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The Ultimate Antidote

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Two South Florida officials were arrested and led away in handcuffs on the same day last week. Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono were taken from their respective city hall offices. They were charged with corruption in two separate cases. It is alleged that both Pizzi and Marono took thousands of dollars in bribes. FBI agents say they’ve recorded many of the incriminating conversations. Both men were released on bail and are awaiting trial.

South Florida seems to be a particular magnet for this type of activity. The problem, however, is far from regional. Abuse of power by officeholders is endemic and widespread.

There are politicians of every level, from locals to heads of state, who succumb to a smorgasbord of transgressions. There are cases that involve misuse of funds, stealing, payoffs and graft. There are cases of misfeasance, nonfeasance and malfeasance. There are cases of “sexting,” harassment and involvement in a litany of inappropriate behavior. The scandals are plentiful, the details salacious.

How is it possible that those who are in the public eye would act in such a manner? Don’t they think of the possibility of getting caught? Why do they act with blatant disregard of the dictates of normal society? Why do they believe they are above it all?

The answer is sobering. Power and influence are quite heady. Its draw can be intoxicating. Those who succumb can become “drunk” with power.

Freudian psychology calls the dilemma the conflict between the id and the superego. Jewish tradition calls it the fight between the yetzer hara and the yetzer tov.

Jewish law has the ultimate antidote for the problem. The king in ancient Israel was given an excellent tool for managing his role as monarch. Instead of being presented with a royal scepter, he was mandated to carry something of much greater worth.

The king was required to always have a Torah scroll by his side. He was to read and study, reflect and learn. It was the ultimate insurance against an inflated sense unbridled entitlement.

The passage in Devarim states: “And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes to do them; that his heart be not lifted above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment.”

Flesh is weak. The pull of temptation is strong. It is good to understand that, ultimately, we all have to answer to a higher authority.

Chief Rabbis & Politics

Monday, August 5th, 2013

I have never been a fan of chief rabbis. Anyone appointed by committees, politicians, or bureaucrats is suspect in my eyes. Perhaps my antipathy is rooted in the days when both Napoleon and the czar appointed state chief rabbis whom they approved of because they were likely to support their agendas. I can say with confidence that, in general, the greatest rabbis, whether intellectually or spiritually, have never been interested in public appointments.

I don’t mean to say that all chief rabbis have been duds. Israel’s Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Isaac Herzog, and Uziel were great men by any criteria. Chief Rabbi Goren was a dynamic overachiever and a fearless innovator. Some, like Ovadiah Yosef, have been great scholars but poor spokesmen. But there have been too many others who were undiplomatic, corrupt, or ineffective. The reason can simply be put down to politics. When appointments are made by groups of political appointees (or self-appointed grandees) they invariably make the wrong decisions. Neither is public acclaim a reliable test of the best person for the job. Those who seek or need public recognition are rarely willing or able to take the tough and controversial stands that are the mark of genuine leadership.

Israel recently appointed two chief rabbis, both the sons of previous chief rabbis. I do not know either of them. But remarks I have seen attributed to them leave me deeply depressed that they will reflect a xenophobic, narrow perspective and shrink from trying to humanize the rabbinate. The political maneuvering, the arm twisting, the deals behind closed doors all point to a corrupt system. And once gain the innovative, the exciting have lost out. If a good man ever emerges it is despite the system not because of it. Nepotism is a poor way of producing great leaders. Yet throughout Jewish religious institutions nepotism is the norm rather than the exception. Yeshivot nowadays are often big family businesses (as indeed are most Chasidic dynasties).

Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi. This in itself is evidence of how flawed the system is, that in a small religion such as ours religious leadership cannot work together. In addition, in Israel, there is a huge disconnect between the religious leadership and the common person, between the state rabbinate and the Charedi world, which has its own authorities. Indeed the Charedi world always rubbished and abused the state rabbinate until, in the desperate search for jobs for the boys and power, it began to infiltrate and then take much of it over. Once again it has ensured that its candidates have got the jobs.

One of the first words in Ivrit I learnt was “protektsia” (yes, I know it comes from Russian). “Vitamin P” meant you could not get anywhere in Israeli life, from top to bottom, religious or secular, without knowing someone or having someone pull strings in your behalf. So it was and so it largely remains. When this disease infects religion, it loses its moral authority.

