Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sad Thoughts On a Happy Day

Like many Israelis, I hold dual citizenship, and in my case the second is American. People who know this have taken to asking me, in the last few months, whether I was planning to vote in yesterday's election, to which my answer has always been no. I don't approve of expatriates or, as in my case, their children, casting absentee ballots to influence the running of a country they don't live in, whose most direct consequences they won't feel. Still, I think I might have had a harder time justifying this decision if it didn't seem clear that both of the states I might register to vote in (New York and Colorado) were going to go to Barack Obama. Though I don't feel entitled to cast my vote as an American, it's been difficult to tamp down the little voice that says that as an Israeli and as a person who lives on this planet, I ought to have had a say in selecting the single most powerful person on it. In the last eight years, the American president has remade the world, for the most part in ways that have made it more dangerous, more volatile, more polluted, and more full of hate, and it was with tremendous joy and relief that I woke up this morning to discover that the next holder of that position has at least the intention, and hopefully the ability, to reverse that course.

At the same time, I'm wondering whether my investment in this election doesn't exceed the degree justified by the effect its results will have on my life and my country. It's one thing to care and worry about the winner of the presidential election, or even the balance of power in the house or senate, but the very next thing I did after checking those results this morning was to find out how California's proposition 8, which outlaws same-sex marriages, fared. Though I genuinely believe that it would be a shame if this proposition made it into law and annulled the marriages of thousands of people, sitting halfway around the world from California, is that really something I should be so deeply concerned about? Or have I just been caught up by the mood of the American-dominated corner of the internet I hang out in? Wouldn't I be better off wondering about the status of gay rights and gay marriage (or for that matter, civil marriage of any variety) in Israel?

Earlier this week, Israeli news site Ynet published an op-ed piece by author Yoram Kaniuk, in which he explained why he believed that, despite all the polls, McCain was going to win this election. Americans, Kaniuk stated, were too right-wing, too racist, too small-minded, to choose as their president a mixed-race, Hawaiian-born, Harvard-educated liberal outsider like Obama. The real America, according to Kaniuk, was the rural one, and the seeming surge of support for Obama was the result of the disproportionate representation of Obama's urban, intellectual supporters in the media and online. This was, quite obviously, a bone-headed article, and I can't decide who should be more ashamed of it--Kaniuk for having produced such an outdated, disconnected, and plainly mistaken piece of writing or Ynet for having published it--but what truly infuriated me about it was the unthinking ease with which it denigrated an entire nation and its citizenry. Everyone loves to put down Americans, but there's a high-minded provincialism about Kaniuk's article that seems peculiar to Israelis, who sometimes seem to love nothing better than to excoriate the sins of others while ignoring our own (of course, my belief that this tendency is unique or unusually strong in my countrymen could be yet another example of that provincialism at work).

It takes a lot of nerve to call America too right-wing when Israel has been slowly but steadily swinging to the right for over a decade, and at a time when militant far-right groups have grown so bold as to publicly call for violence against Israeli soldiers and elected officials. It takes a lot of nerve to call America racist in a country which has failed to integrate thousands of Ethiopian immigrants, and only a few weeks after riots in Acre demonstrated decisively just how divided the Jewish and Arab communities in this country are. It takes a lot of nerve to shake one's head over religious fundamentalism in America only days after a Jerusalem mayoral candidate triumphantly predicted that in ten years' time there wouldn't be a single secular mayor in Israel. We like to look down on America. We like to act shocked that Americans are slowly rolling back abortion rights, but the fact is that an Israeli woman still needs to pass a gauntlet in order to be approved for an abortion. We snicker about the battle over teaching evolution in schools, but I don't remember it on my high school biology syllabus. We call Americans dumb, but Israel's standing in international math and science rankings has been dropping steadily for decades. We marvel at America's failed occupation of Iraq, but we've been bogged down in a failed occupation of the Palestinian territories for more than forty years. There are many ways in which Israeli society and government are better than their American equivalents, but none of them are enough to justify the attitude, which seems to pervade Israeli discourse, that Americans needed to prove themselves yesterday, and that we have the right to sit in judgment of them.

