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Click for the audio of Senator Obama's remarks.
In Their Own Words

Senator Barack Obama
Remarks on his presidential campaign, his church, and his Middle-East policy.

-- Transcribed by Cassie Clair

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) spoke recently with Jewish reporters on questions dealing with his Presidential campaign, the Middle East, and the recent controversy about Obama’s church. The candidate took the opportunity to vehemently denounce the smear campaign circulating by e-mail in recent weeks.

I have talked with many of you on and off over the course of this campaign, but I am glad that we have the chance to go a little more in depth on issues that are important to America’s national security and America’s deep commitment to democracy and friendship with the Israeli people. And, obviously, I want to note that we are commemorating the international day to honor the victims of the Holocaust. This is something that was brought home to me during my visit to Israel when I went to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the power of the names — to see each name and the life it represents, to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it — I think really spoke to not only our strategic interests and Israel’s, but also to our deep moral commitments there. This is part of the reason why I am so heartened by all the young people who I see who are getting involved, not just in our campaign, but also in campaigns that deal with Darfur and the prevention of genocide from happening again.

As many of you know, I have spent a lot of time with the Jewish Community in discussions around Israel’s security, combating the scourge of anti-Semitism around the world and the threat of terrorism that Israelis have faced with such resolve. And as we celebrate Israel’s 6oth year, I’m reminded of not just Israel’s long-standing role as the democracy in Middle East and the steadfast friendship between our governments, but also the way the Jewish people had been able to transform themselves post-World War II and the State of Israel’s incredible resolve to face down the constant threats that it has faced.

When I visited Israel, I had the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of Israel, including to the North where we met Israeli victims of constant rocket fire into civilian neighborhoods. It drove home for me the vulnerability of so many Israeli residents and stiffened my resolve to ensure that Qassam rockets were not being fired into civilian targets, whether from the North or the South. No country which takes its obligations to protect its citizens seriously would tolerate such attacks, and certainly the United States would not – which is why I consistently and strongly pledge that as president, I am going to ensure Israel’s qualitative military support and superiority. I have also repeatedly made clear that I am committed to ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish state, and that is why I have pledged my personal leadership in the process to establish two states living side by side in peace and security. These are difficult challenges, but part of the reason that I am in this race is that I believe I can unite the country and overcome these challenges. I have always stood steadfast against anti-Semitism and all its forms, I’ve always stood with Israel in its quest for security, and I want to make sure that we continue to strengthen the enduring ties between our people and pledge to give real meaning to the words ‘Never Again.’

I just want to make one final point and that is I believe Jewish Americans, like all Americans, are hungry for broader changes in this country, a sense of unity and shared purpose. I think they are frustrated with a Washington that does not work. I am extraordinarily proud of the overwhelming Jewish support that I have received in my home state of Illinois from the very first race that I ran, and I expect to do very well among Jewish voters because I think they are not only concerned about issues specific to the Jewish community, but they are also concerned with the trajectory of American domestic policy and international policy.

Questions and Answers

Ron Kampeas (Jewish Telegraphic Agency): A couple of issues have come up in terms of your Jewish campaign in recent weeks, and one of them has to do with your church, Trinity United, and the concerns about the praise that people affiliated with the church have had for Louis Farrakhan. And now you have repudiated Farrakhan, you’ve repudiated those endorsements of Farrakhan in the magazine that was associated with your church. Yet, let us say there was a candidate who was allied with a church in the South that had endorsed the views of David Duke, do you think the people would want them to go farther, would want them to have a tougher conversation? Because I think that is the big question among American Jews watching your campaign right now.

First, let me say this: I have always denounced the abhorrent, anti-Semitic views of Louis Farrakhan. I have done so since I was a community organizer on the south side of Chicago 20 years ago, so I do not think that’s in question. My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements nor have I heard my pastor ever utter anything anti-Semitic, and if I had, then I would have left the church. What is true is that I think they made a mistake in judgment. The magazine that was affiliated with the church praised Farrakhan primarily for the work that he had done with ex-offenders. They are a presence in Chicago; they have done work in the community that often draws attention, and that is separate and apart from these previous remarks. I think that it does not excuse in any way the fact that what Mr. Farrakhan has said in the past is unacceptable.

