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Israel x Obama: Yes, We Can (co-opt the brand)

March 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Having just returned from a week and a half in Israel, I’m torn over how I want to portray what I observed there. And perhaps that is the only true portrayal that I can give, one of a land torn in at least three directions: by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab Muslims, and those who want nothing to do with either and just want to live a secular life. This comes as no surprise to anyone who follows Middle East politics, though what did come as a surprise to me was the lack of positive (read: non-violent) interaction between these groups on a quotidian basis. No matter what city I was in, there remains a stark separation between Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis, and Arabs, with the latter being relegated to hidden enclaves, run-down neighborhoods, furtive shadows in big city streets. My own cousins, secular, progressive Israelis by any measure, have only one regular encounter with Arabs in their neighborhood: their gardener. Even their eldest daughter, who is my age and getting a Masters at Be’er Sheva University, has no Arab students in her social circle, nor any in her classes. These discouraging statistics were reiterated by nearly every Israeli, young or old, that I talked to over the 10 days I was there – even those who claimed to be sympathetic to the “Arab situation”. And don’t even try getting ultra-Orthodox Jews to interact with anyone else or anyone to interact with them. They live completely isolated from the rest of the world and everyone in it. So how can these three groups hope to live together in any kind of peace if they don’t even attempt to interact with one another on a daily, non-political basis? Call me naive, but I had hoped to see a little more integration, especially among young people, by 2010. After all, if the US can elect a black man to the White House…

And, sure enough, that black man has already had a powerful impact in Israel, but not necessarily the one that I (or Obama himself) would have hoped. Instead of embracing the Obama message of community engagement and multiculturalism, it seems that Israel is more interested in the Obama brand, as evidenced by this commercial for one of the big Israeli TV networks, YES:

Apparently, the YES network will be offering new shows and more stars this season and viewers should be as excited about this as the smiling black couple and their enthusiastic supporters dancing across the White House lawn. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the original “Yes We Can” message but the cynicism that such a shameless commercial appropriation demonstrates caused me a moment of anger and resentment at the whole Israeli people for trading in a noble sentiment of collective strength for a convenient TV slogan. It’s the same resentment I felt towards the incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he completely co-opted the Obama website, without actually embracing the spirit, let alone the politics, of Obama himself. This kind of slick appropriation of the Obama brand and style, in my opinion, evidences a larger theme of Israeli smugness in internal and external politics. Another example was the recent sardonic Tweeting by the Israeli Embassy in London “Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target”, which was posted on the day the Israeli ambassador was asked to tell the British government if he knew anything about the use of fake passports in the assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai last month. The tweet linked to an article about the Israeli tennis star, Shahar Peer, who reached the semifinals of a tournament in Dubai before losing to Venus Williams. The Israeli Embassy removed the posting as soon as it was reported in the British press, but the ongoing question of Israeli involvement in the assassination remains an unfunny joke to the rest of the world as it is widely understood that the job was carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.

While all of this was going on, I was also reading about the violent protests erupting in Hebron over the Israeli government’s announcement that it would extend control over two holy sites within the Palestinian West Bank territory. This may have been just another week in the land of stones and tear-gas but I couldn’t help feeling that the hubris that enables Bibi to snatch holy areas is the same that enables Mossad to take out Hamas leaders in a foreign country, and the same that enables Israelis to go about their lives ignoring their neighbors, just watching TV with more stars and shows, saying smugly to themselves, “Yes We Can” But I wonder for how long.

To be fair, I did hear the Obama slogan one other time last week from an earnest falafel-maker in Tel Aviv. He was not trying to sell me anything (besides falafel) but instead wanted to convey his genuine belief in what Obama could mean for the world. It restored in me a modicum of faith that there can still exist in the holy land hope for a better day, when overcoming human differences can lead to peace. Thank you, falafel man. I hope you’re right.

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