TEL AVIV, Israel - “The problem is Obama is a Muslim.”
I waited for the punchline, or at least a sly grin.
“Wait,” I asked. “Did you just say President Obama is a Muslim?”
“Yes of course,” my host answered. “Everybody knows that.”
This was not what I expected to hear on this trip to Israel, not at all.
I came to Israel to get a feel for the Israeli mood on the latest situations in Syria and Iran. With the American presidential conventions in full swing, it also seemed like a good idea see how the Israelis feel about our presidential candidates, especially in light of the reported tension between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama. I’m still working on the former question, but I knew the answer to the latter one within a couple of hours of arriving.
Full disclosure: Back in 1977 I dropped out of college and took off for Europe with a camera, a backpack and about $150 in my pocket (you could fly to Brussels on Laker Air for about a hundred bucks). I ended up living on a kibbutz in Israel for almost eight months. And no, I’m not Jewish.
I returned to Israel in 1982 as a freelance photojournalist and traveled up the Green Line in Beirut to photograph the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) push the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) out of Lebanon.
In 1984 I flew directly into Beirut, again as a freelance photojournalist, to report on the Multi-National Forces, which included the British, the French, the Italians and the U.S. Marines, as they attempted to bring peace and stability to the region.
They failed, by the way.
It had been nearly three decades since I had been in the region, and the current round of threat and counter-threat between Israel and her neighbors seemed a good enough justification to come back and have a look around.
Much has surprised me, like the deep distrust of President Obama, for instance.
I lived on a kibbutz near the ancient fortress of Caesarea, built for Herod the Great in 25 BCE just about halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It’s a charming place, its citizens educated but mostly middle class.
My host took me back to his house and introduced me to his extended family, nearly all of whom were born after my last visit to the region.
After much general greeting and awkward attempts to learn and pronounce names, I asked the gathered group, some dozen Israelis ranging in age from 18 to 60, both male and female, what Obama’s religion is. All agreed he is a Muslim, and were surprised I didn’t know. No amount of explanation on my part made the least little dent in their point of view.
Obama is a Muslim. End of story.
And he's deeply distrusted by Israelis.
“You are not here to write something that will help Obama get re-elected, are you?” one family member asked with near horror in her voice.
Not my job one way or the other, I explained.
I did, however, believe it was my job to at least set the record straight: President Obama is a Christian.
I was happy to repeat it several times, slowly even. Obama. Is. A. Christian. Doing so, it turned out, was a complete waste of time.
I have now been here several days, and it has become a slightly amusing yet frustrating little game. Admittedly this is a non-scientific survey, yet I ask everyone I meet – soldiers, waiters, waitresses, people on the street, taxi drivers – what Obama’s religion is.
I have asked at least 100 people this simple question.
So far only one person has given the correct answer, and he is an immigrant from Chicago.
After the first several people offered their belief that our president is a secret Muslim, and after it became clear nothing I could say would change their mind on the issue, I began to ask for their evidence.
Some of it is plausible yet wrong; some of it is ridiculous and wrong; and some of it is so wrong it didn’t make any sense at all.
Here is a sample:
1. You can not have the name Hussein unless you are Muslim. As absolute proof of this, no one could think of anyone they had ever met named Hussein who wasn’t a Muslim. And as even further proof of this, it was made clear to me that when the president’s wife Michelle Obama gave her speech at the convention, which they all agreed was a good speech, she never once used the president’s middle name. (Aha!)
2. Unlike presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who was here recently, President Obama has not bothered to grace Israel with his presence for years (if you are a concerned Democrat, you may want to mention this to David Axelrod).
3. President Obama’s father was a Muslim, and the Muslim faith is patriarchal, unlike the Jewish faith, which is matriarchal. His father was a Muslim, ergo Barack is a Muslim whether he wants to admit it or not or even if he wants to be or not (not sure if a blood transfusion or gene therapy would reverse this, and I didn’t bother to inquire).
4. Obama spent his entire formative years in a madrassa in Indonesia. (Actually, Obama only spent 1967 to 1971 in Indonesia, and although he attended a Muslim school, it was not a madrassa. On the other hand, as they are quick to point out, it was a Muslim school.)
5. President Obama hasn’t bombed the bejeezus out of Teheran yet (wait, that may have been a neo-con who told me that one…).
And perhaps my favorite so far:
6. “If it walks like a Muslim duck, and it quacks like a Muslim duck, and it looks like a Muslim duck…”
In the few days I have been here, I have traveled to Tel Aviv, have been up and down the coast, have gone all the way up to the border with Syria and also over to the border with Lebanon.
Everywhere I stop I ask people what Obama’s religion is.
The answer is always the same: Muslim. Obviously.
At some level this is serious stuff.
“Of course Obama is Muslim,” a waitress at a café told me, “but what difference does it make? We can’t vote in your election.”
True enough. But last time I heard there is a powerful Jewish lobby tossing around a fairly large sum of money to influence the election outcome (not to mention some guy named Sheldon Adelson, who happens to have a bank account that seems to defy the concept of infinity). I doubt the Jewish lobby is supporting the candidate the entire country of Israel seems to believe has a keffiyeh hidden in his closet.
When I was up north, I stopped in at Mount Bental, a former strategic army outpost that is now a popular tourist destination with a 1,161 meter (3,800 foot) summit that overlooks the Syrian border.
A busload of retired folks from the U.S. of A. arrived and I struck up a conversation with a couple of gentlemen from California.
We talked about Duck football and Coach Chip Kelly.
After I left, it hit me I hadn’t asked them if Obama is a Muslim.
I should have.
There is at least a 50-50 chance they would have gotten it right.
Dan Morrison is on assignment in Israel for KVAL.com.
Morrison has previously reported for KVAL.com from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, embedded with U.S. Marines there fighting the Taliban.
Morrison teaches journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications in Eugene, Ore.