By RON KAMPEAS
NEW YORK CITY (JTA) – A photo of then-Sen. Barack Obama at a meeting in 2005 with Louis Farrakhan, the virulently anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, is roiling portions of the Jewish community.
Repercussions From Photo
The Anti-Defamation League wants Obama to again denounce Farrakhan. Attorney and pro-Israel activist Alan Dershowitz says he would not have campaigned for Obama had he known about the photo.
Ari Fleischer, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the one-time spokesman for President George W. Bush, wants to know who invited Farrakhan to the meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Fleischer, now a Fox News personality, has been relentless on Twitter. Here’s an example from Jan. 29:
“Since the press hasn’t covered the fact that members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2005 met with anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, I’ll make coverage easier. Here are 21 members of Congress today who belonged to the CBC in 2005. Why not ask them if meeting with anti-Semites is ok?”
Outrage about Farrakhan comes and goes, but when it does flare up, it plays out in familiar ways: Jews are revolted by those who would legitimize a demagogue who would refer to Judaism as a “gutter religion”; African-Americans resent being told with whom they can associate.
I called Askia Muhammad, the journalist who took the photo who has said that he suppressed it at the request of a CBC staffer he has not identified. He named the CBC members he recalls as being at the event, none of whom is still in Congress. Aside from Obama, they are Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga. More on them shortly.
I asked Muhammad, now the news director at a Washington, D.C.-area radio station, about the circumstances of Farrakhan’s presence. He said the CBC has a routine Wednesday afternoon meeting at its Capitol Hill headquarters and that its existence is public knowledge. The first few minutes are a free-for-all, with anyone allowed in to schmooze. Muhammad, a longtime newsman for African-American outlets (including at one time the Nation of Islam’s Final Call), said he liked hanging out at the meeting because it was a rare opportunity for unmediated access to the lawmakers.
“It’s a place where it’s unfiltered,” he said. “They don’t have the staff. If you’re in the office, they have a lot of filters and staff people.”
Why Was Farrakhan There?
Following the open house, Muhammad told me, the doors would shut and the meeting would go private. It’s his sense—he can’t recall for sure—that Farrakhan and his retinue remained for the closed-door meeting. That would have made Farrakhan an official guest and not just a drop-by.
It’s also Muhammad’s impression—again, he can’t quite be sure—that if the Chicago-based Farrakhan was in town, it was to plan 10th-anniversary commemorations of his 1995 Million Man March. (The Rev. Willie Wilson, who helped produce the 1995 program and served as chairman of its anniversary celebrations, is in the photo along with Farrakhan’s retinue, suggesting that the meeting was about commemorating the march.)
I asked the Congressional Black Caucus about the circumstances of the 2005 visit. Here’s what a CBC official told me:
“The current caucus chair [Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La.] and his four CBC staff members weren’t around at the time, so we are unable to confirm whether the suppression aspect of the story is true and what the circumstances were regarding Mr. Farrakhan’s attendance. Please note that there is a difference between a member of the CBC and the CBC. For example, if a member of the CBC other than the chair of the caucus at the time asked for the photo to be suppressed, that is a request that should be attributed to that member, not the caucus at-large.”
The official continued:
“Typically guests at the CBC meeting are cleared by the caucus chair and scheduled for a specific date and time. However, sometimes there are unexpected guests. For example, if a member of the caucus has a meeting with someone on the day of the lunch that he or she wants the caucus to meet (e.g. the head of the local NAACP chapter in their district, an actor or actress who is on Capitol Hill advocating for a cause), that member may choose to bring that person to the meeting unscheduled for a quick introduction.”
I contacted the office of Mel Watt, who in 2005 was the CBC chairman and a Democratic House member from North Carolina, and is now the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. He declined to comment.
Obama’s Previous Repudiation
I’ve got calls into Obama, Rangel, the Nation of Islam and Wilson asking how Farrakhan came to be invited to the meeting. (Regarding Obama’s views on Farrakhan himself, a spokesman for Obama pointed out to Talking Points Memo that the former president has on multiple occasions condemned Farrakhan for his anti-Semitism.)
So that leaves two questions: Was Farrakhan formally invited to the CBC, and what does it say about black politicians and the Jewish community?
