With the Republican nomination all but wrapped up, whatever attention Americans still have left for politics turns to the Democratic nomination, where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both still viable contenders. Despite Obama’s recent momentum, it’s far too early to count Clinton out; she has shown herself to be a resourceful and relentless campaigner who isn’t above stooping to some low blows. In fact, she’s made her willingness to use hard-edged tactics something of a campaign theme; her point is that she has traded shots and spin with the best of them and has the grit and determination to prove it, while the relatively untested Obama would be walking blindfolded into the arms of the Republican smear machine should he become the Democratic nominee.
Clinton is right that Obama had something of a free ride for a while, receiving perhaps less press scrutiny than other major candidates, (although Bill Clinton’s whining about it only served to alienate voters) but that is now coming to an abrupt end. Nasty whispering campaigns and e-mails-–often anonymous-–have been in increasing circulation, implying that he is a junkie (based on admissions of past youthful drug use) or a terrorist (based on three years spent in a nominally Muslim school in Indonesia) or, better yet, both.
Given the sad state of our nation’s current political discourse, these sorts of attacks are simply an expected-–if vile-–part of the cost of doing business. But there is one trend that has emerged in recent weeks that is particularly troubling to me as a rabbi–a questioning of Obama’s commitment to the Jewish people and the concomitant insinuation that he is a closet anti-Semite. One particularly vicious posting–this one written by Jewish author and right-wing pundit Naomi Ragen–-points out that the church to which Obama belongs has honored Nation of Islam founder and hatemonger Louis Farrakhan. The posting goes on to cite despicable quotations by Farrakhan, as if juxtaposing enough truly awful things that Farrakhan has said with Obama’s name would somehow suggest that Obama supports them (for the record, he has denounced both Farrakhan and the choice to honor him). Additional charges in the post include that he is willing to talk with Muslim leaders. Oh, and that his father (who ran out on him when Obama was two years old and whom he never met again) is Muslim.
Now this is plain disgusting. Brandishing the label “Muslim” as though it were a dirty word (a politically correct term for ‘terrorist’?) is pure bigotry. And the capricious and cynical throwing out of insinuations of anti-Semitism to try to smear someone’s reputation lessens Jews’ moral authority and makes us less likely to take the real thing (i.e., Farrakhan) seriously when it does present itself. That the originator of these baseless and bigoted charges proudly trumpets her Jewish identity makes it all the more important that we stand against them.
Our tradition teaches that leshon ha-ra (hateful speech) injures three parties: the one who says it, the one who is spoken about, and the one who hears it. These sorts of smears prove the point by demeaning us all.