I was very clear, both with my pastor and with the public, that you cannot excuse such things. I think that I have been absolutely clear in terms of my position on this issue. As I said before, I think this is a situation in which, because Farrakhan is based in Chicago and has done work that has been separate and apart from his reprehensible statements, there are times where people do not understand the pain that those statements originally have caused.

I will continue to strongly speak out against anti-Semitism and all its forms, and this is part of the reason why I’ve had such strong support in the Jewish community. The Jewish community is familiar with my track record because they know I don’t tolerate that stuff, and I am willing to say this in front of other audiences. I was in Ebenezer Church for Dr. King’s anniversary and specifically stated to that audience the unacceptability of anti-Semitism in the African American community or any community.

Jim Besser (Jewish Week, New York): As you know, President Bush is trying to revive the Middle East Roadmap by pressing Israel and the Palestinians for negotiations intended to create a Palestinian state by the end of this year. I am wondering how you evaluate the administration’s policies with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what you advocate in terms of questions, such as very rapid Palestinian statehood, talking to Hammas leaders as part of that process, and the issue of how Jerusalem should be handled in any final agreement.

Well, I think that all of us are anxious to see talks resume and/or movement towards a Palestinian state standing side by side with an Israeli state in peace and security. That is something that, unfortunately, this administration neglected for too many years and I think that has been to the detriment for Israelis and Palestinians. The Roadmap provides us an endpoint that we are looking toward for a two-state solution, but we cannot move forward until there is some confidence that the Palestinians are able to provide the sort of security apparatus that would prevent constant attacks against Israelis from taking place. I have been encouraging of the Annapolis talks and subsequent talks. I think we should try to encourage Hammas and Fayyad and other moderate Palestinians in the West Bank to get a hold on their security apparatus, to be able to crack down on terrorist activity, to root out the corruption that I think has made it very difficult for them to gain credibility with their people, but until the Israelis have some confidence that whatever is negotiated will actually be followed through on, I think it’s going to be difficult. The U.S. has to play an active role in that process.

With respect to long-term issues like the status of Jerusalem, I think those are issues that the parties themselves have to make a determination on, but I think it is fair to say that the outlines of any agreement would involve insuring that Israel remains a Jewish state, that the [Palestinian] right of return is something that is understood as not an option in the literal sense, although compensation issues might be resolved. I think that the Palestinians have a legitimate concern that any two-state solution that they arrive at has a continuous, coherent landmass that would allow the state to function effectively. Right now though, until we can get the Palestinians to the table not only with the will to ensure Israel and security, but also the wherewithal to do so, it’s going to be more difficult for us to make progress, and that is why I think we’ve got to work diligently with Fattah leadership in the West Bank to really take seriously their roles and responsibilities in this process.

Shmuel Rosner (Haaretz): You keep talking about Hammas, Fattah, and the West Bank, but I would like to talk more specifically about Gaza and Hammas, and first, whether you think that Israel or the United States or someone should be talking to Hammas, and second, what kind of commission do you see in the situation in the Gaza Strip?

Obviously, Israel is going to have to make assessments about its security and the situation with respect to the border between Gaza and Egypt. Clearly, there is a recognition that simply clamping down on borders and restricting the flow of goods and services into Gaza has not produced the kinds of results that the Israeli government was looking for, and Egypt, obviously, is starting to become deeply concerned over the breech of its borders. There are going to have to be some negotiations taking place between Egypt, Israel, and other Arab states and other potential independent brokers. Hammas has consistently denied the right of Israel to exist and has consistently stated that they have used terrorism as a legitimate way for obtaining what it wants, and I think that until Hammas renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel, it is very hard to have serious negotiations with them.

