08 November 2008

Obama in translation

In my American-media-gorging over the past few days, I hear a lot of Americans proudly claiming that "it couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world." Out here in The World, people really are posing the question. Could what happened in the US on Tuesday have happened here in Israel?

Is that question even sensible? What would count as the "same thing" happening here?

photo credit: NYT, from a May 13 Yom Ha'atzmaut event in DC

Let me postpone the central and fascinating racial issue for the next post. Before I get there, there's another difficulty: Israel doesn't have a directly-elected head of state. Israel's president is a symbolic figurehead, elected by the Knesset, and the prime minister, though formally appointed by the president, is actually just the leader of whichever party wins the most Knesset seats. (Fascinating Fact: Israel actually implemented an American-style head-of-state direct-election system from 1996 to 2003, but then they scrapped it and reverted back to the earlier system.)

People do directly elect political parties, and some political parties are explicitly designated as representing the interests of particular minorities. For example:
So someone could plausibly suppose that a US08-equivalent Israeli election outcome would be a Knesset where a plurality of seats are held by a party like UAL, Shas or maybe Atid Echad.

In fact, it's not so at all. The demographically-oriented Israeli political parties take care of their own. So when Obama said, "I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too" — he was articulating an American conception of political constituency. By contrast, Israel's minority parties are understood as responsible to their electorate, and maybe even to their whole demographic base... but not to the whole country. So long as they hold few seats in Knesset and are forced to bargain hard for political gains, that's fine. But no reasonable Israelis are fantasizing about a Shas-led government.

What people are imagining is a political victory by a major party headed by a suitably-Obama-ish prime minister. And what does that PM's Obamaishness consist in? S/he's got to belong to a minority whose status in Israeli society is somehow equivalent to that of Black Americans. And that opens up a truly fascinating question: does Israel even have plausible analogues for US racial categories?

(To be continued!)


  1. I think the equivalent would be to have an Israeli Arab member of Labor party (are there any now?)to become the party leader, and then have the Labor party win the election. And NO, there's no way this could happen.

  2. seems like Europe also has room for improvement...

  3. have you seen this?