Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Barack Obama and Israel

The Huffington Post received a lot of coverage for its interview with President Barack Obama. It covered a good deal of territory, but what's in its headline are the President's judgments about Benyamin Netanyahu and Israel.

Insofar as this is the President who preached democracy and equality in Cairo, and came after a President who went to war in Iraq at least partly for the sake of bringing democracy to that country, we of the Middle East are entitled to ask if the White House--and maybe all of the United States--exists on the same planet with us.

Prominent in the interview are Obama's comments about Bibi's campaign, and its threat to Israeli morality and democracy.

What is described as the President's "deepest discomfort" concerns Netanyahu's Election Day comments about Arabs going to the polls "in droves."

" . . . that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions. That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly . . . And I think that that is what's best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country."

I wouldn't have translated Bibi's text messages to include the notion of Arabs going to the polls in "droves." That suggests something akin to being driven, like slaves, and coming in great masses in a way to threaten Israelis who are not Arabs. What Netanyahu or his aides did send as text messages in Hebrew to the cell phones of Israeli voters concerned Abu Mazan, American money, and Hamas promoting large numbers of Arabs to vote against him, and urging people to vote for his party.

One can also poke around the official statistics to measure the quality of democracy that Israel has been able to maintain in the presence of a minority that continues to question the country's legitimacy, and has active pockets of violence within it, compared to the quality of American democracy in the presence of a minority with its own troubled history.

No doubt African Americans and Israeli Arabs differ in many ways, but comparing them on important traits does not support the conclusion that Israel's democracy or society are of a lower quality than those of the US.

Starting with election results (i.e., the focus of Obama's latest complaints), we see that the Israeli Knesset has a higher percentage of Arabs (14.2) than the US Congress has Blacks (8.6). To be fair, that may be partly due to Israel having a higher percentage of Arabs in its population (20.7) than the US has Blacks (12.6). If we look at the number of minority legislators in relation to the population of minorities, we find that the ratios in the two countries are about the same, with  Israel scoring a bit better, at 68.6, than the US at 68.3.

It's on a number of social traits where any US President must admit to shame. 

On key measures of health, Israel outscores the US by far. The following table for life expectancy indicates that Israeli Arabs live longer than American Whites, and much longer than African Americans.

US White Male
US White Female
US Black Male
US Black Female
Isl Jewish Male
Isl Jewish Female
Isl Arab Male
Isl Arab Female

A similar picture appears in the statistics for infant mortality. White American babies die within a year of birth at the rate of 6.8 per thousand live births, and Black American babies at the rate of 13.2 per thousand live births. The comparable statistic for Israeli Jews is 2.8 and Israeli Arabs 3.7.

Well know differences in personal security and criminality also suggest that Barack Obama has more to do than Benyamin Netanyahu by way of improving the quality of their societies.

The incidence of murder in the US is more than three times greater than in Israel, 5.0 as opposed to 1.6 per 100,000 population.

The US comes close to leading the world in the incidence of its population that is incarcerated. There are 707 people in American prisons per 100,000 population, compared to 249 in Israel. African Americans comprise 39 percent of those incarcerated, compared to their 12.6 percentage of the population.

Comparing Israel and the US on the important traits of education and family income is complicated by differences in the available measures. 

Nonetheless, Israeli Arabs stay in school a bit longer, with 85.9 percent of age peers reaching the end of high school as opposed to 84.2 percent of African Americans. Israeli Jews do even better compared to White Americans, with 92.1 percent staying to the end of high school as opposed to 87.6 percent.

Israeli family income statistics vary not only between Jews and Arabs, but also within those clusters. The average calculated for various communities of Israeli Arabs (Druze, Christians, and Muslims) show incomes that are 61 percent of non-Haredi Jews, but 16 percent higher than Haredi Jews. In the US, Black family income is 61 percent of White family income, i.e., the same as the overall standing of Israeli Arabs compared to non-Haredi Jews.

Racism from the left appears to have had a greater effect on the Israeli election than anything coming from the right. An aging artist, Yair Garbuz, opened the pre-election rally whose theme was "anybody but Bibi." Garbuz ranted about "amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints,”  who he saw a danger to the kind of country he could admire. His reference was to Jews, mostly of Middle Eastern origin, who cleave to a more traditional form of Judaism than is apparent in the fashionable coffee houses of Tel Aviv. Many of the "amulet-kissers" live in poor towns where their parents and grandparents were settled when they came to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, and they comprise an important component of Likud's political base. Labor activists expressed embarrassment and sought to distance themselves from the speaker who sought to advance their chances, while Likud focused on the condescension and contempt apparent in the comments, and used them as much as any Arab threat to attract their likely voters to the polls.

If Barack Obama could profit from such details about Israeli democracy and the relative qualities of life enjoyed by the minorities in Israel and the US, he should also think a bit more about settlements, 1967 borders, and a Palestinian state. The combination of those words has become the essence of an anti-Israeli mantra. However, with some 600,000 of us living over the 1967 borders, that border (representing an armistice that ended fighting in 1948, and that lasted for less than 20 years) has passed into history. 

If the American President wishes to help the Palestinians, he and his people should pause before condemning every new construction in post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem or the major settlement blocks. 

Pushing the Palestinians as well as himself to deal with realities might actually produce a Palestinian state, but there may not be many Israeli Jews willing to bet that either Barack Obama or the Palestinian leadership is up to the task.

It is also not clear if the leadership of Israeli Arabs is up to the task. One Knesset Member of the 13 on the United (mostly Arab) List was speaking just this week of Israeli occupation, rather than the prospects of cooperation for the mutual benefit of all the people.