But surely, you will say, Judaism requires one to respect one’s religious leaders. In theory this is so. The Torah commands respect for princes and scholars. Our liturgy is full of references to their importance. But there are two very distinct types of leadership in our tradition. The prophet and the judge emerged through merit. That’s probably why there were women judges and prophets. Rabbis as a rule were the result of meritocracy (the rabbinic dynasties that began with Hillel wanted to have their cake and eat it). On the other hand, the priesthood and the monarchy were both hereditary, and both failed. Most of the Jewish kings were idolatrous, evil men, and most priests showed more interest in money and power than Divine service.

Moshe typified the meritocracy. This was why he always defended himself by referring to his spotless record. It is true we say that in each generation we must accept the leader, Jephtah in his generation as the equivalent of Samuel in his. But I believe that has another meaning, of the need to accept the best we can get.

“Pray for the welfare of the ruling powers because otherwise humans would swallow each other up,” says the Mishna. That very Hobbesian idea underpins our modern secular states. But as Locke argued, if the king failed to do his job, you could and should get rid of him. This is why we pray for the State wherever we live, even as we may try our best to vote out whoever the current prime minister is. We in the West have recently experienced the irrational hysteria over a royal baby. I have no interest in ordinary people being elevated to positions of power or even symbolic authority simply on the basis of birth. There are enough inequalities in life of rank and wealth. I like the fact that we can vote people out of office as much as in. If I choose to respect someone, it is on the basis of the respect he or she earns, not the position they have been given. The diploma should be greater than the diaper.

I look forward to Elijah’s arrival. I hope he will not try to reinstate the monarchy. But I am pretty sure he will not insist on two kings, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi.

One of the reasons for so much disillusion with religion is precisely this disconnect between how its leaders too often behave and speak and their own purported religious values. The more we see how susceptible religious leadership is to money, power, and fame, the less good the religion they represent looks. I don’t care too much what politicians like Spitzer or Weiner get up to, and if people want to vote for them that’s their problem. But when religious leadership behaves like political leadership, something is very wrong.

Why Did Ben Gurion Agree to Army Exemptions for Haredim?

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Today I was talking to a neighbor who told me that he’s in the middle of a book about IDF Chief Rabbi HaRav Shlomo Goren.  One of the things that surprised him was the good relationship between HaRAv Goren and Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, even though Ben-Gurion is known as being rather anti-religious.  Whenever HaRav Goren needed something, Ben-Gurion agreed.  My neighbor found that surprising.

That made me think.

One of the biggest issues in Israel today is whether or not to continue the draft exemption for full time yeshiva students. Historically, this was due to an agreement Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had made with  the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz.  My feeling about it has always been that Ben-Gurion did not want Hareidim in the IDF because he didn’t want a religious army.  Maybe Ben-Gurion’s acquiescence to the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Goren was for a different reason, and I’m not referring to the one mentioned on Israel Matzav:

As many of you know (because some of you have even met me there), I attend a weekly Torah class in Jerusalem. The rabbi who gives the class once told us that he met a man who knew someone who had asked David Ben Gurion why he allowed a religious education system to be created in the new state at all. Ben Gurion responded that he figured that within a generation, all attachment to traditional Judaism would die out anyway, so why fight with them. On this, as on many other matters, Ben Gurion was clearly wrong.

Ben-Gurion certainly wasn’t nice to the Revisionists, Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, those who had fought for Israel’s independence with the Etzel and Lechi.  He had even sent the Palmach to shoot at the Jews on the Altalena, a horrendous act for sure.

Could Ben-Gurion’s agreement to defer/exempt Haredim, studying full-time in yeshivot from the IDF have been to get the political support and loyalty of the Haredi leadership?  Ben-Gurion would do anything to make sure that Menachem Begin’s Herut Party would stay out of power.

Well, what do you think?

Visit Shiloh Musings.

Morsi Cancels Constitutional Decrees

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

Following days of violent protests in Egypt, Egyptian President Morsi cancelled the constitutional decrees he issued for himself last month that gave him more power. Despite the declaration, it is unclear though if Morsi is actually gave up the new powers he took for himself.

The December 15th referendum on the constitution will go ahead as planned, despite the massive protests against it.

What I Learned from Hurricane Sandy

Friday, December 7th, 2012

I am writing this column as Hurricane Sandy is barreling through the greater New York area, after having sorted a load of clean laundry by the light of a group of yahrtzeit candles and having washed my supper dishes with the aid of a clip on barbeque lamp. My electricity went out almost four hours ago and thoughts of what I did right and what I did wrong in preparation for a one of a kind storm that ironically, bears my name are still fresh in my mind.

