Noble hopes, Nobel prizes and an ignoble world

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-11-09

Nobel-Prize-award week was yet another split-screen week for Israel, emphasizing the gap between Israel’s noble achievements and its adversaries’ ignoble aims, as well as between Barack Obama’s worldwide popularity and his unpopularity in Israel. Israel must do more to ensure it is a country filled with people like Ada Yonath, who won Israel’s ninth Nobel prize, and the first Chemistry Nobel for a woman since 1964. But Israel must also bridge the growing gap between Barack Obama’s saintly status in Europe and the skepticism he generates in Zion.

Israelis giddily celebrated Yonath’s extraordinary achievement; further proof that this little country has disproportionate impact in bettering this world, in revolutionizing science. The headline of one Jerusalem Post article noting that nine Israelis had won the prize (counting two Sveriges Riksbank Prizes in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel), read: “Closer to a Nobel Minyan.” The piece echoed my (and so many others’) Jewish parents’ questions when we came home from school with a 97: “Where are the other three points?”

Simultaneously, headlines speculated about a third intifada; rather than collecting Nobel Prizes, Palestinians were collecting stones to hide in wheelbarrows on the Temple Mount and building up rage over imagined insults. The latest trigger was the visit of French Christian tourists whom demagogic Palestinians decided were Jewish militants. The Israeli authorities had banned Jewish groups to keep order, but that did not stop the rabble rousers, led by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, who cries: “if Zionism isn’t eliminated, there will not be peace.”

Fortunately, peace reigned throughout most of Jerusalem, as tens of thousands thronged the Old City for Succot festivities. But once again, it seemed we needed a corollary to Golda Meir’s cliché. Meir supposedly said: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Peace will also come when the Palestinians are more passionate about building their state and society than destroying ours.

More ominously for Israel, the morning President Barack Obama received his Nobel Prize, Ha’aretz warned: “US administration angered over Israeli incitement against Obama.” The Nobel Prize is a collective European thumbs-up for Obama – and yet another “flip of the bird” – as we used to say in Queens – to George W. Bush. In 2002, Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize reflected European disdain for Bush’s unilateral War on Terror.

Seven years later, the counter-reaction against Bush persists. “Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared. “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.”

The more the world deifies Obama, the harder it is for Israel to defy him. Obama, despite all the hype, is only human. Adulation is addictive. The more he is worshipped, the less open the world’s wunderkind will be to criticism from Israelis – or anyone else.

Yes, Obama won the prize prematurely. Even the pro-Obama New York Times called the award “a decidedly mixed blessing … a reminder of the gap between the ambitious promise of his words and his accomplishments.”

Yet give Obama his due. The hope his election unleashed worldwide was amazing. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Nobel Prize citation says. During this dark recession year, America’s single greatest export has been the hope Barack Obama transmitted to billions of the disillusioned, the oppressed, the discriminated against throughout the world. This achievement may be Nobel Prize-worthy.

Alas, even with Obama in office, the world remains menaced by ignoble characters who disdain his noble aspirations. The jury is still out whether Obama’s politics of hope and diplomacy of engagement can work in a world of al Qaeda killers, North Korean dictators, Iranian madmen, Iraqi insurgents, Taliban fanatics, Afghani warlords, Pakistani generals, Russian strongmen, Saudi Sheiks, Sudanese slaughterers, Guinea rapists and Hamas terrorists. Moreover, hope is like a balloon: if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting and elevating, but if overblown, it pops. Historically, rising expectations have preceded revolutions, both constructive and destructive.

The contrast between noble societies that invest in science and ignoble societies addicted to terror, between noble political cultures that produce hope-generators like Barack Obama and ignoble political cultures that produce mass killers, remains daunting. Obama’s fate as president will not be determined by any Norwegian committee; it will be determined by how he reconciles his lofty hopes with the world’s ugly realities.

In dealing with Obamania, Israel faces a conundrum. It is not easy to stand out, to defy the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom, especially in Europe, has been wrong before, and is wrongheaded now, trusting a UN that has degenerated into the “Third World Dictators’ Debating Society.” Without that ability to think outside the box, the Zionist revolution never would have reestablished the Jewish state, nor would Ada Yonath have ever realized how antibiotics bind to ribosomes.

Professor Yonath recalled this week that experts warned her: “You won’t make it, what you want to do others have tried and failed, so it won’t happen.” Fortunately, she persisted. Eventually, her inspiration and perspiration paid off. Israel has no choice but to persist scientifically, diplomatically, militarily. This ugly world witnesses miracles every day. Ada Yonath ultimately succeeded. A self-described “skinny guy with a funny name” became a 48-year-old American president and Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Perhaps, with all the wisdom in this country, Israel can figure out how to make peace with Obama while achieving a true peace that is mutual, realistic, and brings out the best of all the peoples in the region.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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