Obama said the repeated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tirades of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has endorsed the Illinois senator's presidential run, were "unacceptable and reprehensible."
"I have been very clear in my denunciation of his anti-Semitic comments," Obama said at a presidential debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, insisting he had not sought Farrakhan's endorsement in any way.
Asked about his own Chicago pastor's warm words for Farrakhan in the past, Obama insisted "I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community."
"And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel's. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct," he said.
The senator from Illinois reiterated that he would not be running for president if it wasn’t for the Jews' struggle for equal rights for African-Americans in the US.
Presidential debate (Photo: Reuters)
Clinton weighed in to argue that she had taken a principled stand against the minor Independence Party in New York state, which "was under the control of people who were anti-Semitic, anti-Israel" during her 2000 Senate run.
"And it looked as though I might pay a price for that. But I would not be associated with people who said such inflammatory and untrue charges against either Israel or Jewish people in our country," the New York senator said.
Clinton also suggested that Obama's remarks on Farrakhan had been weak, arguing he should "reject" the 74-year-old Nation of Islam figurehead rather than "denounce" him.
Obama said there was nothing to reject in terms of a formal offer of help from Farrakhan.
"But if the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce," he said to laughter.
Yitzhak Benhorin in Washington contributed to this report