I remember the last time I voted with a sense of purpose and awed determination, in the firm belief that the choice being made by my fellow citizens and myself was going to spell either the doom or salvation of my country, our last chance to get back on the right track. It was also the very first time I cast a vote, in the May 1999 direct election for prime minister between incumbent Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. I was only a month into my army service at the time, and had just started vocational training. That evening, the girls in my course huddled around the radio, and broke into cheers and whoops when the ten o'clock news exit polls called the election decisively for Barak. It was the end of three years of the most incompetent, self-interested, short-sighted government I had known in my young life, and now it was all going to get better. Within eighteen months, Barak's government was on the verge of implosion after a series of bad calls and mishandled decisions, and the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 paved the way for Ariel Sharon's election the following winter, and the escalating rightward shift of Israeli public discourse.

I'm not saying this to cast a pall over Obama's victory or suggest that America's future will prove as grim. Though I'm sure today's euphoria will fade, and that President Obama will make mistakes, compromises, or just decisions that his supporters disagree with, I truly believe that his election is a good sign for the future. I'm saying this because on February 10th, less than a decade after doing so for the first time, I will vote in my fifth national election, and just as I did on all but that first time in 1999, I will vote without hope that the results of that election will change my country's future for the better. I'm going to vote because I can't not, and I'll vote for Meretz, the same party I've always voted for, the only people who stand for something I can bear to give my support to, but I'll do so in spite of the fact that their accomplishments and presence in the Israeli political scene have dwindled and grown faint. I know that, no matter what their political opinions and affiliations, there are plenty of Israelis who share my disillusionment. It's the reason that voter turnout has steadily decreased over the last decade--because none of us can find anyone worth voting for.

In the midst of my joy when I learned about Obama's election this morning there was also a lot of sadness when I contemplated the fact that American turnout this year had reached such record highs. These numbers reflect not only how dire things have become in America, and how crucial this election was, but also the fact that voters had someone who excited and galvanized them, someone who got them to the polling station, and in some cases kept them there for hours and hours. I realized that it had been years since an Israeli politician had excited me, since I had thought of an elected official as someone I could trust or believe in. For my next prime minister, I face the unappetizing choice between two former occupants of that post, one of whom did a bad job and the other a spectacularly bad job, and a woman whose chief virtue seems to be the fact that, unlike a sizable portion of the cabinet she served on, she isn't being investigated for corruption. I don't think I'd like an Israeli Obama. Our politics are closer to the ground than the US's, and more accessible to the average voter--I'm not a very political person, but even I've had the chance to exchange words with members of Knesset, cabinet ministers, prime ministers and presidents--and our politicians suit that reality, right down to the sweat stains, unflattering hairdos, and occasional inarticulateness. Someone as handsome and charismatic as Obama would seem out of place here (as would his focus on hope, never a very prominent component of Israeli political discourse). But I would very much like it if an Israeli politician showed something of his integrity and gravitas, and made me care about their chances of making it into public office.

