'Obama Effect' May Boost Mizrahi, Arab Israelis

On the morning of Barak Obama's victory, Dr. Yusuf Jabrin, who works as an expert at a legal center for Israeli Arab policy, greeted a colleague with the regular "good morning." But on that day his colleague responded cheerfully by saying, "a good morning indeed, for all minorities."

Almost overnight the slogan hung up at ballots all over the U.S., "Vote, and change the world," did just that: Suddenly, minorities in Israel felt they too stood a chance.

A day before Obama's victory, MK Silvan Shalom (Likud), who is Mizrahi, or of oriental Jewish descent, cautiously told Haaretz: "If America gets a black president perhaps Israel will get a Mizrahi president. We import every fashion from America, maybe we'll import this fashion that will allow us for the first time to elect a Mizrahi prime minister."

Shalom almost immediately qualified his words: "Obama isn't president only because he is black, but because he has the background, education and record of accomplishment. He did not reach the White House from Harlem, but broke through in such a way that will permeate through to here."

Meanwhile, Jabrin was similarly asked whether an Arab could ever become prime minister of Israel. "Certainly," the Hadash activist, who is also a cosignatory of "the future vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel," said.

"The only difference between me and MK Shalom's [opinion] is that we're talking about different time frames. There will be a Mizrahi prime minister long before there is an Arab prime minister, whose election will have to be based on peace in the region. No matter, it took blacks 143 years since the abolition of slavery and 50 years since end of segregation [for a black man to become president]."

Prof. Hannah Herzog of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University also said she was optimistic over incorporating minorities and women in Israeli politics.

"My feminist friends in the U.S. were torn when symbols of the two great movements of the 60s were up for election: a woman and a black," she said. "Obama is indeed a breakthrough for minorities, and women, and Israeli society looks a lot at the U.S."

At least for a few days, talk among Israeli minorities has been filled with hope but that optimism will soon be replaced by quarrels over who the real "blacks" of Israel are. "In Israel we say Mizrahis are black though in the U.S. we would be considered white," MK Shalom Simhon (Labor), who is also Mizrahi, said.

"Being black isn't just a color. It's about feeling discriminated. So our 'blacks' were not slaves but they feel a sense of lack of solidarity even from the supposedly liberal Ashkenazis who sympathize with Arabs, women and homosexuals. Their liberalism falls short when it comes to Mizrahis."

Prof. Yossi Yonah, a founding member of Keshet Hamizrahi (the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow), cautioned against getting overexcited.

While Obama's victory was worthy of emulation it did not represent a victory for blacks but rather for himself as a very unique individual. Still, Yonah said he was certain that the "Obama effect" will also affect Israel.