Obama and the Middle East, part II: Emanuel redux

In the early 1990s, my best friend Joel and I both moved out the apartment we shared in New York’s West Village.  He was a photographer and artist, and I was a bit lost and trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I moved to Saudi Arabia to live with my parents and teach at a Saudi girls’ school, while Joel moved to Israel and joined the Israeli army, a first step towards gaining Israeli citizenship.  I was politically naive then, though I was vaguely aware of the way the Israeli state treated Palestinians because my father had told me about the time he traveled from Jordan to Israel and, crossing the Allenby Bridge, decided to go through the side of the checkpoint reserved for Arabs, instead of going through the tourist side.  My dad told me about how he saw first hand the way the soldiers verbally and physically abused Palestinians, while on the other side it was all welcoming cheer.  “Welcome to Israel! Have a great visit!  Want to stay on a kibbutz?”

So I didn’t think much of Joel’s decision to move to Israel and join the Israeli army, but I didn’t see it as a young man’s political statement; I saw it as a longing to simultaneously inject some military discipline into his bohemian life, escape the reach of his parents, and find his imagined roots (though none of his relatives were Israeli and as an Ashkenazi Jew he traced his heritage back to Eastern Europe).

Since there were no direct phone lines between Saudi Arabia and Israel, we really had to work hard to be able to talk to each other on the phone, but through some strange procedures that I don’t even remember, we somehow managed.  I remember once I called him and I asked him how his attempt to learn Hebrew was going.  He told me that it was going well, and that he was even learning some Arabic.  I asked him what he had learned.  He said, in Arabic, “Show me your identity card!” and “put your hands up!” and “Drop to the ground!”

“Is that all you’ve learned?” I asked him.  “You haven’t made any Palestinian friends?  You just order them around?”  Yes, he told me.  The only Arabs he knew were some dirty cheating people who ran a hummus shop in Jerusalem. They weren’t the sort that he wanted to hang out with.

I thought of this incident when I read about Rahm Emanuel’s repudiation of the remarks his father made to an Israeli newspaper when it asked the senior Emanuel about his son’s likely influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.   News outlets are widely reporting that the elder Emanuel said to the Israeli newspaper Ma’Ariv, “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.” 

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new White House Chief of Staff, subsequently responded to outcry from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, saying, “From the fullness of my heart, I personally apologize on behalf of my family and me. These are not the values upon which I was raised or those of my family.”

Setting aside the absurdity of Emanuel’s saying that these are not his family’s values in response to outcry over something that his father said (since who knows? perhaps Emanuel was raised by his mother), and assuming in good faith that the racist remarks of Emanuel’s father represent neither Emanuel’s own position towards Arabs nor that of the fledgling Obama administration, I want to pause and reflect on what it means to be able to publicly say something like that to a national newspaper.  It reminded me of my conversations with my friend Joel, in which he could say, without any embarrassment or shame, that Arabs were dirty cheats.

Joel is a good person.  He’s also not the sort of person who would ever have said a disparaging remark about African Americans, Latinos, or any of the other minorities living in New York City.  So there must have been something structural about going to Israel and joining the Israel army that had shaped his consciousness to the extent that it became thinkable to toss around ugly slurs and think of an entire group of people as there to be ordered to fall to the ground in the face of his petty bit of military authority.

I have a dark skinned Egyptian-American friend who once told me, speaking of Egyptians’ notorious prejudice against black Africans, that she preferred the open racism in Egypt to the hidden racism in the United States.  At least you knew what you were up against when people felt like they could express their prejudice openly.  In the U.S., people might be racists, but they knew they had to hide it most of the time, so it might inform their actions but you’d never know for sure.

I see her point.  And yet there is something very ugly about a society in which it is seen as reasonably acceptable to publicly characterize a group of people as janitors or dirty cheats.

–L.L. Wynn


4 Responses to Obama and the Middle East, part II: Emanuel redux

  1. Raffe says:


    In no way, shape or form do I condone the remarks that Rahm Emanuel’s father made. However, considering that Israel has been at a state of war with her Arab neighbor’s since her existence, wouldn’t you expect animosity towards Arabs?

    Despite peace being taught in the classroom as part of the curricula children still learn from their parents and those around them. If children see parents screaming about Arabs because a bus blew up or a nephew had been shot then of course they’re going to replicate their parents in their mistrust and hatred of Arabs.