As the American election drew closer and Obama's victory became more and more likely, the Israeli media started beating around the question of whether a black liberal whose middle name was Hussein would be 'good for Israel'. This is idiotic on two levels, first because of the implicit assumption that Bush--who did nothing to advance issues important to Israeli security such as pushing for the meaningful implementation of UN resolution 1701 and curtailing the rearmament of Hezbollah, who turned a toothless and ineffectual enemy nation into a hotbed of terrorism, who so thoroughly squandered his nation's diplomatic capital that his best response to the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb is to loudly and repeatedly announce that it's nobody's business if Israel decides to take matters into its own hands, wink wink, nudge nudge--was actually good for Israel. But more importantly, it's an idiotic question because, at the end of the day, it's not the person in the oval office who determines Israel's well-being but the people in the Knesset, in the cabinet chamber, and in the prime minister's residence. The rest of the world might have sighed in relief at this morning's news, but for Israelis, that relief is still a long way off, and it's down to us and to our leaders to achieve it. In the next few months, as America winds down from this election and prepares for President Obama's inauguration, we're going to be plunged into the same feverish circus we've gone through four times in the last decade. That's three short months in which to get people excited about casting their votes again, and hopeful about what those votes can achieve. Otherwise, in two or three years' time we'll be gearing up for yet another round. I don't want an Israeli Obama, but I do want my leaders to have, as he seems to, both conviction and passionate intensity. I want Israel to wake up to a day like today.

15 comments:

Raz Greenberg said...

Well said. However, while I don't know if we need our own Obama here in Israel (and we still need to see if Obama does a good job before we say something like that...), I do think we need some of the optimism that American voters take with them to the voting booths. The belief that we are changing things for the better when we cast our votes. I agree that most of the Israeli candidates didn't give us a very good reason to feel that way... but maybe the change should start with the voters.

David Moles said...

As an American who's spent a third of his life outside the US it's never once occurred to me not to cast my absentee ballot. I still have to pay US taxes, I'm still liable for US government debt, I still expect some day to collect US Social Security. I still have to live with the consequences of US foreign policy -- consequences most Americans can mostly ignore. Just because I don't live in the US doesn't mean I'm not profoundly and directly affected by what the US government does.

Maybe if I was living in a country I carried a passport for I'd feel differently, I don't know. And of course I do expect to move back -- but what's the point of keeping the passport, if you don't at least want to keep open the option of moving back? And if you do want to keep open the option, you have a stake in the future of the country.

Beyond that, as that little voice is saying, you should have a say in selecting the most powerful person on the planet. Everybody should. That only a couple of hundred million do have a say gives them, if anything -- I think -- more responsibility to use that say as wisely as they can. Standing in solidarity with the disenfranchised doesn't help anybody.

David Moles said...

P.S. All that said, I do feel a little silly voting for Duval County Soil and Water Commissioner.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Put it this way, David: the front-runner for the post of Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the son of an Israeli immigrant. His father left Israel for the US, married there and raised his children there. It may well be that Emanuel has relatives in Israel and that he has visited it and feels kinship with it. He may even hold an Israeli citizenship (and if he doesn't he could easily get it). But I don't think anyone would argue that he should vote in Israeli elections. My situation is precisely the reverse of Emanuel's - my mother made aliya in the early 70s, married my father, and raised my brother and myself in Israel.

Of course the situation is different if you've left with the intention of returning, but I never left and I have no intention of making a life in the US. I keep the passport because it's convenient and in case of a rainy day, but I don't feel that that gives me the right to cast a vote.

Tzvika Barenholz said...

excellent piece!

Qualms aside, I think plenty of people less thoughtful, not half as earnest and worse informed than you voted in these elections. Be practical. Register to vote next time. If I were in your position I would vote, although not for Obama, as it happens.

Foxessa said...

How did he explain, that even if the 'real america' is rural, how this real america can vote a winner all by itself, since, speaking as a person who really did grow up in rural America, there are vastly more people living in cities and suburbs than in rural communties?

Love, C.

Andrew Stevens said...

Rahm Emanuel is not an Israeli citizen and does not vote in Israel's elections. He did serve as a civilian volunteer in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

I believe your ethical argument for not voting in U.S. elections is correct. Plus, U.S. citizens are subject to U.S. taxes on worldwide income. There's a good chance you don't owe a dime, but there's no particular reason to call the IRS's attention. Moreover, if a substantial number of American expatriates or their children started voting in U.S. elections, it might cause the Supreme Court to revisit Afroyim v. Rusk. Since Afroyim is hardly a model of clear legal reasoning, they might well overturn, restoring Congress's power to strip citizenships from people who serve in foreign militaries, vote in foreign elections, etc. as they did before the Afroyim decision.

