There is no shortage of superlatives about the historic grandeur of Barack Obama's election to the U.S. presidency. I would like to address this moment from a Jewish perspective somewhat different from the angles that have come up so far. The discussion within the Jewish context has been dominated by Israelis and Jews around the world asking whether Obama will be good for Israel. While this question is legitimate, I feel that it demonstrates a very narrow perspective for a people that, after all, has a very long history.
I think that as Jews we should be overjoyed by Obama's election. Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times that only with Obama's election did the American Civil War come to an end. I would say that with this event, the world has made great steps toward the idea of humanity itself.
The fact that a black man has been elected to the presidency should first and foremost touch us Jews because we have experienced the importance of the idea that all humans are equal. Only in the 19th century did Jews begin to receive equal rights in many countries, and it was not until well into the 20th century that Jews were truly accepted in Western societies. Even in the United States, Jews were not accepted into certain country clubs and or law firms until a few decades ago.
I was born and raised in Basel, the city where the first Zionist Congress was held, in 1897. In 1860, there was still a sign at the city gates announcing that neither Jews nor pigs were permitted to stay overnight. Jews have known the horrors, the humiliation and the hardship of their humanity not being accepted, and have seen their rights curtailed on the basis of ethnic origin and religion.
We Jews demand of the world never to forget that 6 million of us were killed in the Holocaust. We would do well not to forget that some 6 million black Africans died during the long history of the slave trade, one of the most shameful chapters in the history of humanity.
The enlightenment idea that all humans are equal is far from being implemented throughout the world. As Jews we should be committed to this idea, which was what started the Jews on their long voyage toward a life of dignity.
Hence we should not only ask whether Obama is good for Israel, although I believe that in the long run he will be. It will be more difficult for Muslims to dismiss as anti-Muslim the thoughts of a man called Barack Hussein Obama, who has Muslim ancestry. Al-Qaida quite explicitly said that it would have preferred McCain because he is a much clearer enemy; hence Obama stands a higher chance at playing a constructive role in our region.
But we should primarily ask ourselves what this historic event can do for the cause of tikkun olam. Obama's election is not only a historic achievement, in that he is America's first black chief executive. Half Kenyan, one-quarter Muslim and half-white in ancestry, and of Christian affiliation himself, and having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, Obama is both American and cosmopolitan, and cosmopolitanism has always been frightening for bigots, chauvinists and ignoramuses, as we well know from our history.
Anti-Semites have always been afraid of Jews because we were accused of being cosmopolitan; because we did not fit into a simple category. Obama's identity is truly global; he is an embodiment of the idea of world citizenship, and it is a sign of hope that the U.S. could elect a man of such complex identity.
Of course, we are not witnessing the onset of paradise. Obama is not the Messiah; he will not make the world's problems, or even those of the United States, go away; and he faces enormous challenges on all fronts. And we still need to see how much energy and time he will have to fulfill his promise that he will not leave the Middle East conflict to the end of his first term.
Nevertheless, because Obama's election is a triumph of universalism over chauvinism, and because we Jews owe so much to the universalist idea, we should rejoice. It has been part of Jewish heritage, especially in the Diaspora, which is the longest period of Jewish history, to rise over immediate reality, and to see the realm of ideas and principles. It is on behalf of this realm that, before returning to the management of our daily affairs, we should pause and see the greatness of this moment.
We should also reflect on the question why, in Israel's upcoming election, there isn't a candidate who inspires hope in the way Obama did. Maybe it is because none of our potential leaders espouses the idea of universal humanity and human rights that has inspired so many Jews during the past two centuries.
Carlo Strenger, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, is professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, as well as a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.
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