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November 7, 2008

Black Israeli Voices on Obama's Victory


by Ran HaCohen

The tag "extremist" is best to be avoided; being essentially relative, its main function is defamatory. "Extremists" are those who are on the farthest margin; but margins are relative and volatile. Many Israelis would say a person supporting full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines is an "extremist," just because this position shared, in fact, by most states and people on the globe, as well as by international law and the United Nations is marginalized within Israel. I guess in Saudi Arabia, supporters of women's right to drive a car are "extremists" too.

Still, there's quite a good reason to call Israel (Israel, not Iran) an "extremist" state, since it does stand on the outskirts of quite a few issues. Take for example the UN vote calling on the US to end the economic embargo against Cuba last week, in which 186 states supported, two abstained, and just three glorious republics the USA, the Republic of Palau, and Israel voted against.

Or take the voting patterns of American-Israelis. John McCain won 63% of the votes in the State of Utah, 65% in Wyoming, 66% in Oklahoma; no state gave him more. But among the 40,000 American voters residing in Israel (mostly well-integrated immigrants, or their children), McCain got as much as 75% of the votes, according to polls. That's extremism.

No wonder: though official Israel was wise enough to keep silent, the media made it clear that McCain was Israel's preferred candidate, due to the concerns that Obama might take a more balanced (i.e. "Anti-Semitic") stand towards Israel. Which is almost inevitable, in fact; G. W. Bush's so-called "pro-Israel" (i.e. pro-occupation, anti-Palestinian and anti-peace) bias simply cannot be surpassed.

Naomi Ragen, a Jewish-Orthodox American-born writer settled in Jerusalem since 1971, probably says out loud and clear what so many Israelis were trained to think, in her Hebrew column ("Why I Voted McCain") posted on Israel's most popular news website on November 4th:

"Barack Hussein Obama is the son of a white woman and a black Muslim from Kenya. He has never served in the army. His spiritual mentor is Rev. Wright, an anti-Semitic and racist black who preaches in public "God curse America". Obama calls himself "citizen of the world," and he is popular among the American-hating Europeans. He has other close friends who hate America, among them the local terrorist Bill Ayers who bombed buildings in the 1960s and planned to bomb the Pentagon as well. Obama is also friend with Israel-hater Rashid Halidi, who was well-connected to the PLO, and of Tony Rezko, a Syrian-American real estate tycoon who was found guilty of offenses of fraud and money laundering. Obama also often declared that one of his first actions as president would be to pull out the American forces from Iraq and hold talks without any preconditions with a terrorist like Ahmadinejad."

One can only hope Mrs. Regan's novels are somewhat more original than that.

Ethiopian Israelis Speak

One group in Israel whose reaction to Obama's victory is of special interest is the Israeli Ethiopians. About 100,000 Jewish Israelis of Ethiopian origin now live in Israel, almost all of them arriving in the last three decades. Most of them landed in the lowest social strata and at the lower end of the employment ladder, due to a complex (and controversial) mix of their poor education and recent immigration, as well as white Israelis' prejudice against colored people, doubts cast by Jewish orthodoxy concerning their "Jewishness," and other factors.

How do black Israelis see Obama and his victory? Since the community lacks any significant media of its own, an Ethiopian-Israeli internet forum (in Hebrew) is perhaps the closest one can get; participants are typically Israeli Ethiopians in their twenties or early thirties, obviously with internet access and at least reasonable command of Hebrew.

During the campaign, participants were divided between those supporting Obama as a symbol of black success, and those scared by "patriotic" Israeli concerns like Regan's, which were constantly trickled by the media.

The day following Obama's victory, the following discussion or better: exchange took place. Reflecting much of what Ethiopian Israelis are concerned about (racism, voluntary vs. imposed seclusion, etc.), as well as the analogies and associations Obama arouses and their limits, it is reproduced here in an almost unedited translation.

A: Herzl said, "if you want, it's not a legend". Yes we can, too.

B: Of course Yes we can, too, but Obama did not segregate himself but rather connected to the American society and made it to become president. Whoever segregates himself cannot win support of all ranks of society.

C: Bravo to the Americans! How did people who had voted for Bush make such a change and elect someone like Obama?! I am really surprised that so many whites voted for him, but it's very good also for the future of the Ethiopians in Israel.

D: How can you compare the blacks in the USA to the Ethiopians in Israel? The blacks in the US might feel racism occasionally, but they are very well integrated in the society, hold high posts etc. In Israel, even seeing an Ethiopian in an exercise club seems strange. There's no similarity between the two societies. Not that I support it on the contrary. We have created this state of affairs ourselves, by thinking we are better than others. Why did we encourage Aliya in the first place?!

E: There is room for comparison, and in Israel it should even be easier. First, because in Israel there never was a situation of "slaves and masters". Second, because here there have already been precedents of people of "weaker" communities in high positions, so there's no reason why it shouldn't happen with the Ethiopian community as well. I don't see any reason why we won't see more and more Ethiopians in very high positions in Israel.

D: All you say is theoretically true, but in fact very remote from reality. Go to every town in Israel and see the complete separation between normal neighborhoods and those where Ethiopians live. The Ethiopians have been living in Israel for almost 30 years, but they still feel like newcomers. So there's still a long way to go. And as for "slaves and masters": we are the most class-oriented society of all. It's a bit naïve of you to claim otherwise, while there's a clear division in every possible area.

F: This separation emerged out of Ethiopians' own will to live within their community, like everybody else. The problem is that it eventually harms them; had they wanted, they would have tried to assimilate into the general society.

G: You are absolutely right in what you say about the Ethiopians, and Israeli society here not being ready yet to let the black man integrate. Even the tiniest things, like going to an exercise club or walking with a dog on the street, still arouse negative feelings. Yes! A black person can just walk with a dog on the street, but it looks strange to the observer. But before we black people accuse the "whites" of their racism towards us, we should check ourselves and find out who the real racist is, and it's no secret that we hate and envy the success of others within the community, and that granting others' their success is utterly unknown among us.

C: Racism and chauvinism in Israel are much greater than in the US. Even the Americans needed more than a hundred years to elect a black president and don't forget he's mixed. Israel is one of the most racist states on earth, it would take us quite a while to see an eastern Jew as president here.

H: Wake up man, we've already had an eastern president, Moshe Katzav!

I: A president in Israel is a just symbolic and not an operative post, it has no impact on life here, unlike Prime Minister.

J: Soon in Israel too: an Israeli Ethiopian for head of state. Obama is a man who inspires and gives hope to many black all over the world, and proves that in spite of the white man's racism and arrogance towards non-whites, one can still break ahead and bring about change. Obama did it in America, and the Ethio-Israeli [can do it] in Israel.

*

There are two Ethiopian-Israeli members in the Knesset at the moment, which is twice more blacks than in the outgoing US Senate, and in fact slightly higher (1,67%) than Ethiopians' share in the Israeli population (1,5%). Clearly, representation even at the higher political levels is not enough to solve the problems of a weakened minority, neither in Israel nor elsewhere.

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Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and his PhD is in Jewish Studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

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