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Smearing Obama | The Nation

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Smearing Obama

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He's a Muslim. He was sworn into office on the Koran. He doesn't say the Pledge of Allegiance. His pastor is an anti-Semite. He's a tool of Louis Farrakhan. He's anti-Israel. His advisers are anti-Israel. He's friends with terrorists. The terrorists want him to win. He's the Antichrist.

This is an expanded version of the article that appears in the print edition. Research support provided by The Nation Institute's Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund.

About the Author

Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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By now you've probably seen at least some of these e-mails and articles about Barack Obama bouncing around the Internet. They distort Obama's religious faith, question his support for Israel, warp the identity and positions of his campaign advisers and defame his friends and allies from Chicago. The purpose of the smear is to paint him as an Arab-loving, Israel-hating, terrorist-coddling, radical black nationalist. That picture couldn't be further from the truth, but you'd be surprised how many people have fallen for it. The American Jewish community, one of the most important pillars of the Democratic Party and US politics, has been specifically targeted [see Eric Alterman's column in the March 24 issue, "(Some) Jews Against Obama"]. What started as a largely overlooked fringe attack has been thrust into the mainstream--used as GOP talking points, pushed by the Clinton campaign, echoed by the likes of Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Falsehoods are repeated as fact, and bits of evidence become "elaborate constructions of malicious fantasy," as the Jewish Week, America's largest Jewish newspaper, editorialized.

What floods into one's inbox these days bears little or no relation to Obama's record. "Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish community in Chicago," he has said. Obama ran for the Senate promising to help reconstitute the black-Jewish civil rights coalition. His first foreign policy speech of the campaign was before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where he pledged "clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel." He has occasionally angered pro-Israel hawks by urging direct negotiations with Iran and Syria, but Obama's foreign policy record is well within the Democratic Party mainstream. He's committed to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, supported Israel's incursion into Lebanon in 2006 and has criticized Hamas. During his campaign for the presidency, Obama has been defended by AIPAC, the neoconservative New York Sun and The New Republic's Marty Peretz, a noted Israel hawk. And yet no defense of Israel by Obama--or of Obama by the pro-Israel establishment--seems to be enough. "When one charge is disproved, another is leveled," says Rabbi Jack Moline, who leads a synagogue in Alexandria, Virginia.

It's nearly impossible to decipher where the smears originated [for a comprehensive account of how such campaigns are generated and spread in the age of the Internet and e-mail, see Christopher Hayes, "The New Right-Wing Smear Machine," November 12, 2007]. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency traced one e-mail back 200 people before it stopped with a filmmaker in Tel Aviv who didn't receive a return address. "No one knows if it's the Clintons, a rogue agent or a Rove agent," says Congressman Steve Cohen, a Jewish Obama backer who represents a largely black district in Memphis. Likely it's a combination of the three.

We may not know who started the smears, but we do know who's amplifying them. The "Obama is a Muslim" rumor began in the fringe conservative blogosphere. "Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim," blogger Debbie Schlussel wrote on December 18, 2006. Schlussel had a history of inflammatory rhetoric and baseless accusations. She said journalist Jill Carroll, who was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in 2006, "hates America" and "hates Israel"; labeled George Soros a "fake Holocaust survivor"; and speculated that Pakistani terrorists were somehow to blame for last year's shootings at Virginia Tech. Yet her post on Obama gained traction; one month later, the Washington Times's Insight magazine alleged that Obama had attended "a so-called Madrassa" and was a secret Muslim.

The Christian right is also preoccupied with Obama's religious beliefs. "Is Obama a Muslim?" the Rev. Rob Schenck, a reform Jew who converted to Christianity and now calls himself a "missionary to Capitol Hill," asked in a recent videoblog. "He may be an apostate, he may be an infidel, he may be a bad Muslim, a very, very bad Muslim, he may be an unfaithful Muslim." Schenck's videoblog was circulated by the Christian Newswire and Cross Action News, a self-described "Drudge Report for Christians." Schenck later concluded that, although not a Muslim, Obama was also "not a 'Bible Christian'" and did not practice a "confident faith." A separate report posted on the Christian Newswire recently asked if Obama was "Wearing a What-Would-Satan-Do Bracelet." And a top figure in the group Christians United for Israel, Pastor Rod Parsley, a "spiritual guide" to John McCain, repeatedly referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" before campaigning with McCain in Ohio. (Thirteen percent of registered American voters now incorrectly believe that Obama is a Muslim, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, up from 8 percent in December. Forty-four percent of respondents are unsure of his religion or decline to answer; only 37 percent know that he is a Christian.)

