The country once riled (and still so in some localities) on the subject of alcohol and which has pursued a war against drugs since the 1970s is now beginning a presidential campaign with same-sex marriages as a central issue.
Its difficult to decide between ridicule and laughter, sadness and tears The country involved so heavily in the world is tying itself up again in an issue that is existentially personal.
While there are a number of countries that recognize or permit same-sex marriages or civil unions of various kinds, I know of none where the issue has the same political centrality as in the United States.
Israel and a number of other countries do not allow the performance of same-sex marriages within their borders, but recognize those performed elsewhere under generalized treaties granting recognition to the lawful actions of other countries. Israel also provides health insurance and survivors'' benefits for couples of the same sex living together without the sanction of any formal arrangement.
Gay and lesbian couples, as well as heterosexual couples who do not care for the ceremonies of the Rabbinate, have wedding parties with symbols and words of a conventional Jewish marriage, and lots of guests who eat and dance, but without an Orthodox rabbi performing the ceremony and without being able to register the results with the Interior Ministry.
A number of heterosexual couples--including those with a partner not recognized as "Jewish" by the Rabbinate--may follow those ceremonies by a visit to Cyprus for a civil marriage, which they register with the Interior Ministry on their return.
With or without registry, most Israelis and the Jewish State does not bother themselves with couples whose arrangements are "unconventional."
The day after the President''s announcement, Ha''aretz devoted the top half of its first page to an article headlined, "Following Obama, Ministers and Knesset Members: To Consider Same Sex Marriages." There was a picture of the Finance Minister at a meeting of Likud Gays. Quotations expressed his ambivalence on the matter--he''s changing his mind but not yet ready to vote in favor--and other political figures who spoke about religious parties along with their own commitments to personal rights.
The print or Internet editions of other secular dailies emphasized the prospects of the new coalition changing policies dealing with settlements and the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox. There was some coverage of the President''s announcement, not especially prominent, without anything like Ha''aretz''s concern with its implications for Israel.
A radio interviewer pressed the Chair of Knesset to express himself on same-sex marriages. The response wandered to and fro, and can be summarized by,
It''s none of my business. . . I occupy a public position (He did not say that he was a leading candidate to be chosen President of Israel at the end of Shimon Peres'' term) . . . People must realize that Israel does not have an absolute separation of religion and the state.
The English edition of the ultra-Orthodox Hamodia headlined, "Obama Takes A Giant Sep Backward."
The media drama surrounding the announcement by Barack Obama of his support for single sex marriages came a few days after Vice President Joe Biden''s "outing" on the same issue, and produced predictably strong counter pronouncements by Mitt Romney.
On the evening of the day after his announcement, "Obama on same sex marriages" brought 738 million Google hits. Earlier on the same day is brought 374 million then 482 million. Those numbers are as good an indication as any for its political salience.
"Obama on Iran" brought only 238 million Google hits, "Obama on the economy 969 million, and Obama on Israel 360 million. We seem to be more important than Iran, and less so than the American economy or gay rights.
Same-sex marriage is arguably a matter of civil rights. Equivalent to the end of slavery or at least the end of racial segregation? Maybe.
It should also be viewed along with a great country''s prior concern with alcohol and present concern with drugs, both to an unusual extent among western democracies, and its equally unusual incidence of incarcerated citizens, many of whom have been taken out of society because of extreme attitudes about drugs. The country that prides itself on freedom has a history of being one of the least free among democracies.
The ban on same-sex marriages by most states is a continuing existence of this lack of freedom, while the debate as part of presidential politics shows a continuing struggle in public about issues considered personal in many other countries.
All of this fits with the United States as unusual it is preoccupation with religion, shown by standing beyond other democracies--including Israel--for the incidence of citizens who say they believe in God, pray regularly, and demand legislation about abortion and marriage.
Commentators indicate that the decision to go public was not an easy one for the White House, insofar as it may cost the President more with some groups than he gains with others.
He was already on the right side with gays and lesbians, given his actions on "don''t ask don''t tell." One poll shows 52 percent of Americans favoring same-sex marriages, but opposition prevails among African Americans and Hispanics--two groups important to the President--which tend to be religiously conservative.
If same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, and throughout the South reflect voter sentiment in those states, the issue could tip the election to Romney.
Barney Frank is not a disinterested party. He also represents my home town of Fall River in the U.S. House of Representatives. He has said that voters have lost interest in the issue, and that the economy will outweigh sex in voters'' decisions.
“This country is moving, and what’s interesting is every time somebody does something that’s supportive of our rights, it turns out to be (a) popular and (b) not very controversial . . . Many Americans already assumed Mr. Obama supported same-sex marriage . . . Politically, it’s kind of a nonevent.”
According to a New York Times reporter,
"President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage on Wednesday was by any measure a watershed. A sitting United States president took sides in what many people consider the last civil rights movement, providing the most powerful evidence to date of how rapidly views are moving on an issue that was politically toxic just five years ago."
Bombshell or nonevent, the substance of the dispute marks American society again as an outlier among western democracies.
It''s importance to American politicians makes us wonder about big brother.
Coming up is another meeting of the European-UN-American committee and representatives of Iran. Discussions in advance of the meeting suggest that Iran''s representatives will accuse the committee of unfairness in its excessive concern with Iran''s nuclear program, while Europeans and Americans will urge on Iran low- or mid-level enrichment that will, hopefully, keep its program short of military utility. (If it doesn''t keep slipping out of the net like North Korea.)
The new minister in the Israeli government, former commanding general of the IDF Shaul Mofaz, has expressed himself against any Iranian nuclear program, including those that others may define as "civilian."
With the American president seeming to give priority to continued discussion with Iran, and immersed in a debate about marriage, those inclined to bet should put a bit more on the side of Israel giving up on outside help and acting independently. .