Obviously, there are humanitarian concerns within Gaza and it is important to try to resolve the situation in a way that probably involves some sort of regulated passage between these borders to ensure that people in Gaza are not unduly suffering as a consequence of their leadership. I think, over the long term, the only way that Hammas comes to the table is if it recognizes the legitimacy of those sitting across from them, and recognizes that whatever grievances it may have are not going to be resolved at the end of a barrel of a gun.

Mordecai Spector (American Jewish World, Minneapolis): Israelis are concerned about President Mahmoud Amedinejad of Iran: the statements he has made about wiping Israel off the map, denying the Holocaust, and proclaiming Iran’s interest in obtaining nuclear weapons. As president, what is going to be your course? Do you want to talk to the Iranians?

I think it is important to begin with an understanding that Amedinejad has used reprehensible language with respect to Israel. It is not acceptable and the United States should condemn it in its strongest terms. I have also been very clear that I think that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would not only be contrary to U.S. interests and destabilizing of the region, but would be an extraordinary threat to Israel, given the anti-Israel language that has been used not only by Amedinejad, but other Iranian leaders. What I have also said though, is that diplomacy is not simply talking to your friends, it is also talking to your enemies, and I think that based on all the reports that we have received of late with respect to Iran, the Bush strategy of not talking has not worked, it has not dampened Iran’s anti-Israeli position, it has not lessened its move towards developing the capacity to enrich uranium.

The most recent National Intelligence Assessments concluded that Iran has stood down, at least temporarily, on weaponizing its nuclear capacity. It also makes clear that what influences Iran are carrots and sticks. We should move forward aggressively on sanctions that are available. I have been a sponsor of a divestment bill in the Senate that the administration so far has not gotten behind, but that would allow state and local pension funds to divest from those companies that are doing business with Iran to ‘ratchet up’ not only in public sanctions but also private-sector financial pressure. I think we should continue to explore other avenues where we can tighten the pressure on Iran, but I also think that we should be presenting carrots and saying to them directly, "If you are willing to change your attitudes towards Israel, if you are willing to stand down for the long term on nuclear weapons, if you are willing to stop funding Hammas and Hezbollah, then we can provide a host of economic benefits and diplomatic exchanges." Everything from potential to admission to the World Trade Organization to the loosening of sanctions to, over the long term, normalization of diplomatic relations. The key is to give the Iranians incentives to behave differently, and, right now, our unwillingness to talk, I think, has just produced further defiance and has empowered extremists like Amedinejad and, over the long term, has weakened the power of more moderate forces inside Iran. We want to send a signal to the Iranian people and to the larger world community that we are reasonable and are not looking to impede Iran’s legitimate national aspirations, but that they have to change their behavior in order to be a welcome member of the community of nations.

Final Remarks

Before we go, I would like to add one last comment. There has been a constant and virulent smear campaign via the Internet that has particularly targeted the Jewish community, which I think is interesting. It is akin to some of the smear tactics that were used against John McCain in 2000, but this one seems to be more systematic and is using the Internet as a tool. It states that I am a Muslim and that I was sworn in to my Senate office with my hand on a Koran, and that I do not pledge allegiance. Normally, I would not take the time to address such a scurrilous falsehood, but the reports that we have received in the press indicate that it may have gotten traction in portions of the Jewish community, so I think that it is important for everyone to know that it is absolutely false. I have never practiced Islam; I was raised by my secular mother; I have been a member of the Christian religion and a active Christian, and I was sworn in with my hand on my family Bible, and I have been pledging allegiance since I was three years old. I make that point only because I want to make sure people get it from the horse’s mouth. This is a falsehood that has been perpetuated. It is distressing to me and it is distressing to a lot of my Jewish friends. Seven Jewish senators organized by Carl Levin, who do not support any candidate, wrote a letter deploring this false and malicious attack. I hope all of you, to the extent that you can, will use your megaphone and let your readership know that there is no substance there and that my strong and deep commitment and connection to the Jewish community should not be questioned.

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