Memo to President Obama: Bypass Netanyahu - Reach Israelis’ Hearts

A large proportion of Israelis are more similar to the liberal Jews who informed Obama's formative years than to Benjamin Netanyahu. Remembering this is key.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Dear President Obama,

Like many millions around the globe, I celebrated your election as a triumph for the ideals of freedom and dignity four years ago, and, like many others, I called upon you to visit Israel. To this day I think you made a mistake in not doing so in your first term, but I still profoundly rejoiced in your reelection last month.

Reports say that you are about to come here soon - better four years late than never. You will have to deal with a prime minister you dislike and distrust for very good reasons. This is why I would like to urge your advisors (I don’t assume that you’re reading this column yourself) to address Israelis directly and not get bogged down with Netanyahu, who will, as his character and worldview dictate, drone on about the Holocaust and Iran.

I think it might be useful to direct some attention to processes that are reflected in Israel’s election results, but do, as yet, find little expression in Israeli politics. I hope your advisors will find ways to help you use your outstanding oratorical skills to reach out to the heart of Israelis, and this blog post is meant to direct their attention to phenomena that indicate what Israel is really about today.

One of Israel’s most popular shows is “Masterchef”, a very well produced franchise of an international format in which amateur chefs compete for the title. The final episode that generated an all-time record rating pitched three most unlikely candidates against each other: Jacky Azoulay, born into a Moroccan family of twelve children, who, before the show, had never been exposed to high cuisine. Salma Fiyumi, an orthodox Muslim woman raised in traditional Arab cooking, and Tom Franz. The latter was the most improbable competitor for such a show in Israel: the thirty nine year old German, standing 1.95 meters high, was born into a gentile family, came to Israel because he felt the need to atone for his nation’s crimes against the Jewish people, even though there is no evidence for any wrongdoing of his family during the Nazi regime, converted to Judaism and is married to an orthodox Jewish woman.

Jacky was the public’s and the media’s favorite: a natural talent, she very quickly transformed from a home-cook into the world of high cuisine – as did Salma. Tom was the competitor who obviously had the most extensive knowledge of haute cuisine from the outset. It is not surprising that the German media covered his winning the final quite extensively: the tragic history of Germany and the Jews made one more step towards reconciliation when Tom Franz triumphed in the final, even though none of this had been scripted into the show in advance.

Another Israeli version of a popular Reality show, “The Voice”, also created an unlikely combination: Ophir Ben-Shetreet is a seventeen-year-old daughter of an orthodox Jewish family from Mizrahi origin. Beautiful and blessed with an angelic voice, she melted the hearts and of the judges who competed to get her into their teams. Quite surprisingly she chose Aviv Geffen, a rock star who is a symbol of Tel Aviv’s left-wing secular culture, over candidates more akin to her culture of upbringing as a mentor. He challenged her to transform her singing under his mentorship – and it turned out that she had wanted to work with him to begin with.

These two events, watched by a large proportion of Israel’s public indicate that Israel may be a far more “normal” society than the headlines indicate. The elections were staged as a culture war, and I argued that it is time for Israelis to realize that we are a multicultural immigrant society that needs to learn the values of liberal toleration to survive.

Judging from these widely watched reality shows, Israelis as a society may have realized this much earlier than Israel’s politicians. The real Israel is more open, more flexible and more amenable to political flexibility than its leadership. Instead of listening to Netanyahu, your advisors, President Obama, might want to watch Ronny Edry’s TED talk ‘Israel and Iran: A love Story?”. so far watched by 845000 viewers. Ronny Edry, a graphic designer, became an accidental culture hero by creating the Facebook Page "Israel loves Iran”, that connected between Israelis and Iranians sick and tired of their regimes apocalyptic rhetoric.

I have no illusion that Reality TV, Facebook and TED can replace down-to-earth diplomacy and politics. Nevertheless, President Obama, you might do well to try reaching the hearts of Israelis directly before getting bogged down with its government. Research shows that Israeli would gladly agree to a two state solution, if their security concerns would be appeased, and this is no simple matter. Israelis are, in the end, deeply afraid, and they have good reasons to be so: given possibility of Hezbollah putting its hands on Syrian weapons of mass-destruction, the possibility that Hamas might, once again, come to rule Palestine and the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood might revoke Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

President Obama: try to realize that a large proportion of Israelis are more similar to the liberal Jews who influenced your intellectual, political and moral development when you were in your twenties than they are to Netanyahu. Try to speak to them directly. You will have to convince them that you are truly committed to their survival and security – by no means an easy job. If you succeed in doing so, you will achieve more progress on Israel-Palestine peace with one speech than you have in your first term. I wish you luck – we need you to succeed.

Then-Senator Obama visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2008. Credit: Jini

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