Momentous Times for U.S. and Obama Should Make Israelis Burn With Envy

An America that marches forward, that welcomes change, that grows more tolerant, that can take pride in itself and its leader.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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 People hold balloon letters reading "Love wins" in front of the White House lightened in the rainbow colors in Washington on June 26, 2015.
People hold balloon letters reading "Love wins" in front of the White House lightened in the rainbow colors in Washington on June 26, 2015.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

To paraphrase John Reed’s famous book on the Bolshevik Revolution, these were Ten Days That Shook America. Ten days of social progress. Ten days of moral advance. Ten days of national awakening. Ten days of presidential leadership. Ten days that should leave many Israelis, of the liberal persuasion at least, raging with jealousy.

Jealousy of an America that marches forward, that welcomes change, that grows more tolerant, that accepts diversity, that seeks to extend equality to all. Ask yourself, in all honesty, if these are the defining trends of Israel in 2015 or, in fact, quite the opposite.

Jealousy of an America in which the machinery of democracy grinds steadily, methodically, reliably, even in an age of unprecedented political polarization. In which the separation of powers is immutable and checks and balances are more than an empty slogan. In which a 230 year old document is resilient enough to safeguard individual liberties and robust enough to accommodate change. In which a solidly conservative Supreme Court is bold enough to defy expectations, free of incessant threats to curtail its powers.

Jealousy of an America in which religion is a private option rather than a dictator of public policy. In which the government – the current government at least - is inclusive, not exclusive. In which freedoms are extolled, not derided. In which elections are won by those who embrace Americans of all stripes and colors rather than those who divide and rule, where voters are swayed by a message of hope and change rather than adherence to the status quo and “Arabs are coming in droves” incitement. In which the younger generation is less prejudiced and more broadminded than its elders, less insular and more charitable, blinder to differences of race, color or creed.

This does not mean that America’s millennial generation is any better than its Israeli counterpart, perhaps the opposite is true - but its liberal heart certainly beats far stronger. And sure, Israel still has a public health system that is vastly superior to the patchwork construct of the Affordable Care Act that was sanctioned by the Supreme Court this week, and gay couples have long enjoyed legal rights and privileges still denied them in many of America’s 50 states. As for same-sex marriage, as many Israelis said with resignation this week, that will have to wait until the country first allows members of the opposite sex to wed outside the confines of Jewish Orthodox law.

But older Israelis remember the times that Israel was considered a pioneer in more than just hi-tech wizardry, killer drones and long-term occupation of the Palestinians, when it was admired as a trailblazer in inventing mechanisms of social justice and creating instruments of arvut hadadit – the Jewish principle of mutual responsibility. So there’s certainly a pinch of nostalgic regret to see even these modest expansions of America’s social umbrella take place as Israel’s contracts with each passing year.

And while there is no clear Israeli analogy to America’s troubled past of slavery and racial discrimination – though both Jews and Palestinians lay claim to the role of victims – one could not but admire the kind of national catharsis that many Americans experienced this week, following the dreadful murder of nine African Americans in Charleston. Decades of willful refutation of historical truths, repression of wrongs committed and denial of insensitivity towards millions of African Americans seemed to melt away within a matter of days. It was a week of inspired enlightenment, a moment, as President Obama put it in his dramatic Charleston address, of amazing grace.

This is the same Obama who, as a Pew Research poll showed this week, is growing less and less popular in Israel, in contrast to most of the world. The same Obama who is “abandoning” Israel, according to Michael Oren, who is hell-bent on signing a nuclear deal with Iran that could lead to Israel’s destruction, as Israel’s government maintains. The same Obama who is accused, tried and convicted by many Jews who view him through the narrow, self-absorbed, settlement-addicted prism of Israel's right wing.

But for many other Israelis, and even for many of those who share concerns about his Iran policies, Obama was a leader after their own hearts this week, the kind they would wish on themselves. Intelligently, eloquently and movingly he stood on the right side of history, spoke out for moral justice, consoled his community with words of love and reconciliation. “America should be very proud,” he said after the Supreme Court published its judgment on gay marriage; proud indeed, of itself and, this week at least, of its president. It’s been a long time, one suspects, since Israelis could declare themselves “proud” of their leaders.

Naturally, there will be many who will dismiss the notion of being envious of America: America is a superpower with no one threatening its existence. It can afford the luxury of debating gay marriage and historical injustice, while Israel fights for survival in a neighborhood increasingly overrun by lunatic fanatics. That’s true, of course: it is the greatest jealousy of all.

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