Obama, his controversial pastor and the Jewish community

In a bid this week to quell anxiety about his relationship with the firebrand pastor of his church, Barack Obama also tried to settle unease in the Jewish community.

Obama rejected Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s views on America — including its relationship with Israel — during a March 18 speech in Philadelphia, days after the media began airing video clips of Wright’s harsh condemnations of American policy.

Wright is Obama’s pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, an Afrocentric church on Chicago’s South Side.

In his speech, Obama said Wright’s views on Israel are “distorted.” He also criticized the “hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

But he added that the pastor’s views must be understood in the context of the racism blacks have suffered.

“The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor,” he said.

Though some Jewish organizations accepted Obama’s speech, the continuing revelations about Wright’s comments have triggered a new wave of criticism from Jewish Republicans and conservatives eager to tie the Democratic candidate to his pastor.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the specific reference to Wright’s anti-Israel views was reassuring.

Even while praising some parts of the speech, Foxman echoed concerns over Obama’s insistence on contextualizing Wright.

“I think there is a great deal of sincerity and eloquence in trying to communicate the scars of racism in our country,” Foxman said. “For us, the ADL, we’re disappointed and troubled and distressed by an effort to excuse and rationalize. Pain does not justify bigotry and anti-Semitism.”

In a post to its Washington blog, the Orthodox Union directed readers to Obama’s rebuttal of Wright on the Israel point, while adding that the speech was “much broader” than just a rejection of the pastor’s remarks and “worth reading in full.”

Among those criticizing Obama was former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who addressed the topic during a convention March 16 organized by the United Jewish Communities.

“The statements that your clergy make when you join give a little bit of an indication of your own sense of right and wrong, and you cannot just divorce from that,” Fleischer said, speaking to more than 1,000 donors younger than 45 who are active in the Jewish federation system.

“If my rabbi had made those statements, I would have left the synagogue immediately,” said Fleischer, an active board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The Zionist Organization of America called on Obama to quit his church.

ZOA President Morton Klein said Obama gave his pastor “a pass by giving a basis and rationale for why Wright and other blacks feel the way they do.”

Many of Obama’s defenders say it is unfair to hold him accountable for everything his pastor says.

In addressing the same UJC gathering at which Fleischer spoke, one of Obama’s top Jewish surrogates, Daniel Kurtzer, said, “We would not want to be judged [on the basis of] rabbis who sometimes say ridiculous things.”

“We would hope that we would be strong enough to denounce them, as the senator has done with his pastor,” added the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

In response to some of the criticism of Obama, liberal pundits have noted that the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, has embraced the support of several Christian conservative clergymen, including John Hagee, who have made offensive statements.

After several days of mounting criticism, McCain said that if Hagee indeed had ever made anti-Catholic remarks, then he condemned them.