Obama's (and my) Fantasy Itinerary to Jerusalem's Altneuland


“I’d love to sit at a cafe and just hang out,” President Barack Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 last week. Echoing many presidential predecessors who bristled in what Harry Truman called “the great White jail,” Obama confessed:  “Sometimes I have this fantasy that I can put on a disguise and wear a fake mustache.” He mused about wandering Tel Aviv and meeting university students casually. In that spirit, I offer an alternative itinerary – with the requisite reading list to befit his earlier incarnation as a law professor. This itinerary would confirm Obama’s insight from his 2008 Atlantic interview, that Zionism reflects “the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.” More important, it would refute charges that Israel is America’s albatross or an obstacle to peace, reminding the President why polls show Americans support the Jewish state overwhelmingly. 
While too formal and distancing, Obama’s current itinerary also solidifies impressions of the Israeli-Palestinian divide as what Quebeckers call “the two solitudes.” The President has no chance to witness any natural, peaceful Arab-Jewish interactions, which occur regularly – although not ubiquitously -- in Israel. I would begin at Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, so he could meet with students representing its diverse population – Israeli Arabs constitute at least ten percent of the student body.
We could then walk to Hadassah Hospital, the Walmart of Israel. Just as the Walmart stores are the most naturally integrated places I found in the American South, Hadassah Hospital with its easy mix of Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious, all living in the republic of medicine, is impressively, naturally, integrated.  Jews and Arabs also mingle easily together at the YMCA’s gym, the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education, IASA, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Arts, an intensive high school my daughter attends, and the new railroad-tracks-turned-walking-jogging-and-bicycle-path “Park Ha-Mesilah” – which both Arabs and Jews enjoy. All these places reflect the world that could be, displaying Israel’s robust impulse for peace.
At Hadassah, Obama could learn about Israel’s medical miracles. One institution alone, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, has researchers who helped develop seven of today’s top-25 biotech drugs, including Enbrel® against rheumatoid arthritis, Copaxone® against multiple sclerosis, and Erbitux® against cancer, an astonishing contribution from only one research center in such a small country. I would give him Start Up Nation, where Dan Senor and Saul Singer explain that the Israeli army’s culture of blunt, Israeli-style (and Bibi-style?) criticism, even from privates to officers, fosters an improvisational, out-of-the-box, problem-solving spirit essential to Israel’s high-tech miracle – which should be applied to diplomacy.
We would then hop the new light rail – showcasing urban environmentalism in action -- traversing a quieter, cleaner Jaffa Road, reaching Machaneh Yehudah, the bustling outdoor “shuk,” market. Marinating in Israel’s linguistic, racial, ethnic and class diversity, we could brainstorm about ways to refute the Zionism-racism and apartheid slurs, which feed a delegitimization movement that threatens the peace process by encouraging radicalism and mutual antagonism.
While observing the frenzied purchase of cleaning products and Passover foods, we would toast ethnic-based nationalism, appreciating the opportunities afforded to build a rich public culture that, in this case, is Jewish, and the particular blessings of realizing it in what modern Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl called Altneuland, Old New Land, the land of Abraham’s desert and Silicon Wadi, of Beth-el and Intel, of Jesus and ICQ.
Enjoying one of Machaneh Yehudah’s new trendy cafes, we could discuss Obama’s view of multicultural nationalism expressed in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote while reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which combines ethnic and civic nationalism, creating a state that is publicly Jewish, rooted in the Bible while promising all its inhabitants equal rights and civic dignity.  Two helpful books would be Arthur Hertzberg’s classic The Zionist Idea, showing the different ways Zionists considered synthesizing Jewish and liberal nationalism, along with Daniel Gordis’s The Promise of Israel, offering Israel’s blend of particularist but democratic liberal nationalism as an inspiring model for Israel’s neighbors, including Palestinians.
Before leaving, we would drink a Maimonides health shake at the “Etrog Medicine Man,” buying Etrog (citron) skin crème for Michelle and their daughters. Then to Marzipan, buying those gooey, chocolatey rugalech pastries which will taste fresh no matter how long the President travels.
Our last stop would be my intellectual home in Jerusalem, the Shalom Hartman Institute, to study the late Rabbi David Hartman’s insights for bridging the religious-secular, traditional-modern, and Israeli-Palestinian divides. This discussion would be illuminating for a President seeking the wise way toward peace, while educating this modern American father trying to raise grounded children with a sense of morality and community in an immediate-gratification, self-indulgent culture of the I, the more, the now.
We would discuss the Institute’s Engaging Israel project and its vision of Israel as a “Values Nation,” an exemplary model combining the best of traditional Jewish values and Western democratic ideals. And finally, I would give him my new book, on Daniel Patrick Moynihan,Moynihan’s Moment, emphasizing how in 1975 American support for Israel – and contempt for the UN’s Zionism is racism resolution – was popular and bipartisan, as it should remain.
Noting the upcoming tenth anniversary of Moynihan’s death on March 26, we would discuss America’s current need for moral, courageous and visionary leadership. And finally, I would ask him to get a campaign contributor to buy copies of my book for his entire delegation, while enlisting the President in my campaign to get a Jerusalem street named after Moynihan, America’s former UN ambassador and the longtime New York Senator. After all, if the President can fantasize, why can’t I?
Gil Troy is Professor of History, McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest bookMoynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video