Connect to share and comment
Opinion: Can Israel change the writing on the wall?
JERUSALEM — The photograph of Barack Obama covered the entire front page of Ha'aretz. He stood with one hand held high, facing what looked like a distant pillar of cloud. Forget comparisons with Abraham Lincoln. This picture said that Obama was Moses, leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The headline — in English, not Hebrew — proclaimed, "Yes We Can."
Let's be clear: Hebrew papers do not run English headlines. Ha'aretz is a remarkably staid paper, aimed at people who regard themselves as smart, educated and unemotional. It does not wallpaper its front page with iconic photos — except for this time, when the skeptics in the newsroom were apparently swept away. They were also impatient: That front page was dated Nov. 4, election day. It was printed before any votes were cast, much less counted.
What made all this more remarkable was that through the campaign, the newspaper's U.S. correspondents had subtly echoed the conservative critique of Obama as insufficiently pro-Israel. On the day of decision, doubt was vanquished by awe: America was defying its history. And Israelis are aware, perhaps too aware, of how the past can imprison people.
That front page was an accurate mirror of the Israeli public mood. Early in the campaign, Obama inspired a mix of curiosity and suspicion here. He was not a known entity, like Hillary Clinton or John McCain. He did not tell the story about the world that George W. Bush had told for eight years, about the forces of good waging unending war against the axis of evil. (Bush's story reassured many Israelis, because it counted us among the forces of good, and because it confirmed the familiar sense that the conflict in our region was inescapable.) By election day, suspicion gave way to the spectacle of the charismatic outsider marching to victory, and of America showing that it could still do that American thing: reinventing itself.
Yet, I don't think most Israelis have noticed the aspect of Obama's victory that is most important for us and our neighbors. He was able to overcome America's history of racism because he deliberately rewrote that history, fully recognizing the facts, but retelling them in a way that made a new outcome possible.
Most of the time — as political scientist Marc Howard Ross writes in a recent book — nations and ethnic groups are constrained by the stories they tell about their past. The stories tell who they are, who their enemies are, what injustices have been done to them, what challenges they have overcome. They imply that history is destiny — what happened is what will happen. In the United States, whites and blacks tell the past in very different ways, but the stories have this much in common: Race is the great divide. That's why a black president seemed unimaginable.
Last March, in his speech on racism, Obama set out to create a new story about race in America. He acknowledged the history of injustice in the history of black America, and carefully alluded to a white, working-class American narrative of blacks getting unfair advantages. But instead of being trapped by those stories, he offered a new, shared American narrative: All this racial tension is real, he said, is part of our past. But the real American story is about constant progress toward a “more perfect union.” Even the Constitution started out stained by racism — but can be perfected. He also offered a symbol for the change: himself. I’m not black, he said, I embody the multiracial future, I’m America reborn.
Across an ocean, in a country whose one natural resource is history, I watched Obama speak via YouTube. My bright, Israeli-born teenagers sat next to me, rather bored. Having grown up in the America of the civil-rights struggle, I was transfixed. He'd rewritten the story. He was not the prisoner of symbols and history. He could use them as a composer uses notes and instruments.
This is a rare quality, but not unique. Twice before, in Jerusalem, I have seen leaders show that ability. The first time was in 1977, when the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, visited Israel and spoke at the Knesset. The mood here was euphoric, disbelieving, electric. In his speech, Sadat set tough conditions for peace. By giving it from the Knesset podium, he told Israelis that peace was possible, that the past need not determine the future. The second time was when Pope John Paul II prayed at the Western Wall in 2000 — in one gesture showing that the Church had indeed changed its relation to Judaism. Obama, the former law instructor, got his message across more quietly, with careful argument. But the effect was similar. He opened up a new possibility.
Israelis and Palestinians are captives of their history, or rather of the way they tell it. The countryside is a map of past battles, treated as if they are always in present tense. Israeli Jews live inside the memory of the Holocaust, of the Arab invasion of 1948, of every terror attack. For Palestinians the Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948 is always now.
Until we can retell that story in a new way we will not be able to believe in peace, and will not be able to achieve it. Rather than being amazed by Obama, we need to emulate him. Like America, we need to reinvent ourselves.
(Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977" (Times Books), and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. He blogs at southjerusalem.com.)