Obama is nostalgic for "white" Israel

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Oh, the irony. Here's an excerpt from the president's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:

Obama: And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of, you know-

Goldberg: We talked about this once. Kibbutzim, and-

Obama: Kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We're repairing it. We are going to do it the right way. We are going to make sure that the lessons we've learned from our hardships and our persecutions are applied to how we govern and how we treat others.

To understand how this sounds to someone sensitive to the history of various historically disfavored groups in Israel, imagine a foreign leader had said "I came to know America based on images of Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, the American Federation of Labor, the Daughters of the American Revolution…" Each of these individuals and groups had their virtues, but lots of us would think, "Geez, you're nostalgic for an America dominated by White Protestants, and you aren't even sensitive enough about the course of American history to recognize it, or assumedly you wouldn't say it."

The Israel of kibbutzim (kudos to Obama for using the proper Hebrew plural), Dayan, and Meir, was perhaps a more idealistic, and certainly more socialistic Israel. But it was also an Israel dominated by a secularized, Ashkenazic elite.

Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries), though more than half the population, were marginalized at every level of society. Discrimination was to a large extent institutionalized; the governing Labor Party was run by socialistic Ashkenazim, and given that state capitalism dominated the Israeli economy one's political and social connections (protectsia in Hebrew) went a long way toward determining one's economic prospects.

The kibbutzim in particular were a font of anti-Mizrahi chauvinism; as late as 1985, when I stayed for three weeks on a far-left Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, the teenage kibbutzniks casually and derogatorily referred to the Moroccan city kids staying on the kibbutz for the Summer as "shechorim" (blacks) (for what it's worth, the Moroccan kids were much nicer than the kibbutzniks).


The cozy Labor/Ashkenazi dominance of Israel was upset by Menachem Begin's stunning victory in 1977. Begin put together a coalition of anti-Socialist Ashkenazim, religious nationalists, and especially Mizrahim. Since then, Begin's Likud has dominated Israeli politics, and the Israel of Kibbutzim, Dayan, and Meier, has been replaced by the Israel of Begin, Ofra Haza, and high-tech. Mizrahim, while still lagging somewhat economically, are much better integrated into Israeli society, have a very high rate of intermarriage with Ashkenazim, and have come to dominate the Israeli music and food scenes.

Israel, in short, has gotten more Middle Eastern, and its populist politics reflects that. But that's natural given that most Israelis' families have lived in the Middle East for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, national religious types are increasingly prominent throughout elite Israeli society, over a million Russian immigrants have been successfully integrated, and Israel has welcomed, but struggled to integrate, one hundred thousand or so Ethiopian Jews.

To further the irony, Obama repeated his criticism of Netanyahu for encouraging his voters to turn out based on fear of the Israeli-Arab vote. Netanyahu's comment is indefensible, but it's also true that Israeli Arabs have never been more integrated into Israeli society, or made more rapid economic and social progress, than they have been under Netanyahu.

In part, this reflects the liberalization of the Israeli economy, as Arab workers have taken advantage of high-tech and other opportunities, and in part this reflects policies by the Israeli government, including affirmative action policies for government employment, that have largely gone under the radar. (I think this is a product of, on the one hand, Netanyahu's recognition that a better-integrated the Israeli-Arab population is essential to Israeli's future, and, on the other, that there aren't a lot of votes in it.)

By contrast, from 1948 to 1966, when Dayan and Meir's Labor Party were in control, most of Israel's Arab population, living in the Galilee, though granted citizesnhip was under military rule. I'm not enough of a historian of Israel to say how much this rule interfered with day to day life, or to what extent it was justified by security considerations, but it surely suggests that a naive, simplistic nostalgia for the "good old days" in Israel is just that.

In short, Obama pined for the days when a minority Ashkenazic secular elite dominated Israel in every sphere, including through state control of the economy [update: and importantly, when Israel was by no reasonable measure more liberal a society than it is today, unless one either thinks that state socialism is the essence of liberalism, or confused the rhetoric of Labor Zionism with actual practice]. Oy.

UPDATE: Obama made similar remarks today at speech at the Adas Israel synagogue in DC. The only sense I can make out of it is that he seems to link the rather modern American concept of "tikkun olam" (repairing the world, which has been reinterpreted over the last several decades from its kabbalistic roots to mean "pursuing social justice"), and the ideology of liberal American Jews more generally, with the Labor Zionism of Meir etc., which is, charitably, rather a stretch. Labor Zionism arose out of a combination of Eastern European socialism and early twentieth century nationalism, and has rather little in common with, say, the ideology of Betty Friedan, one of four American Jews that Obama chose to honor by name today.

Anyway, if the point is that Obama came to support Israel because he saw in Israel a fully-realized version 0f the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, he's right to be disappointed in Netanyahu, but wrong to think that Israel ever aspired to such an ideal. Not only do American Jewry and Israeli Jewry have very different ideological influences, but they have very different political cultures and demographies. As Walter Russell Mead put it, "Israel isn't an underachieving Denmark; it would be more accurate to say that it is an overachieving Turkey or a miraculously liberal and tolerant Lebanon."

That's not perhaps as uplifting as Obama's belief that the Israel of his youth was going to "repair the world," but it's precisely the unrealistic, often fantastical, idealism that often motivated previous generations of Labor Zionists that has led many of them to grave disappointment with, even hostility to, Israel.

Even under the best of circumstances, many of the hopes laid in Israel were unrealistic. In actual circumstances, surrounded by hostile enemies, absorbing about four times its original population in refugees, very few of whom came from countries with a longstanding liberal or democratic traditions, expecting a progressive utopia to emerge was ridiculous. Creating a reasonably liberal, multiethnic, democratic state with religious freedom in a region where there aren't any others should be more than enough to satisfy all but the most starry-eyed idealists. ("The occupation" is another matter; but even if Obama primarily blames Israel for the situation, that would include Golda Meir's government, under which the settlement project got going).