The Muslim rumor was followed by fictions about Obama's actual faith, Christianity. In February 2007, Erik Rush, a columnist for WorldNetDaily, a hub of right-wing yellow journalism, called Obama's Chicago church a "black supremacist" and "separatist" institution. Rush found a sympathetic audience at Fox News, where he was interviewed by Sean Hannity. Soon after, another blast of e-mails went out, calling Obama a racist: "Notice too, what color you will need to be if you should want to join Obama's church...B-L-A-C-K!!!" Like the Muslim claim, it was a lie. But screeds about Obama's faith soon gave way to wide-ranging attacks against his campaign advisers, his positions on the Middle East and his associations in Chicago.

At the fulcrum of this effort is a little-known blogger from Northbrook, Illinois, named Ed Lasky, whose articles on AmericanThinker.com have done more than anything to give the smear campaign an air of respectability. Lasky co-founded AmericanThinker.com in 2003, modeling it after Powerline, a popular conservative blog. Before that, he had frequently written letters to newspapers defending Israel and criticizing the Palestinians. Though his background remains a mystery, Lasky didn't hide his neoconservative leanings. He wrote a blog post in 2004 titled "Why American Jews Must Vote for Bush," made three separate donations to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, contributed $1,000 to Tom DeLay and has given more than $50,000 to GOP candidates and causes since 2000. Lasky sits on the board of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, whose close affiliations with Christian-right operatives like Ralph Reed has made Eckstein a controversial figure in the Jewish community.

A lengthy article from January 16, "Barack Obama and Israel," put Lasky on the map. "One seemingly consistent theme running throughout Barack Obama's career is his comfort with aligning himself with people who are anti-Israel advocates," Lasky wrote. To reach that conclusion, Lasky laughably warped what it meant to be "pro-Israel," criticizing Obama for, among other things, opposing John Bolton as UN ambassador and hiring veteran foreign policy hands from the Clinton and Carter administrations. By Lasky's criteria, every Democrat in the Senate, and more than a few Republicans, would be considered "anti-Israel." "Lasky's piece is filled with half-truths, omission of 'inconvenient facts,' innuendo, deeply flawed logic, undocumented charges, hearsay, and guilt by distant association," wrote Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Despite--or perhaps because of--its propagandistic nature, Lasky's column and subsequent follow-ups circulated far and wide. Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post quoted Lasky at length in a January column, printing his false claims as fact, as did a separate column in the same paper by Marc Zell, a former law partner of Douglas Feith (a onetime top official in the Bush Defense Department) and a top ally of neocon darling and Iraq War proponent Ahmad Chalabi and co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel. More surprising, Lasky became a household name in the mainstream Jewish press, the talk of the town at synagogues--even liberal ones--and a useful ally for members of the Clinton campaign, who circulated his articles. Recently he's been interviewed by mainstream outlets like NPR and the New York Times, which have labeled Lasky a "critic" of Obama without explaining his neoconservative sympathies. "I wonder how a tendentiously argued anti-Obama piece is mass-emailed by so many Jews who should know better," blogged Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News.

Another key purveyor of the smear campaign is Aaron Klein, an Orthodox Jew who is Jerusalem correspondent for WorldNetDaily. WND is notoriously disreputable, a sort of National Enquirer for the right (typical headline: "Sleaze Charge: 'I Took Drugs, Had Homo Sex With Obama'"). Klein made a name for himself by getting terrorists to say nice things about Democrats and allying himself with extremist elements of the Israeli right, whom he frequently quotes as sources in his articles--when he bothers to quote anyone at all. Klein originally called Hillary Clinton the "jihadist choice for president," but when Clinton stumbled, he turned his fire to Obama, attempting to expose his so-called "terrorist connections."

Klein penned two stories in late February wildly distorting Obama's links, from his days in Chicago, to pro-Palestinian activists like Rashid Khalidi, a respected professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University who previously taught at the University of Chicago (hardly a bastion of left-wing activism). Klein's story goes something like this: Obama sat on the board of a foundation in Chicago that gave a grant to the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), run by Khalidi's wife, which supposedly rejects Israel's existence; and Khalidi directed the PLO's Beirut press office and is a supporter "for Palestinian terror." (In fact, the AAAN focuses solely on social service work in Chicago and takes no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Khalidi says he was never employed by the PLO; he has been a harsh critic of Palestinian suicide bombings and a longtime supporter of a two-state solution, and he has never been an adviser to Obama. As for Obama's past statements, at least in Chicago, being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian is not a contradiction in terms.)

