How Obama won over a tiny Arab village

Recalling Democratic front-runner's quiet visit, mayor of Fassouta hails his charisma and humility.

Obama great 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama great 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
If it were up to Dr. George Ayoub, the mayor of the northern Israeli Arab village of Fassouta, Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States. While the American Jewish community is split over Obama's views on Israel, it is a little-known fact that he came here on a study tour two years ago to see the realities of the region for himself. During a five-day visit as a member of the US Senate in January 2006, details of which were only disclosed by the mayor on Thursday, the Illinois senator who has now emerged as the Democratic front-runner in the presidential race was hosted in Fassouta by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The senator flew by helicopter to a soccer field in the Catholic village on the Lebanese border, where the federation operates a joint project with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago to provide computers to school children. "We were very glad to see him here for about five hours," Ayoub told The Jerusalem Post by telephone on Thursday. "We didn't know that he was going to be the Democratic presidential candidate at the time, and now all of Fassouta are with him, with Barack Obama, and we hope he is going to be the next president of the [United] States." Asked why he thought Obama, who is Christian and briefly attended Catholic school, had what it took to be president, Ayoub, a medical doctor by profession, said: "He was a very impressive man. He has charisma, and he was full of humility and respect. He spoke about peace and security for the Middle East, and he talked about peace between all religions." The mayor took Obama on a tour of the picturesque village that featured its historic Catholic Church, which not long ago celebrated its 100th anniversary, and was visited recently by Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago. "Obama asked how it was being on the border with Lebanon, and he asked about the Christian minority in Israel, and we explained our situation to him," Ayoub said. "He believes in dialogue with Syria, Iran and Lebanon, and in my opinion he's right, because in order to remove all our problems, we have to sit at the table and talk about peace." "He had come to Israel from Iraq," Ayoub added. "He said he wanted to take the American soldiers out of Iraq." Michael C. Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago who accompanied Obama, noted that the trip came shortly after the senator had taken office. "He was so impressed by the visit," Kotzin said. "In fact, in the first speech he gave on his Middle East policy to AIPAC last March, he referred to it." Actually, Obama made somewhat of a gaffe in that speech, referring to the all-Catholic Fassouta as a town of 3,000 residents in which "all faiths and nationalities live together with mutual respect." But it was also in that address, in which he first spoke publicly about his visit to Israel, that Obama stated his policy on the country most succinctly: "Peace with security," he said. "That is the Israeli people's overriding wish. It is what I saw in the town of Fassouta on the border with Lebanon." During his time in Fassouta, Obama heard from Ayoub and Avi Krampa, the mayor of nearby Ma'aleh Yosef, about the close relationship between Arabs and Jews in the area. "I remember also that the girls did some dancing, and he said they could have been his daughters," Kotzin said. "There was a sense of human connection." Asked why the visit was kept under wraps, Kotzin said: "It wasn't really. He was accompanied by the Chicago press, but he just didn't have time for the Israeli media." The Chicago Federation also arranged a lunch meeting focused on the immigration efforts it supports through the Jewish Agency, to which it invited young Ethiopian immigrants and Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski. "We had a beautiful lunch in Jerusalem, to which we invited young people from the Ethiopian community in Kiryat Gat, and he showed great interest in them," Bielski said. "He told the youngsters that he had played basketball, and all the kids understood that if you play basketball, you may become a senator." "He was very kind, and listened with a lot of patience and interest," Bielski said. "You can see that this is a self-made person who had to pave his own way and overcome difficulties." Bielski said that Obama told them that "he is a strong supporter of the State of Israel, and there's no doubt in his mind that we should have a strong Israel. "He stressed that the relationship between the US and Israel should be strengthened - and those were his words when he was a senator and we didn't know he could become the president of the United States." Linda Epstein, the director of the Chicago Federation's Israel office, called it a "successful" visit. "I think it was successful for everyone concerned because the goal was to learn about the country, its complexity and its needs," Epstein said. "He listened very carefully and asked excellent questions... about social issues, education, integration, immigration and absorption. I think he left with tools that enabled him to understand how to improve his knowledge." Asked how Obama struck her as a person, Epstein said: "He's very personable. There's no ego in evidence, and he talks to you in a manner which makes it clear that he's listening very carefully to what you have to say." Alan Solow, a Jewish supporter of Obama from Chicago who also accompanied him on the trip, said it undoubtedly had "a positive impact on the senator, who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, and who came here to discharge his duties on that committee." "I think that he has expressed publicly on a number of occasions that the trip had an impact on him in the sense that while he had studied the situation from an intellectual viewpoint, he was able to see for himself the situation on the ground," Solow said. "He was impacted by his tour of the North, the Lebanese border, and the areas suffering hits from rocket attacks, and he had the opportunity to spend a day in the Palestinian territories as well, and all those experiences added to his knowledge of the situation here." Solow said he was convinced that Obama was a firm supporter of Israel. "I think he has many, many Jewish supporters who are strong proponents of the security of the State of Israel," Solow said. "His public statements reflect a strong support for Israel, and as someone who has a longtime commitment to the State of Israel, I can say that if our country is smart enough to elect him president, the relationship between Israel and the US will be a very warm one."