Obama’s Victory and the American Social Contract: Lessons for Israel

This victory of American pluralism raises interesting questions for Israel because of one crucial similarity: Both countries are immigrant societies that have tragic conflicts with some of its minorities.

I can’t help but begin with a heartfelt Mazal Tov to the United States. This election pitched two competing visions of American society, and I believe the better conception won. Obama’s reelection is remarkable: The CNN panel of experts pointed out that never has a president been reelected with such a weak economy and concurred that America’s minorities had decided these elections.

Of course, not all is idyllic in the U.S. race was still a (mostly unspoken) factor in the 2012 elections: Romney swept the majority of the white vote, and the Tea Party movement was at least partly fueled by the feeling of many white Americans that they are losing their country.

But Barack Hussein Obama, the Hawaiian-born son of a Kenyan father of Muslim descent and a white mother, once again won both the popular and the electoral votes, carried by the minority vote: black, Hispanic and, one shouldn’t forget, Jewish. This once again proves the tremendous resilience of the U.S. social contract, which commits all citizens to respect differences and to create a culture of tolerance.

This victory of American pluralism raises interesting questions for Israel because of one crucial similarity: Both countries are immigrant societies that have tragic conflicts with some of its minorities. What can Israel learn from the success of the American social contract?

The U.S. needed a long historical process to integrate its minorities. It took the Civil War to abolish slavery, and full equality of African-Americans had to await the 1960s. And let us not forget that John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was remarkable, because it was far from trivial that a Catholic could be president of a country founded by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Israel is much younger, and, as former Likud Minister Moshe Arens keeps reiterating, it has so far failed to integrate its Arab citizens. This failure must be seen in a wider context: Israel is surrounded by Arab states whose populations are far from friendly with Israel, even in Jordan and Egypt with which we have peace treaties. Israeli Arabs identify as Palestinians, and Israel has been locked into a bitter conflict with their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, and feels threatened by the demand that Palestinian refugees return to their ancestral homes inside Israel.

The most blatant symptom of Israel’s fears of Arabs is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s anti-Arab platform and behavior. Moshe Arens has pointed out that Lieberman never misses an occasion to offend Arabs and that his slogan is the fewer Arabs in Israel, the better.

Lieberman’s delegitimization of Israeli Arabs is meant to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not Jews according to halakha (Jewish religious law). By redefining Israeliness as unquestioned loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state, he tries to create the option for them to be genuine Israelis.

But hasn’t Israel fully integrated immigrants from the former Soviet Union? It hasn’t, as could be seen on the pages of Haaretz in recent weeks. Amir Oren compared the relations between Netanyahu and Lieberman to that of Putin and Medvedev. Lieberman countered that Oren was racist, and Dmitry Shumsky retorted that it was by no means racist to call Russians racists, because they do not believe in liberal values.

The problem doesn’t stop with Russians: Aryeh Deri, who has returned to the Shas leadership, fully intends to make the Mizrahi experience of discrimination against Jews of Middle Eastern descent the focus of the upcoming election. This led Dan Laor to criticize Shas for accentuating its North African origins and releasing the ethnic bogeyman from the bottle.

But this bottle has turned into a Molotov cocktail about to explode. The open secret of Israeli politics is that the political agendas of some major parties thinly mask the struggle of ethnic and cultural groups for a place of honor in Israel.

Mizrahim and Russians are by no means alone in waging Israel’s culture war: Second- and third-generation sabras (native-born Israelis), mostly of Eastern European extraction, feel that the county that is rightfully theirs has been taken away from them by people like Lieberman. They want it back, not realizing that they are no longer a majority.

The ultra-Orthodox claim that they are the only real Jews here and many in the national-religious camp want to turn Israel into a theocratic revival of David’s Kingdom. Both of them want to win the war for Israel by virtue of high birthrates.

The politically correct solution to this ethnic and cultural fragmentation is to say that Israel must be a multicultural society in which all can feel at home. But a multicultural society needs a unifying common denominator that Israel doesn’t have: an American-style social contract based on respecting differences.

Instead we have a culture of mutual hatred constantly fueled by the right wing. They want Israelis to believe that if there were no Arabs, and if Israel’s leftists were to evaporate, all would be fine. They create the fantasy that Israel’s Jews are united. But this is an illusion: Once you scratch the surface, nothing connects between Lieberman and Shas.

The psychological truth of Israeli society is that all ethnic and cultural groups are terrified that if one wins, the other will have no place in Israel. We keep projecting these fears of annihilation on external dangers like Iran that are real, but don’t threaten Israel’s survival. The truth is that all Israelis are terrified that we have not succeeded in creating a society that can contain ethnic, cultural and religious differences, and that the country is falling apart.

What can we learn from U.S. history, then? From the Ku Klux Klan to today’s white supremacists, many Americans refused and still refuse to accept that the United States is a multiethnic, multiracial and multicultural society. It took the bravery of many to stem the tide of racism and xenophobia. Some of them, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, paid with their lives for their principled stance.

Israel is a young country that has evolved under an ongoing existential threat. It is not surprising that it has not sorted out its deep social and political problems, and it is remarkable that, at least within the Green Line, it is a flourishing liberal democracy. But we have no choice but to move toward a social contract of mutual respect and equal rights for all, and we should take America’s reelection of President Barack Hussein Obama as an inspiration.

The way there is difficult and, unfortunately, sometimes violent: Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated because he realized that Israel could not continue treating Palestinians as second-class human beings. We can only hope that Israelis will soon come to understand that as long as one group is treated as second-class, all Israelis will continue to feel threatened in their honor and integrity.