Hurricane Sandy marks the second time I have had my electricity knocked out by a late October storm, having lost power exactly one year ago for five and a half days during a freak snowstorm that turned my little corner of the world into something that looked more like a war zone than a picturesque hamlet in New York’s Hudson Valley. In light of last year’s storm, I thought I had all my pre-storm preparations under control, but I can tell you right now that I was wrong and I am hoping that as we celebrate the anniversary of last year’s power outage with yet another blackout, I will finally learn my lesson and be better prepared for future meteorological mishaps.

I should add that this is by no means a comprehensive guide to weathering a storm (no pun intended.) Those are available by the dozen on the Internet, although you obviously want to read those before the storm blows through and totally decimates your wireless connection. These are just random tips that I have had the unfortunate opportunity to collect during too many days without electricity.

Lesson Number 1: It doesn’t matter what the season, storms can be very serious business and should be respected, given their ability to wreak havoc with our lives, particularly in this day and age when our lives revolve around numerous items that require electricity. So be it a hurricane, a nor’easter, a blizzard or a tropical storm, don’t underestimate the weather’s ability to do major damage.

Lesson Number 2: Just because you think you are prepared for a storm doesn’t mean you are. I know I have enough flashlights for every member of my family and that I have a basket full of batteries sitting in my closet. Yet, somehow, almost all the flashlights have disappeared and I am almost completely out of AA and D batteries, the two sizes I need for the few flashlights that didn’t mysteriously vanish into thin air. Keep a flashlight next to your bed at night and if you are going out and will be coming back after dark, take a flashlight with you. Unless you have lived through a blackout, you can’t possibly imagine just how dark it can get when there is no power anywhere in your neighborhood.

Lesson Number 3: Flashlights are probably not the only light sources you own. Put your kids to work and have them dig out all the munchkin sized flashlights they have gotten as prizes and those mini booklights they use to read under their blankets at night when they are supposedly fast asleep. A clip-on barbeque lamp has turned out to be the best birthday gift my sister-in-law has ever gotten my husband as it travels from room to room, particularly useful when you don’t want to shower in the dark, and a set of battery operated tea lights we bought as a decorative accent for my daughter’s vort five years ago were the perfect light source to illuminate both the stairs and the upstairs hallway.

Lesson Number 4: You can never have too many yahrtzeit candles in your house. While it is important to only light them on a non-flammable surface, far away from any flammable objects, and it goes without saying that candles are a serious hazard when there are small children around, yahrtzeit candles are easily moved, and with their flames generally confined inside their containers, are far safer than regular candles. Be warned that glass ones have been known to crack, with devastating results, so be sure to buy the metal ones.

Obama and Morsi: Separated at Birth

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

In Cairo, Morsi scribbles his decrees and in Washington DC, Obama scribbles his. There is an ocean between the two men, but there is a good deal that they have in common. Both are ideologues who piggybacked on public outrage over the national impact of international economic declines to climb to power and pursue their true agendas.

Without worries about the price of bread, the odds are good that Mubarak would be sitting in his old place and Morsi would be looking over the latest economic reports from the Brotherhood’s business networks and front groups. And without a sharp decline in American living standards, Mubarak would be receiving phone calls from President McCain urging him to democratize Egypt, while Obama would be rallying the troops at the latest SEIU event for taking back Congress.

Times of crisis are political hunting grounds for extremist groups whose ideologies would otherwise be unpalatable. Angry people are more willing to accept the previously unacceptable to shake up the system and punish those that they blame for their economic situation. They are in the long run, only punishing themselves, but the long run rarely wins elections. The short run however is the all-time ballot box winner.

But the problem with running on the old Bolshy platform of “Land, Bread and Peace” is that the people eventually expect you to deliver at least two of three. And ideologues are not interested in empowering people. They will hand out subsidized freebies to their supporters to win elections, but they won’t empower them economically, outside their network of subsidies, and peace is never on the table with folks who believe utopia is just a hundred years of war away.

There is a point midway between the cheering for hope and change, and the complete consolidation of power in the hands of a tyrannical system when the tyrant is vulnerable. That window is the one that opens when the people begin realizing that there is no land, bread or peace on the horizon. Their eyes haven’t opened, but their patience has run out.

