OF ALL the beautiful phrases in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, these are the words that stuck in my mind: “You are on the wrong side of history.”
He was talking about the tyrannical regimes of the world. But we, too, should ponder these words.
In the last few days I have heard a lot of declarations from Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. And every time, these eight words came back to haunt me: “You are on the wrong side of history!”
Obama was speaking as a man of the 21st century. Our leaders speak the language of the 19th century. They resemble the dinosaurs which once terrorized their neighborhood and were quite unaware of the fact that their time had already passed.
DURING THE rousing celebrations, again and again the multicolored patchwork of the new president’s family was mentioned.
All the preceding 43 presidents were white Protestants, except John Kennedy, who was a white Catholic. Thirty-eight of them were descendants of immigrants from the British isles. Of the other five, three were of Dutch ancestry (Theodor and Franklin D. Roosevelt , as well as Martin van Buren) and two of German descent (Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower.)
The face of Obama’s family is quite different. The extended family includes whites and the descendents of black slaves, Africans from Kenya, Indonesians, Chinese from Canada, Christians, Muslims and even one Jew (a converted African-American). The two first names of the president himself, Barack Hussein, are Arabic.
This is the face of the new American nation – a mixture of races, religions, countries of origin and skin-colors, an open and diverse society, all of whose members are supposed to be equal and to identify themselves with the ”founding fathers.” The American Barack Hussein Obama, whose father was born in a Kenyan village, can speak with pride of “George Washington, the father of our nation,” of the “American Revolution” (the war of independence against the British), and hold up the example of “our ancestors,” who include both the white pioneers and the black slaves who “endured the lash of the whip.” That is the perception of a modern nation, multi-cultural and multi-racial: a person joins it by acquiring citizenship, and from this moment on is the heir to all its history.
Israel is the product of the narrow nationalism of the 19th century, a nationalism that was closed and exclusive, based on race and ethnic origin, blood and earth. Israel is a “Jewish State,” and a Jew is a person born Jewish or converted according to Jewish religious law (Halakha). Like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is a state whose mental world is to a large extent conditioned by religion, race and ethnic origin.
When Ehud Barak speaks about the future, he speaks the language of past centuries, in terms of brute force and brutal threats, with armies providing the solution to all problems. That was also the language of George W. Bush who last week slinked out of Washington, a language that already sounds to the Western ear like an echo from the distant past.
The words of the new president are ringing in the air: “Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” The key words were “humility and restraint.”
Our leaders are now boasting about their part in the Gaza War, in which unbridled military force was unleashed intentionally against a civilian population, men, women and children, with the declared aim of “creating deterrence.” In the era that began last Tuesday, such expressions can only arouse shudders.
BETWEEN Israel and the United States a gap has opened this week, a narrow gap, almost invisible – but it may widen into an abyss.
The first signs are small. In his inaugural speech, Obama proclaimed that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers.” Since when? Since when do the Muslims precede the Jews? What has happened to the “Judeo-Christian Heritage?” (A completely false term to start with, since Judaism is much closer to Islam than to Christianity. For example: neither Judaism nor Islam supports the separation of religion and state.)
The very next morning, Obama phoned a number of Middle East leaders. He decided to make a quite unique gesture: placing the first call to Mahmoud Abbas, and only the next to Olmert. The Israeli media could not stomach that. Haaretz, for example, consciously falsified the record by writing - not once but twice in the same issue - that Obama had called “Olmert, Abbas, Mubarak and King Abdallah” (in that order).
Instead of the group of American Jews who had been in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama, on his very first day in office, appointed an Arab-American, George Mitchell, whose mother had come to America from Lebanon at age 18, and who himself, orphaned from his Irish father, was brought up in a Maronite Christian Lebanese family.