    When I first arrived in Jerusalem I was talking to a friend of mine about what I should and shouldn’t do. He said to stay away from East Jerusalem and not to get into a taxi with green license plates because they were Palestinian taxis. My friend wasn’t racist but growing up in an area as unstable as Jerusalem meant that he had adapted his lifestyle.

    As soon as the conflict ends (hopefully soon) we’ll see an end to the mutual animosity and racism that plagues both sides. It will take at least a generation of peace but eventually children will grow up not experiencing the army appearing at the door at 2am or the shock of having a bus blow up down the street from their home.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Lisa. It would be good to now how Joel views the situation now.

    I’ve included a link that I put together reflecting on Obama, US policy on Israel and Rahm Emanuel.


    Stewart Mills

  3. Rob says:

    “No matter how you feel about it, the truth is:
    If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence.
    If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel.”

    -Author Unknown


  4. Lisa,

    Thanks for your sharing. It reminds me of the story of Ben Hur. Two childhood friends one Jewish, one Roman who become enemies after one becomes a soldier in the Roman Army (not that you and the friend you mention are enemies). Working as a volunteer in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam I once wrote about a similar story of one Jewish Israel boy and one Palestininan Israeli boy who had gone to school together but when the boys came of age one went to the army and one did not because he was Arab and the conflict this created in their childhood friendship later in their life.


    My ancestors acquired land on the upper Manning River (near Taree). There were remnants of the Biripi still living in that region. I would have no trouble in believing that my ancestors had disdain anger and hatred for the Biripi people. I have no surprise that my ancestors would have lashed out at Biripi for killing their cattle, for stealing from their crops or for attacking workers on the property.

    I can understand the anger and fear my ancestors may have had. They were dispossessed of their land from Scotland by the English. They came to a new land for a new chance at freedom. However, in doing so they took another’s freedom. They took the freedom of the Biripi and the 300 plus other Aboriginal nations land.

    Today Australians are trying to make amends in a small way to the traditional owners of this land. The journey is a long one.

    You may try and say my analogy with Israel is not the same. You may say that the Israel is the only home for Jews. I disagree. I support Sir Isaac Isaac’s view that the Torah and the Prophets should be used to support cultural Zionism rather than political Zionism if it is not adopted with the consent of the indigenous people of a region. See below an example of Sir Isaac’s views:

    MS2755/4/156 (National Library of Australia)
    A manuscript typed by Sir Isaac Isaacs in preparation for an Australian Outlook publication entitled ‘The Nationality of the Australian Jew’, 9 September 1947.

    “In a critique of the ‘Outlook’ by a representative organ of Political Zionism in Australia it is said that ‘we struggle for our Statehood on the soil of Palestine’’. It goes on to add ‘in the terms of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate for Palestine ’. The addition may be summarily disposed of. In my pamphlet on ‘Political Zionism’ (pages 25 to 46) it is incontrovertibly shown by documentary evidence that those two instruments neither contain, nor were intended to contain any provision for Jewish ‘Statehood’ in Palestine. And further that the Zionist Organisation in writing agreed to that…In any case there is no warrant, legal, or moral for making Palestine a Jewish State, any more than an Arab State, but there is every reason for making it what the Mandate terms it, a Palestinian nationality, that is bi-national…

    What our religious Faith comprehends (p. 4-5)
    …I do not think I can better answer the objection than by quoting again a few lines from Danziger on Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Though himself heartbroken by the destruction of the Temple, he endeavoured to console his weeping disciples. He said ‘Weep not and dry your tears; the enemy hath destroyed the sanctuary of brick and mortar, but the true altar of the Lord, the place of forgiveness, is with us yet. Would you know where? Behold in the homes of the poor, there is the altar; love, charity, mercy and justice are the offerings, the sweet incense which pleases the Lord, Love ye one another, and ye shall find mercy and forgiveness.’ Then cried they, ‘But, O Master, the sanctuary of the Lord is destroyed, Israel has disappeared, and therefore the Lord’s presence no longer abides with us’ Say not so, my children, said the Saint.’ Whithersoever the people of the Lord go, thither the holy presence goes with them’, Hillel spoke prophetically, says Danziger.”

    Also see:
    Palestine: Peace and Prosperity or War and Destruction? Political Zionism: Undemocratic, Unjust, Dangerous
    Ramsay Ware Publishing
    14 January 1946
    63 page booklet
    Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs KC PC GCB GCMG Associate Knight of St John of Jerusalem

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