A NYT review of a recent book about Obama's "blackness" pretty much sums up what we've known since he came on the stage a decade ago. He isn't all that black. He's no Jesse Jackson. He's a non-threatening African American, moreso than Americans whose ancestors came centuries ago, insofar as his father was an African. The elder Obama went to the US along with thousands of others from Africa, Latin America, and Asia during the 1960s when the US was optimistically helping former colonies and other backward countries prepare cadres of civil servants, teachers, and other professionals. Britain, France, and even Israel also took on themselves a similar program of foreign aid via higher education.
Barack Obama may be one of the best outcomes of that experience. His father never amounted to much, and it would not be easy to evaluate the impact of the cadres educated in the west. Many did not return home, but stayed to make their lives where they received their education. With respect to those who returned, some of their countries have done well since the 1960s, but many have not.
Obama himself benefited from other changes that occurred in the United States that began in the 1940s with early court decisions against segregation, and took off in a more serious fashion.with a full set of judicial, legislative, and administration actions, including affirmative action, from the 1960s onward.
There are substantial numbers of African Americans in the middle class, professions, management and executive levels of business and government.
The Black Presidency makes the point that Obama has spoken out in favor of Black opportunities, against cases of clumsy or bigoted policing, and can be counted upon to have a multi-hued set of admirers behind him when making a public appearance. He also has a balance of key appointments with respect to Jews, women, and individuals of various sexual orientations. Yet it is difficult to find actions undertaken to deal seriously with the continuing problems of American Blacks that are largely, if not fully responsible for US social indicators in health, equality, and violence closer to countries of the Third World than the First World.
It's also not easy portraying a summary picture about the underside of the American population. If we take teenage pregnancies and violence has key indicators, Black rates peaked after the onset of civil rights and remain substantially higher than rates for Whites, but rates of both teenage pregnancies and violence among young Blacks and Whites have declined significantly since the beginning of the 1990s.
Experts are hard pressed to explain the declines, or to link them with any government programs.
In other words, it is neither fair nor accurate to credit those welcome declines to Barack Obama, or to blame him for not doing more. The process may reflect a host of influences on personal behavior that have little to do with government.
Israel's Arab minority is similar in percentage terms to the size of the African American community in the US.
Israel is a long way from an Obama-like Arab who can find substantial political support among the Jewish majority, and contribute even in some minor way to an easing of tensions.
In contrast with television dramas from western countries that routinely feature mixed raced couples, Israel recently passed through a mini-brouhaha when officials in the Ministry of Education sought to remove from high school reading lists a book that dealt with Jewish-Arab romance.
Religion is not prominent in Black-White histories in the US, but has a great deal to do with Israel's tensions. .
The Israeli majority is only a couple of generations removed from severe persecution in Europe or the Middle East, and Judaic traditions have long provided an underpinning of separation. However, there is also a long record of Jews mixing with others. One can find evidence in the Book of Ezra, as well as high rates of intermarriage in the US, Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union.
The majority Muslims among the Arabs of Israel and those nearby have their own justifications for seeing the Jews as outsiders, interlopers, illegitimate grabbers of land and political superiority, who should behave as Islam demands and accept an inferior status.
The Arabs of Israel have not learned from African Americans how to use their political weight to leverage greater benefits from government. Individual Arabs have resisted efforts to compare their status as a minority with that of African Americans. One senses more than a bit of racism in their attitudes, along with Muslim sense of justice and feeling deprived by members of a lower status religion.
It has proved impossible to persuade Arab Knesset Members to go along with the government for the sake of constituent benefits, or to persuade the Arabs of Jerusalem to vote in municipal elections in order to improve services for their neighborhoods. Conversations in that direction end with an assertion of Arab rights, the impossibility of dealing with Jews, or reports that it is impossible to go along with Jews politically without feeling intense pressure from family members and community leaders..
Looking outside of Israel to Palestinians, what is lacking is a significant cadre willing to trade political cooperation for political benefits. The leadership of Gaza appears to be sunk in a condition of political madness. The leadership of the West Bank appears to be saddled with old age, incompetence, corruption, and a lack of political support.
The incidence of individual violence from the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, with perpetrators from the age of 11 upward, suggests a population out of control, without a leadership.
Jews have been arguing among themselves since the 1920s what can be offered to the Arabs/Palestinians, without a leadership on the other side willing or able to offer peace in exchange for concessions.
Israel's minority is less capable politically than the American minority, even while statistics show that Israeli Arabs are significantly healthier and less violent than African Americans. Gazan languish in what some call the world largest open air prison, which is largely the result of their own actions. West Bankers do not score below what generally prevails in Arab countries on measures of income and health, no doubt helped by the 200,000 or so able to work in the Israeli economy.
I've lived 200 meters from Isaweea for more than 20 years, and have been urged by Arab friends not to risk a visit. For some months now there have been police on the roads to Isaweea that might not allow me to pass, even if I wanted to.
Americans and Europeans warn themselves to avoid problematic ethnic and racial neighborhoods. All that can exist along with decent relations between individuals, and a sad lack of capacity to make things better.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem