Controversial pastor tries to mend fences with Jews

In a series of recent speeches, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. sounded some conciliatory notes toward Jews, casting them as fellow strugglers against inequity and for peace.

But the Jewish community may still have reason to be less than comfortable with the former pastor to Sen. Barack Obama.

Wright’s appearances included a PBS interview last weekend with Bill Moyers, a dinner April 27 with the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advance-ment of Colored People, and a speech April 28 at the National Press Club in Washington.

At the press club, Wright addressed his association with Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam leader in lectures in 1984 said Israel represents a “gutter religion” and that Jews in general had corrupted the word of God through “false religions.”

Wright said he disagrees with Farrakhan on some issues but also admires him.

“Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion,” he said. “And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for.”

The distinction between Zionism and Judaism will not placate many Jews, nor will suggestions that criticizing comparisons between Israeli policies and apartheid is somehow “vilification.”

“How many other African Americans or European Americans do you know that can get 1 million people together on the mall?” he said, referring to the 1995 Million Man March that Farrakhan organized. “He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.”

On April 29, Obama blasted Wright’s paean to Farrakhan.

“When he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century; when he equates the United States’ wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses,” Obama said.

“They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced.”

Wright’s overall emphasis was on the liberation theology that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s. He often grounded that theology in the Old Testament texts Christians share with Jews.

“The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive,” he said. “Liberating the captives also liberates those who are holding them captive.”

Outlining such captor-captive dichotomies the evening before in Detroit, Wright placed both Jews and blacks in the “captive” category, criticizing groups who saw the “different” as “deficient.”

As if to underscore such solidarity, he started the NAACP speech with a nod to what he said were his Jewish and Muslim supporters.

“I would also like to thank sister Melanie Maron, the former executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the current executive director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Jewish Committee,” he said. “I would like to thank my good friend and Jewish author Tim Wise for his support.”

The gestures could undermine Wright’s efforts at conciliation. Wise is a Louisiana writer who has repudiated Zionism as nationalist chauvinism while failing to address the chauvinism inherent in the Arab and Islamic movements that deny Israel’s existence.

At the press club, Wright said he did not equate Zionism with apartheid.

“Where did I liken it to that?” he said when asked why he compared Israeli policies to South Africa’s formerly racist system. “Jimmy Carter called it apartheid. Jeremiah Wright doesn’t liken anything to anything. My position on Israel is that Israel has a right to exist; that Israelis have a right to exist, as I said, reconciled one to another.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said Wright’s radical views were typical of the generation that fell between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. era with its black-Jewish cooperation and the current resurgence of cooperation among young blacks and Jews.

“I have encountered a new leadership in black America committed to bringing black-Jewish relations back to where it was,” he said, referring to Obama’s own pledge to do so. “What many see as an obstacle, I see as an opportunity of righting the Wrights of the world.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.