The likelihood is that he was invited: He was with a substantial retinue and the logistics of schlepping all those folks around Capitol Hill just to say hello for the informal first minutes of a weekly CBC get-together seems unlikely. It also seems likely, given the timing of the meeting and the presence of Wilson, that Farrakhan was invited to discuss marking the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March. Who invited Farrakhan? Was it the CBC as a group? Was it Rangel, McKinney, Obama or another unidentified member acting on his or her own? We don’t know.
It’s also unclear if the photo proves that Obama’s relationship with Farrakhan was cozier than previously acknowledged. Farrakhan may have gravitated to the emerging political star to say hello, Muhammad was in the right place and time, a snapshot ensues.
McKinney, one of Congress’s most strident Israel critics, had a long and contentious relationship with the organized Jewish community.
Rangel, during his long (1971-2017) service as a House member from Harlem, was a go-to congressman for Jews from his city. One of his last acts as a House member, when he was 85, was to fly to Israel in 2016 for the funeral of Shimon Peres. He headlined a 60th anniversary bash for Israel at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and joined an effort to keep anti-Israel activists out of the United States. And when the CBC, furious at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 for sticking it to Obama with a speech in Congress denouncing Obama’s Iran policy, urged a boycott of the speech, Rangel boycotted the boycott and attended. (Dershowitz says it was his call to Rangel that got him to attend, although I’ve heard there was more than a single factor.)
At the same time, Rangel also has a longstanding relationship with Farrakhan, stemming from 1972 when they brokered an end to a deadly standoff between police and Muslims at a New York mosque. And he really resents it when Jews call him out on the relationship.
This is what Rangel told The New York Times in 1985, when Farrakhan was going to speak at Madison Square Garden:
“It’s easy to come down heavy on Farrakhan, but I just hope that this is not coming to the point where, if blacks in South Africa have to carry a passbook to go from place to place, that black Americans have to carry their last statement refuting Farrakhan,” he said. “I would not, if someone said Jesus Christ is a phony, go around asking Jews to sign a statement to condemn him. There is a lot of concern among a lot of blacks that they don’t want to be told what to do, notwithstanding the fact that they probably would have done it anyway.”
Commend Or Condemn?
Nonetheless, in the same interview, Rangel condemned Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism as “garbage.”
Reading JTA’s coverage of the 1995 Million Man March, you can see how broadly that resentment informs the black-Jewish relationship. Blacks who endorsed and joined the march, including Obama, attempted to make clear that they were endorsing Farrakhan’s call for self-empowerment and clean living among young black males, and not his anti-Semitism. Jewish leaders said Farrakhan was too deeply stained with Jew-hatred for that rationale to fly. (No less a figure in uniting Jews and blacks than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, agonized over whether to commend Farrakhan for saving young black lives or condemn him for his hatreds.)
Muhammad, when I spoke with him on Wednesday, Jan. 31,said what many others before him have said: Farrakhan had said “stinging” things about Jews that are “hard to countenance.” But he also wondered why Jews continue to insist on demanding his repudiation.
Would it be all right, he asked me, for a black man to ask, “Why isn’t Jewish Voice for Peace the spokesperson for all the Jewish people? Why isn’t Medea Benjamin the spokesman for all the Jewish people? Why isn’t Norman Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors?”
JVP supports the boycott Israel movement; Benjamin heads the anti-Israel group Code Pink; Finkelstein has accused the Jews of exploiting the Holocaust to defend Israel.
“How absurd is it that I designate the spokesman for all the Jewish people?” Muhammad said.
But Jewish leaders like Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, remain adamant.
“Over his career, @barackobama has denounced the bigotry of Farrakhan. Time to do so again,” he tweeted. “Leaders always should make sure that there’s no doubt: America is no place for those who advocate #antisemitism or hate.”
Does the Obama-Farrakhan photo matter? Does anything?
By ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL
NEW YORK CITY (JTA) – “Nothing matters.” You hear that a lot these days.
You hear it when The Wall Street Journal reports that the president’s personal lawyer paid a porn actress $130,000, at the height of the presidential campaign, so she would stay silent about an alleged affair she’d had with Donald Trump. Or when the president uses a vulgarity to refer to African countries. Or when the president is credibly reported to have demanded the firing of the man investigating obstruction of justice claims concerning the president’s firing of another man investigating obstruction of justice claims.
That was the premise of a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Jessica Chastain hosted a putative game show called “What Even Matters Anymore?” When a contestant suggests that Trump’s Africa comment must matter, an exasperated Chastain responds: “Actually, it does not matter. Zero consequences and everyone moves on.”