Stephen said...

This is among the more interesting and reflective post-election pieces I've read. Thanks.

An Israeli Obama... indeed, hard to imagine. Presumably to keep the metaphor at all straight, he'd have to be an Israeli Arab, since that's the national minority there, albeit one with a quite different history than African Americans here. But is it even imaginable in the foreseeable future that an Israeli Arab would be prime minister? It's not my country but I've never seen anything to lead me to believe it would be.

Maybe first you need an Israeli Martin Luther King. Or, maybe, the analogy is simply broken by pushing it even this far.

Anonymous said...

אביגל שלום.
אני מרגיש שאני חייב להגיב פה. את בכלל חיה בישראל?
איזו עוד מדינה בעולם כל כך ביקורתית כלפי עצמה ועוד באמצע מלחמה בלתי פוסקת?
רק בימים האחרונים הותקפנו בעשרות טילים בלי שום תגובה מצד צה"ל. זה באמת נראה לך כמו התלהמות?
ויתרנו על שטחים אסטרתגים ופינינו אזרחים בתמורה לכלום. גם זה קיצוני ופרימיטיבי? אולי ארה"ב או איזו מדינה אירופאית עשתה את זה?
נעים להרגיש מתקדמת ונעורה על חשבון אנשים אחרים עם אזרחות זרה ביד. ובכל זאת קצת יושר אינטלקטואלי.

אלכס,
רוסי ימני ופרימיטיבי

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Foxessa:

To be fair, the electoral system is meant, in part, to address the imbalance in population density between rural and urban states, and the fact is that presidents have been elected despite losing the popular vote, so that population density isn't everything. But as I said, the worst thing about Kaniuk's article is how uninformed it seemed to be - I might almost have suspected that he'd dug out an article from the 2004 election and changed some of the names.

Stephen:

As you say, to try to map Israeli race relations onto American ones would be to strain an analogy to the breaking. The closest Israel comes to the situation in the US is the prejudice against Jews of North African descent which was rife in the nation's early decades - to the extent that protesters against this prejudice in 60s and 70s nicknamed themselves Black Panthers. I wouldn't like to say that that chapter in Israeli history is over and done with, but I think we're further along that path than the US, and though there's never been a Mizrahi PM, there have been major PM candidates, members of Knesset, ministers, and presidents of North African descent.

Relations between Jews and Arabs, and between native-born Israelis and immigrant Jews (from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia) are troubled, but in ways very different from American racial tensions.

Alex:

(For the benefit of readers following along in English, I'm translating your comment. Please let me know if you feel that the translation misrepresents your opinion.)

"Abigail,
I feel that I must respond. Do you even live in Israel?
What other country in the world would be so critical of itself, even in the midst of a never-ending war?
In the last few days alone we have been attacked with dozens of mortar shells with no response from the IDF. Does this seem like a gung-ho attitude?
We have relinquished strategic territories and removed citizens from their homes and received nothing in return. Is this fanatical or primitive? Has the US or a European country done as much?
It's nice to feel progressive and enlightened at the expense of others and with a foreign nationality at hand. Still, have some intellectual honesty.

Alex,
A right wing, primitive Russian"

I'm not entirely sure what you're responding to here, as the only mention I made to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this piece was to call it a four decades old debacle, which frankly strikes me as self-evident. You might want to consider the possibility that one can decry and consider intolerable both the occupation and the indiscriminate violent response to it. However, I don't belong to Palestinian society. I have no control over the people they choose to put in charge of their affairs nor any input, however small, into their public discourse, and so I've chosen to concentrate on the society I belong to, and which I can affect. The whole point of this essay is that instead of pointing at the flaws of other cultures, we should take a look at our own and clean house. Your response to that seems to be that it isn't right to pass criticism in a time of crisis, but as you yourself say, Israel has never not been in a time of crisis. Should I conclude that you don't think any criticism of our culture is ever appropriate?

