Judging Oprah

         >There appears to be some controversy brewing over Oprah Winfrey’s support of Barack Obama. Reaction to her speeches on his behalf appear to be circling around the idea that she is injecting race into the election by her references to Dr. Martin Luther King and Obama’s candidacy being a seminal moment in African American history. I’d like to weigh in on this matter but I am not an African-American.
    Which is exactly the point.
    It’s too cheap and easy to accuse her of playing the race card.” I’d say that’s a pretty superficial rendering of what’s likely going on for her. You see, while I am not an African American, I am a Jew. This fact allows me 1) to partially understand her feelings as a minority within a majority culture and 2)know what it’s like to have someone from your heritage ascend, for the first time, to a position of such magnitude.
    Allow me to take those two points in reverse order.
    I can still recall the excitement I felt when Senator Joe Lieberman was selected as Al Gore’s Vice Presidential running mate in 2000. To live in a time and place when a practicing (or even had he been a non-practicing) Jew was able to be recognized and acknowledged for his talents and contributions and considered for the second highest political office in the country was a moment of extreme pride. When I spoke of it to others, Jew and non-Jew alike, I wasn’t “playing the religion card”…I was simply basking in the reality of having arrived at a place certain after a long and arduous journey. For me, as a Jew, not to have seen it in the context of all that came before it, would have been to somehow rob the moment of it’s meaning.
    So too, for Oprah. I doubt her references to Dr. King and the potential importance of this moment have anything to do with “playing the race card.” To the contrary, Dr. King was not about separation and segregation. He was about unity and a colorblind nation. Anyone who missed that would obviously misread Oprah’s references and mistake her pride for something insidious.
    My other point is more delicate. It is not possible for someone who is not a member of a minority to truly feel the experience of being one. I can only come so close to the African American experience as a result of my religious heritage. 
    I can still vicerally recall the first time I visited Israel. On Friday afternoon, all of the stores began to close for the Sabbath. People were rushing about buying groceries and men were buying the traditional Shabbat bouquet of flowers to take home for the Sabbath meal. Most people I passed on the street smiled and exchanged “Shabbat Shalom” (Sabbath of peace) greetings. I was overwhelmed with the sense of what it felt like to be in the majority. And the feeling was stunning. I have never forgotten it.
    This is, however, as close as I can come to the experience of African Americans. The reason for that is that when I walk into a room or a public place, I do not visibly project my minority status. I can be a Jew and no one might know. But an African American will be seen as such and reacted to as such without question. Those reactions will depend upon the level of enlightenment of others. I can only assume that more often than one would hope those reactions are unkind and the source of great pain.
    So, please, let us not decide how Oprah Winfrey should feel or speak about the candidacy of Barack Obama. We have not walked in her shoes and we do not know what is in her heart.
    I prefer to believe that Oprah’s references to Dr. King, and her support of Obama’s candidacy, are the joyful manifestation of a long awaited dream come true…in a country where we pride ourselves on dreams coming true.

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