Morsi has tried to cut the duration of the window as narrowly as possibly by moving quickly to consolidate his power, but that brought on a second crisis and a wave of popular protests. Triggering those protests prematurely may have been his plan, but that plan may have also backfired. The only way to tell will be retroactively.

Obama’s ObamaCare power grab was generally held to be premature, but even though the majority continues to oppose it, the man behind the program survived an election thanks to a hurricane and plenty of voter fraud. Morsi may similarly be able to survive his own power grab. An Islamist is, if nothing else, absolutely immune from the sort of human emotions that animate normal leaders.

The advantage of being an ideologue is that you simply do not care what infidels think and anyone who is not a member of your mental club is an infidel. Transnationalists, whether of the leftist or Islamist flavor, are men who live without a country. Their country is an imaginary global utopia, the infinite Reich of dreams, the Caliphate of their conspiracies and the World Revolution that can never be.

That disregard is what allows men like Obama and Morsi to survive the widespread hatred and contempt of a country, to sneeringly dismiss it, and get on with the program of taking it over. Bush and Mubarak could be hurt by how their own countrymen saw them. But Obama is not an American and Morsi is not an Egyptian. Obama is a Progressive and Morsi is an Islamist. Their approach to anyone outside that circle is limited to distinguishing between potential converts and useful idiots.

Bad leaders can be protested out of office. Ideologues can only be forced out of office. And that isn’t easy. Any movement with enough money, skills and leverage to take their man all the way to the top is not going to fold just because the streets are full of protesters or because legal action is being taken against them. The cadre of such movements consists of men with no regard for any of laws of a society and who are entirely willing to destroy a country rather than give it up.

With a Pocketful of Democracy

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

The age of the encyclopedia salesman and the vacuum cleaner salesman peddling heavy bundles of books and snakelike cables door to door is done. But the age of the democracy salesman has taken its place.

No longer do bright young lads tote along everything there is to know about the letter E in one omnibus volume or demonstrate how the latest Suck-O-Zoom can get stains out of any carpet as an introduction to the wonders of free enterprise. Instead, if they haven’t been sidetracked by the siren lure of the dot com or the minimum wage job, they, like the late Christopher Stevens, jet off to foreign climes with FDR’s Four Freedoms under one arm and a local dictionary under the other to convince the natives that their lives will be freer, brighter and shinier with the Demo-O-Vote as the arbiter of their holy wars.

Like a lot of salesmen, the democracy salesman has never really stopped to wonder why any of his prospective customers should want to buy democracy for only twelve easy payments of bloody civil war? Born in a society where democracy has been idolized for the last century, where cleanliness and godliness may have gone by the wayside, but democracy is still one of those faded old virtues that the arbiters of the Living Constitution haven’t taken out back and put a bullet in its head in between elections and commercial breaks, they have never thought to consider that anyone might not want their democracy.

In an amoral society, democracy is one of the few things left to us by dead white men that is held to be a virtue, rather than a vice. It goes unquestioned because to most people it represents the power of the common man over his rulers, even if the common man no more rules his rulers than he did some two-hundred years ago. But democracy for the grandfathers of the salesmen goes deeper than fact. It represents a classless society where one man is as good as another and there are no lords or kings.

This however is not the effect of American democracy, it is rather the cause of American democracy, particularly in its Jacksonian flavor. And that old Scots-Irish flavor can be served locally, but it can’t be exported. The ballot box is not a society of rugged individualists, it is not a classless society where no one bends a knee before lords or the ascension of the common man. Those are features you can see in the showroom, but they don’t come with the device.

In our democracy salesmanship we never really troubled to ask ourselves why the Muslim world would want democracy and what it would do with it. Saddam Hussein bought 4000 Playstation game consoles, not because he was trying to train suicide bombers on copies of Sonic the Hedgehog, but because some of its components could be used in weapons. Those Muslim groups most interested in democracy were looking to weaponize it as well.

To the Muslim world, democracy did not mean individualism, it meant majority rule. Our democracy salesmen conceived of the Muslim world divided between the rule of its dictators and the will of its people.

The innate assumption in that use of “the people” as applied to people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds is very American. When used by the left, “the People” carries it with the ominous resonance of a collectivization that transcends all individual attributes. But when used by that old fashioned creature, the pre-post-America ‘American’  it throbs with the assumption that the people of a free society will unite around their freedoms, rather than around their identities. That assumption may be outdated, but it is still what we expected Iraqis and Egyptians to do. And our salesmen never really got around to asking what being a people meant to Iraqis and Egyptians, rather than Americans.