I bring this up not to vilify Trump, but to remember with wistfulness a faraway time— 2005 —when things still mattered. When a United States senator from Illinois could be photographed with a wildly anti-Semitic black nationalist, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus would suppress the photo so as not to sink his presidential chances.
Worth A Thousand Words?
That photograph, of Barack Obama and Louis Farrakhan, surfaced recently when the photographer who took the shot released it to Politico. Many agree that had the photo seen the light of day before the 2008 election, there would have been no President Obama. It may have cemented later accusations that he had consorted with radicals, including his own pastor, who was a Farrakhan apologist and a racist in his own right. Although Obama the candidate was eloquent in distancing himself both from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Farrakhan, a picture is worth, as the saying goes, thousands of beautifully crafted words.
Of course, there is plenty we don’t know about the circumstances of the photo. Although reportedly taken at a Congressional Black Caucus event in Chicago, we don’t know who else attended, and whether the room was filled with other clergy and African-American power brokers, or if it was some sort of tete-a-tete. Is Obama smiling with Farrakhan, or was he caught on camera smiling near Farrakhan?
If you are inclined to exculpate Obama, you might ask what the Congressional Black Caucus was doing hosting Farrakhan at all. The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham notes that “it’s a sign of Farrakhan’s oddly lasting hold on popular influence that he was even invited to clink drinks with the members” of the caucus. Like Wright, the obscenely flawed Farrakhan represented a constituency that politicians felt could not be ignored.
Or you might be inclined to reject the photo as mere guilt by association. There is a style of gotcha journalism and opposition research that turns dumb gestures or sloppy planning into political felonies. Recently, Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Penn., took heat when it was learned that in 2006, he gave an interview to a publication that peddles in Holocaust denial, and that a year later he headlined a rally that also heard from a musician with his own interesting theories about the Shoah. Barletta was a small-town mayor at the time, and last week he blamed his staff for bad vetting. I’d want to know a lot more before dismissing Barletta as soft on Holocaust denial.
Whether events like these do, or should, sink a politician’s career depends on a number of things. Fairly or unfairly, bad things stick to politicians if they somehow reflect something that the public has suspected all along. When Mitt Romney griped about a parasitic “47 percent,” it matched his image as an out-of-touch one-percenter. When John Kerry flip-flopped on his support for the use of force in Iraq, it sealed an impression, pushed by his opponent, that he would say anything to win. And when George H.W. Bush checked his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton, it provided an unfortunate—and unfair—contrast between the sturdy if unexciting Washington insider and the energetic if sometimes undisciplined challenger.
The Trump Brand?
Trump, it has been noted time and again, has obliterated the whole idea of the political gaffe. Starting with his “Mexican rapists” campaign launch, gaffes have become his brand. He’s shown that if you flood the zone with enough gaffes, distractions and downright lies, they all but cancel each other out. Twitter users love to use the “Can you imagine if” construction to point how any one of the daily outrages associated with Trump would have sunk a normal politician. Can you imagine if it were a Democratic president attacking the FBI? Can you imagine if Hillary had won the election and there were unmistakable signs that the Russians had gamed Facebook in her favor? (It works the other way, too: Can you imagine, ask Trump’s defenders, if Hillary had protected a campaign adviser accused of sexual harassment—oh wait, that actually happened.)
Overreact Or Ignore?
Had the Farrakhan photo come out before the election, it just might have ended Obama’s presidential ambitions, and there’s a strong case to be made that it should have: Even if he shared none of Farrakhan’s ideas, Obama would have lent the Nation of Islam leader—and by extension his penchant for anti-Semitic scapegoating—a senatorial hechsher. It may have confirmed an impression of Obama as opportunistic, transactional and—perhaps worst of all—hypocritical.
Yet had one photo done him in, America may have been denied a gifted leader who was able to embody, on the largest possible stage, a daily rebuke to Farrakhan’s hateful, racially polarized version of minority empowerment.
There has to be a way of thinking about our leaders that falls somewhere between overreacting to an inexpedient gaffe and ignoring a pattern of disqualifying behavior—the middle of a scale between, let’s say, Howard Dean’s Scream and James Traficant’s Entire Career (look it up). One can only hope that Trump hasn’t inured us to outrage, or lowered the bar to a degree that a politician’s bad, boorish or unethical behavior just doesn’t matter.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of JTA.