Once again, the facts mattered little, and Klein's stories gained an audience beyond the narrow confines of WND. Christian publicist Maria Sliwa sent Klein's articles to prominent reporters, the Tennessee GOP included his claims in a press release titled "Anti-Semites for Obama" and the Jewish Press, an Orthodox Brooklyn paper, reprinted his story about Khalidi. His latest article alleges that "terrorists worldwide would indeed be emboldened by an Obama election." As evidence, Klein quotes Ramadan Adassi, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank's Askar refugee camp, who says an Obama victory would be an "important success. He won popularity in spite of the Zionists and the conservatives." In previous stories, Klein has quoted Adassi praising Cindy Sheehan, Rosie O'Donnell and Sean Penn. For a suspected terrorist, Adassi follows pop culture and US politics remarkably closely.

Despite Klein's questionable sourcing and scandalous accusations, mainstream reporters now call the Obama campaign to ask about Klein's articles. He also reports for John Batchelor, a right-wing talk-radio host for KFI-AM in Los Angeles who has written a series of outlandish columns about Obama for the conservative magazine Human Events and repeatedly pushed the Obama smears on his radio show. According to an e-mail of Batchelor's obtained by The Nation, Batchelor says that information about Obama and Khalidi came via "oppo research."

Even if the false claims about Obama originally emanated from the neoconservative right, the Clinton campaign has eagerly pushed them. Clinton operative Sidney Blumenthal has e-mailed damaging stories about Obama to reporters, including a recent article by Batchelor. Clinton fundraiser Annie Totah circulated a column by Ed Lasky before Super Tuesday, with the inscription "Please vote wisely in the Primaries." Clinton adviser Ann Lewis falsely referred to Zbigniew Brzezinski, a critic of AIPAC, as a chief adviser to Obama on a conference call with Jewish reporters. "I can tell you for a fact people from the Clinton campaign are calling reporters and asking them to pay attention to things involving Obama and Israel," says Shmuel Rosner, Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. The volume of e-mails about Obama in a given state tends to track the election calendar--hardly a coincidence.

Large American Jewish organizations, like AIPAC and the Orthodox Union, have repeatedly defended Obama. Yet they've had little sway over reactionary elements in both the United States and Israel--including Jewish hate groups--who are eager to keep the smear campaign alive. The website Jews Against Obama, for instance, is run by the Jewish Task Force, which funnels money to the radical settler movement in Israel. (Curiously, John McCain's alliance with Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, a leading proponent of "end times" theology, and his recent endorsement by former Secretary of State James Baker have received far less scrutiny from pro-Israel pundits. It was Baker, after all, who reportedly told George H.W. Bush, "Fuck the Jews. They didn't vote for us anyway.")

Respected news outlets have stoked these smears, even as they attempt to debunk them. "Is Barack Obama a Muslim?" asked an editorial in the Forward. "Almost certainly not. Was he ever a Muslim? Almost certainly yes." After Obama criticized "a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel," Rosner of Ha'aretz accused Obama of "meddling in Israel's internal politics." The Washington Post noted Obama's "denials" of his Muslim faith, without ever stating that the rumor was untrue. Post columnist Richard Cohen crassly connected Obama, his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan, a line of guilt-by-association questioning that Tim Russert aggressively repeated in the last Obama-Clinton debate.

Among conservatives, Fox News has endlessly amplified such rumors. Karl Rove, a new hire by the network, recently speculated that Obama would withdraw funding for Israel. Sean Hannity has asked if Obama has a "race problem." Fox News radio host Tom Sullivan compared Obama to Hitler. "Fox News are on to him and all the arguments our 'smear' camping [sic] is making and for the most part it is running with them," right-wing blogger Ted Belman, of Israpundit, wrote in a recent e-mail.

The attacks on Obama reek of racism and Islamophobia but, as John Kerry learned in 2004, any Democrat should expect such treatment. "If Moses was the Democratic nominee, he'd still be the victim of this hate mail," says Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC. The right-wing smear machine grinds on, with the mainstream media and rival campaigns lending a helping hand.

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