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.