The Muslim world is not divided between the dictators and, that construct, the people. It is divided between the possible dictators that different groups within it champion.

There is no conflict between Assad and the Syrian People, because there is no Syrian people. There are Neo-Shiite Alawites and Sunni Salafists battling it out in the ruins of major cities, over the bodies of Christians, to decide who will rule Syria. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood might win an election, but that election would not elevate it as the choice of the people, but as the choice of a sectarian coalition whose religious affiliates happen to be in the majority. Peoplehood is an illusion in places where there are too many peoples, too many guns and the government is the way that one group forces its will on another.

Democracy, under such circumstances, is a way for the majority to assert its identity as the defining national identity. And once that’s done, future elections become optional. Egypt’s election was no more about the ascension of the common man or individual freedom than Saddam Hussein was busy playing with his Playstation in the hole while waiting for the Americans to come and get him. Like the American elections of 2012, it was about entitled groups elevating a totemic figure on a pole that represented their identity. And when group identity is asserted as national identity, then elections come down to demographic contests where group power, not ideas or policies, is the true prize.

Group votes don’t lead to human rights, they lead to group privileges. They lead to rights for some and no rights for others. They lead to a group state where group membership is citizenship and lack of group membership is treason. And that is exactly what the Arab Spring has given us;an Egypt where religion defines citizenship and a Syria where religion determines who you’ll be shooting at. This is Muslim democracy and it’s a foolproof recipe for civil war and tyranny, in any order.

Dictatorship is democracy and democracy is dictatorship. Elections don’t lead to a marketplace of ideas and smooth transitions, but to populist power grabs that eventually end in new revolutions. When no one group emerges as the winner, then there is a transitional period of chaos that some mistakenly assume are the birth pangs of democracy, but actually act as the prelude to the rise of a new tyranny. Where the population is do divided and the military is so inept that no such tyranny is possible; you end up with Lebanon. Perpetual civil war.

There might be a way out of this conundrum, but parachuting elections into the region is not the answer. Nor is getting rid of the dictators only to replace them with new dictators. And really why should we expect Egyptians or Iraqis to be able to do what millions of our own citizens cannot? When our country is ruled by a man who commands demographic bloc votes, then who are we to tell Egyptian Muslims not to act like them?

And that raises the final question. Who are we really selling democracy to and why? The Arab Spring stampeded otherwise sensible people into believing that they had to buy into an inevitable trend or be left behind. But there was no inevitable trend. Not even Islamism is truly inevitable. The inevitable progress of history is a progressive myth. History is not the inevitable outcome of a philosophy, but the accumulated interpretations of past events.

History did not arrive in the Arab Spring, it was manufactured, shipped and uncrated in Tahrir Square by legions of hardworking activists and reporters. And the history isn’t going where they expected it to. And it won’t even go where the Islamists expect it to. Because there are two kinds of democracy. One is the tame democracy of the ballot box where people vote in a fixed pattern. And then there is the wild democracy of crowds, of the chaotic interactions between popular needs and patterns of power. The overgrown territories of that wild democracy is where inevitable history goes off to die.

We were told that the end of the era of dictators had arrived. And here is Morsi squatting on a brand new throne while the mobs cry for his head in Tahrir Square. The inevitable history has become caught in its own circularity in a region where events have a way of repeating themselves, even more so than they do on the outside. The era of dictators has neither begun nor ended. It merely goes on existing for as long as people go on crying for freedom when they really mean power.

The United States sought to end the cycle of violence by replacing dictators with elections, but it was a doomed course of action considering how close the United States has been drifting to electing dictators. American politics has had its ups and downs, but it has been relentlessly polarized for the last twenty years with no end in sight.

All the efforts invested into promoting democracy abroad might have been better employed by working safeguard the character of a nation that is capable of choosing its representatives through elections, rather than using those same elections to ratify its tyrants. Egypt will be Egypt and Iraq will be Iraq. It is up to their people to find a way out of their cycle of violence and tyranny. Our task is to make certain that America remains America and that we do not find ourselves in the same cycle as the protesters challenging tyranny in Tahrir Square.

Originally published at Sultan Knish.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/daniel-greenfield/with-a-pocketful-of-democracy/2012/12/04/

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