Over the past year, the reactions to Obama in Israel have ranged from mockery to incredulity to suspicion. The suspicion has been allayed by the candidate in recent months, and most intelligent Israelis are confident that Obama is "ok" on Israel, if a bit soft on Iran. Of course, the Israeli right is more apprehensive. Most Israelis I know don't believe he will get elected president. Just as most Israelis a six months ago didn't believe that he would win the Democratic nomination.
In fact, most Israelis I know don't understand Obama, either the man, or the phenomenon. And I am not just talking about the man-on-the –street. I am talking about people who should know better, like the Washington correspondants for Haaretz, or my university colleagues. In America, whether you are Democrat or Republican, you generally "get" what is going on with Obama. In Israel, whether you are on the left or the right, you don't.
Even American-Israeli Obama supporters, like Haaretz writer Bradley Burston, don't understand what is going on. Burston wrote a column called "What Scares Us About Obama". Burston calls himself a "foreign visitor" in American and yet his "us" turns out to be Americans. Now, certainly many Americans will not vote for Obama, and he may lose the general election. But on the day Burston wrote his piece, Obama was either tied or ahead of McCain in every national poll. So to ask the question, "Why Americans are afraid of Obama" is more than slightly bizarre. His evidence for the fear? Louisiana has voted for the winning presidential candidate for the last 36 years, and McCain is ahead in Louisiana. That race may be a factor in a deep south state like Louisiana is, apparently, not entertained by Burston.
You want evidence for fear of Obama? Try McCain's decision to tap Sarah Palin for the VP slot. That is his "Hail-Mary" play – with third and twenty-five, he uncorks the long bomb (American football talk).
But I wish to focus on Israelis, not American Jews who have moved to Israel like Burston and myself. Here are four reasons not why Israelis fear Obama – they don't – but why they don't understand him.
1. Cynicism about politics. Israeli politicians are generally so mediocre, not to mention corrupt, that it is hard for Israelis to understand why anybody would be enthuiastic about a politician. They have little faith in the Knesset, and recent leaders of the country have been plagued by financial corruption scandals. The idea of "public service " through politics is foreign to them. What they understand is service to one's "sector". So when Obama comes along, Israelis alternately blink uncomprehendingly and smirk. The last person who inspired some sort of idealistic enthusiasm– Ehud Barak in the late nineties – produced even bigger disillusionment after he was elected.
2. Religio-Racism. The Israelis are probably no more racist than other folks, but "gizanut/racism" in Israel is considered a sin only by the Left. Since Israeli Jews consider themselves (wrongly) free of racism, because they are Jews, there is no education in the schools against racism. And so what would be considered politically incorrect in the US, even by Republicans, is considered wrong only by a small section of the Israeli population. If you don't believe me, talk with Ethiopian Jews. At best, it is not considered bon ton to be biased against other Jews. As for Arabs, and I mean, Palestinian citizens of Israel, there is not even a pretence of it being politically incorrect to be prejudiced against them. Since they are Arab they are ipso facto a threat to Israeli security.
3. Ethnic-nationalism vs. civic nationalism. In American, any citizen is part of the American people, and so any citizen should be able to become President – at least, if he or she is native born. So there is something genuinely exciting when a member of a discriminated group like Obama gets nominated. But in Israel, you can be a citizen for generations, and still be excluded from the nation – since Israel is a Jewish state. A woman, a black, a Jew, may not have a good chance of becoming president – but in Israel, an Arab citizen has no chance of being prime minister or president – not only because he or she is part of a minority, but because it is a Jewish state. Were one to argue that a Jew cannot be a president because America is a Christian nation (and no doubt some would argue that), the overwhelming amount of Americans, at least leaders, would reject that.
4. The Occupation. When an African American like Obama succeeds, it reminds Israelis, especially Israeli liberals, of the moral and political deficiencies of its democracy . Israel holds 3 ½ million people under Occupation indefinitely without fundamental rights, and b) it refuses to grant a little over ¾ million non-Jewish citizens serious political power because of their ethnic origin. Since the founding of the State, only Jewish parties have been invited into the ruling coalition – since Israeli is a Jewish state. The success of Obama holds up a mirror to Israelis, and the liberal and centrists don't like how they look.
By the time the Israelis wake up, Obama will be in the White House. Once again, we will be on the wrong side of history.
Remember how we cheered Nixon months before his resignation?