Whether or not Senator Barack Obama of Illinois wins the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in light of his sweeping victory in South Carolina this weekend, he will be remembered favorably by the Jewish community. Prominent Jewish activists in New York want to believe that even if this wasn't his intention, as the first black politician who is looking like a serious contender for the presidency of the United States, Obama has brought a fresh spirit to relations between Jews and blacks. They are saying that in recent months there have been clear signs of improvement in the channels of communication between influential spokesmen of both sectors.
Even the restrained and the cautious among Jewish leaders confirm in private conversations that a climate of reconciliation and rapprochement is being felt: "This is a pragmatic, not a dramatic, change," said one veteran Jewish activist, hedging somewhat, "but its positive significant should not be minimized." Obama's move to the center of the political arena has created budding solidarity between Jews and blacks, to an extent that has not been felt in the United States for many years now.
A record number of about 50 events and ceremonies to mark Martin Luther King Day on January 21 were held this year at synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish centers. Behind this demonstration of solidarity were two major Jewish umbrella organizations: UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council, with the participation of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a veteran Jewish organization that that deals with relations among minority sectors in the United States. "Up until five years ago, the Jewish community did not relate to Martin Luther King Day," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads the foundation.
A while ago, an ad-hoc coalition of Jewish leaders initiated a special information effort to rebuff what has been defined as "slanderous gossip" to the effect that Obama is "a Muslim and a danger to the United States." Moreover, Reverend Al Sharpton, a black activist who is known for his hostile attitude toward the Jewish community, declared last week that he would join the struggle against anti-Semitism and manifestations of animus towards the Jewish community if indeed it is proved that the recent attacks on Jews in Brooklyn have been anti-Semitic in nature.
In the midst of all this, Obama is the only one of the candidates for the presidency to have taken the opportunity of the discussion of the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip at the United Nations Security Council to send a letter to the U.S. ambassador to the UN, urging him to initiate a condemnation of the firing of Qassams on Sderot.
"Even if he did this under the influence of his campaign - having been done not for its own sake, it becomes for its own sake," said Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. A welcome and positive result to which Obama's campaign has also given rise is that the senator has overshadowed the country's old black leadership - which with respect to Jewish matters was, in the best case, divided.
Among Jewish activists there is an increasing sense that because of the weakening of the identification with Israel among parts of the Jewish population, in the future it will need the support of large communities like Hispanics and blacks. At the same time, the activists are sensing a strong trend toward evincing Jewish involvement in domestic areas like ensuring quality of life and social benefits for the entire population. The assessment is that Obama, even if he does not reach the White House, can lead a new era in cooperation between Jews and blacks in the United States.
The doubts that have been expressed about his candidacy - his young age, lack of seniority in leadership and a "shortfall" in political cunning - might well turn out to be a blessing and an advantage.
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