Matt said...

I had a friend from India who said that US citizens should elect their congressional representatives, but the US president should be elected by the population of the rest of the world. The congressional branch has weakened a bit in recent years and I think the foreign policy powers of the president are sometimes exaggerated but I still often think of this. This is a really strange era in world history, where the US occupies a hegemonic position but generally everyone, the often isolationist US populace included, pretends that it doesn't.

Also, you probably know this, but just in case, the electoral system was not supposed to balance urban versus rural, created as it was in an era when there was basically no urban population. There is a small amount of balancing of large versus small states but apportionment is almost entirely based on population. The point of the system was to give the political elite a veto over the popular vote should it be necessary. It's been kept even though that is no longer necessary because it gives the impression of landslide victories (and thus "mandates") in a system whose design makes actual landslide victories almost impossible. Hence people call Obama's victory a landslide even though he got 52% of the vote.

Andrew Stevens said...

Foxessa is correct. Republicans can only win by winning in the suburbs. There are just way too few people living in rural areas. (And some of those, like northern New England, vote for Democrats.)

Popular wisdom, that rural voters are magnified through the Electoral College, is simply wrong, as the Banzhaf Power Index ably demonstrates, even if it were the case that rural=small state, the correlation of which is not nearly as tight as most people seem to assume. Before the 2000 election, Gore supporters were openly wondering if Gore could win the electoral college and lose the popular vote (as polls showed he was going to). It is not at all hard to imagine this happening. Had it happened, the Banzhaf Power Index would have been dragged out by bitter Republicans to show how the Electoral College gives a huge advantage to Democrats due to California's voting power. This argument, by the way, is slightly less wrong than the one that is currently in vogue because it went the other way. After all, the last time the popular vote winner lost the Electoral College, it was incumbent Grover Cleveland piling up big majorities in the rural South and losing the urban North to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland's loss of his home state of urban New York, with its 36 electoral votes, doomed him. Cleveland would get his revenge in 1892 by pandering to New York voters and adding it to his coalition.

On these points, Kaniuk shares his ignorance and misinformation with 99% of the U.S. punditry, however. Nobody studies mathematics anymore, more's the pity.

James said...

After all, the last time the popular vote winner lost the Electoral College, it was incumbent Grover Cleveland

Actually, Gore won the popular vote and lost the electoral college in 2000.

Some might debate the latter assertion, but not the former.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, Gore won the popular vote and lost the electoral college in 2000.

Sorry, I wasn't clear. I mentioned the 2000 election repeatedly in that comment for the obvious reason that it was such a split, but I assumed everyone knew that already. When I referred to the 1888 election of Benjamin Harrison, I was referring to the last time before 2000 that it had happened. The other time it happened (1824 doesn't really count since the election was decided in the House of Representatives) was the 1876 election of Hayes over Tilden, but 1876 was an election unlike any other and it's probably wrong to generalize about it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the hebrew.(I have horrible spelling mistakes in english and had a bad day)

Off course you can pass criticizm in time of crisis (I do it all the time). My problem was with the fact that you try to portrate Israeli society which is in essense much more liberal (for good and bad) then USA or Europe as primitive and biggoted just because people don't share your political views. And you try to pitch it to people who may be not familiar with Israeli realities.

As an example I gave you the example of the conflict. You see constant critisism of Israel in Israeli TV and papers even when we are attacked (nevermind now whose fault is that and how to solve this). I don't see such things happenening in other western countries. I'm not against it, but that's an objective sign of self criticism. no? That's not something a primitive racists would do.

I just like to read books, but since you mentioned Israel I felt I had to comment. As a voter for an intelegentisa party you have some obligation to facts and logic.

I'll try to refrain from more comments,
Alex.

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