I had no idea who Kennedy was. As a second-grader, America was to me a far-off place where my uncle lived and where people were affluent and happy.
My father did not know much about America either and could not even speak English at the time. Still, the fact that Kennedy had won the election was a reason to wake up the kids.
It took almost 50 years for me to understand how my father felt on that night. I had the same experience of unabashed joy in the early morning hours of January 4th when I learned of Obama's victory in Iowa. This was not the joy one feels when one's favorite team wins a championship. Rather, it was the feeling that something very significant happened that could, potentially, affect the whole world.
My American friends find it strange that the US presidential elections mean so much to those of us who don't call America home. After all, how many
Americans feel passionate (or even know) about the elections in Canada or
Mexico, let alone Germany, France, or say, The Netherlands? So why would I, n Israeli citizen, be so interested? The seemingly obvious answer would be that the US and Israel are so deeply intertwined, militarily, economically, and politically. But the reasons for my interest are entirely different.
I feel the outcome of the American presidential elections will be crucial to the future of the entire world, particularly the developing world, in ways not normally taken into account. The so-called Third World is barely emerging from tribal consciousness - a perspective in which one sees oneself, first and foremost, as a member of a particular tribe or ethnic group rather than of a nation, let alone the world. It took the developed world many hundreds, if not thousands, of years to transit through various stages to make this shift. These days, due to globalizations and the complications of world politics and economy, developing nations are often forced to attempt such transitions in one or two generations.
As history attests, human beings are extraordinary adaptors and can sometimes respond very rapidly to pressures for change, as long as they see the light at the end of the tunnel. For decades, America was such a light for many around the world: anything characterized as American - ideas, products, people - was almost immediately considered good. America was the measuring rod, the standard for comparison.
Audaciously hopeful human being
But as any American who has traveled abroad recently knows well, this is no longer the case. America's image around the world has eroded so severely that in many countries the adjective "American" has become synonymous with exploitation, human rights violation, injustice, and repression.
America is perceived as a threat to traditional tribal and religious values, as an enemy of indigenous cultures, and a menace to the environment. This disillusion with America - and, by proxy, with modernity – pushes youngsters to follow extremist leaders who give them a much-craved for sense of worth in a world that otherwise relegates them to underdog status.
This is why the candidacy of Barack Obama is so promising. Obama is, indeed, an audaciously hopeful human being who exudes positivity and shuns cynicism. Just as he is inspiring the American young to embrace the political process or reaching across racial and political divides, I believe that he will also be able to rekindle in the hearts of many the belief in the basic goodness of America.
Put yourself in the shoes of a youngster in Africa, Iraq or Indonesia: can you imagine what effect it would have to see the non-white face of Obama –of Barack Hussein Obama - as the figurehead of the United States? Do you know how vital it would be for the psychology of youngsters in the developing world to be infected by the relentless positivity that Obama exudes? Do you think Hillary Clinton's image and message would have the same effect? Or McCain's?
Not by a long shot. Only Obama can re-inspire the lost confidence in America. And every youngster inspired by Obama is one less potential recruit or Osama.
We Israelis traditionally look at the candidates of a US election through the very specific prism of "whether or not he or she would be good for Israel." Some of my friends were surprised that I was so enthusiastic about Obama: "Clinton would be much better for us," they claimed. But I believe that what is good for Israel is a US president who is good for the world. A US president with whom the Palestinian boys would identify would make Israel, and the whole world, more secure. It would inspire people everywhere to embrace what America represents - modernity, freedom, civil society, and democracy.
I will be watching this election very closely because all six billion of us will be affected. And while I can't vote for Obama myself, I will certainly pray that Americans will.