings. But people are complicated -- and we are all have to learn from the other's strengths and weaknesses without compromising our values.

Still, having written the above, I think that if a person does not just say outrageous things occasionally, but makes them his/her trademark, I would learn to stay away from the guy, no matter what his/her other virtues are. That wasn't true of my neighbor, and that wasn't true of Pastor Wright. It was true of Louis Farrakhan (though notice how he toned down the rhetoric in the last few years) and it is becoming increasingly true of folks like Alan Dershowitz, who cannot open their mouths without saying something morally outrageous (Cf. his reaction to the Spitzer case here. If there ever was a mafia-moralist,that would be Dershowitz, who feels called upon to defend his former research assistant.) There comes a time when one's supply of charity is exhausted.

But even then, one can hope for their teshuvah.


Anonymous said...

America turns people like Lincoln, Kennedy, King and Obama into martyrs and then saints. Let us pray that it does not happen to Obama.

His speech puts him in the American pantheon whether or not he ends up holding a position also held by such glorious characters as George W. Bush, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon who are candidates for the demonium (John Milton's idea not mine) not the pantheon.

Richard said...

Dershowitz do teshuvah? He'd need a personality transplant and a very big makeover before that would happen. Maybe sometime before the Moshiach comes...