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Hey, Louis Farrakhan and Richard Cohen: You Can't Scare Me

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Writing in his regular column for the Washington Post today, Richard Cohen sought to frighten me and every other Jew in America into believing that Barack Obama at worst supports, and at best tacitly approves of, the vile ideology and racialist libels that Louis Farrakhan has variously promulgated over the course of a long and serpentine career.

Having received a number of anxious emails from fellow Jews across the country, quoting from or including the entire text of the column, I can reassure Mr. Cohen that his efforts have not gone in vain. No one could argue, however, that Mr. Cohen set himself a difficult task. As a Jew, I know how easy it is to fear an anti-Semite, in particular a rabid one who, like Farrakhan, claims to have the ear of millions.

Indeed, it is as easy to fear hatred as it is to feel it; that is precisely why I refuse to be afraid. An extremist cannot flourish without the good offices of alarmists and those whom they incite to fear.

Now, I am certain that Mr. Cohen -- whose work I grew up reading and admiring in my family's hometown newspaper -- would argue that nowhere does he accuse Barack Obama of any sin worse than an ominous silence. In his column Mr. Cohen merely relates the troubling information that a magazine published by the minister of Obama's church gave an award to Louis Farrakhan, and that the same minister, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, has made a number of approving statements about Farrakhan in the past. How, Mr. Cohen appears to want to know, can Barack Obama let such perfidy pass without condemnation?

I say "appears to want to know" in part because Mr. Cohen knows perfectly well that Obama has publicly disagreed with his family minister over the subject of Farrakhan; but more than this, I believe that, in fact, what Mr. Cohen really wants to know is the same thing so many American Jews -- indeed, so many Americans -- want to know: Just how afraid should I be?

Alas for Mr. Cohen and for all of us, in the service of his own fear he resorts to employing the time-honored strategies (smear and guilt-by-association) and tactics (a false appearance of reasonableness, assumption of unproven conclusions, selective reference to facts not in evidence) employed by the very demagogues and masters of hate whom he is presumably trying to combat. Why has there been no response from the Obama camp to this deeply troubling message of hate?

Well, as it turns out, there has been a response -- at least two of them -- and Mr. Cohen even quotes them in his column. Since they interfere with his crucial business of frightening himself and the rest of Jewish America (not to mention the quotidian duty of filling one's allotment of column-inches), however, he ignores them. In so doing, Mr. Cohen resorts to a time-honored principle of propagandists of hatred: Every denial is in fact tantamount to a confession.

I grew up reading and admiring Richard Cohen's column because I grew up half an hour from Washington, in the visionary city of Columbia, Maryland, a racially and economically integrated "New City" planned, and built, to serve as a model for a new way of thinking about race in America. Columbia and the children it raised up reaped the fruit, and savored the victory, of the preceding decade's great struggle for equality and justice, which had made such a vision possible.

One of the most painful passages in Mr. Cohen's column invokes the broken promise of black-Jewish unity as embodied by the lives and deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, without appearing to acknowledge that in falsely impugning Barack Obama he is damaging the only politician in America who has any hope of redeeming that promise on a national level, whose very rise to the lofty precincts of "electability" is proof that the promise is redeemed, in little ways, every single day; just as it continues to be broken, every day, by every African-American or Jew in this country who is not actively reaching out to heal the division, and to work for for justice and fairness and opportunity for everyone.

Barack Obama knows that black people and Jews need to come together to fight for all the important issues and values they share. He knows that we need to start talking from the center of our communities, and stop whispering or shouting at the extremes. As a Jew whose heritage comprises the bitter memory of racist demagoguery insufficiently denounced by the powerful, would I welcome a stout denunciation of Farrakhan by Obama? Sure I would. But that same great heritage also boasts of the most staunch and fearless struggle against the forces that seek to divide us, to set us against one another, and it's that side of my heritage that I choose to honor.

Let's all choose, Jews and African-Americans, to set fear aside, and work for a return to the days, whose memory Cohen's fear-mongering so grievously tarnishes, when we set aside everything that separated us to join together in the service of our common American good.

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