How To Destroy a Nation

To understand how societies decline and disintegrate, look at this tale of two cities. I spent a few days last month in Minsk, Belarus, a city today of two million people that was completely destroyed during World War II and then built anew. Its streets are clean, with ultra-modern buildings and housing, spacious boulevards, interspersed with parks and lakes, no crime, no homeless and no attacks on Jews in several decades. Oh yes, the people cannot vote in any meaningful election as the country is ruled by an authoritarian, but the city is completely devoid of the drabness that typifies the old Communist capitals.

New York City, by contrast, is filthy, rat-infested, crime-ridden, with a crumbling infrastructure, garbage littering the streets, tens of thousands of homeless in the streets and almost daily assaults on Jews. And, yes, people get to vote (and do) for the same politicians every few years. This is the dark side of democracy, and its failed mayor now wishes to be president.

On the surface, why would anyone choose to live in NYC instead of, say, Minsk? The esthetics of Minsk easily surpasses those of New York. This is meant neither to romanticize dictatorships nor simply to extol the virtues of the trains running on time, not that the latter is unimportant. And clearly, democracy entails more than the limited ability to vote for one’s leaders. Belarus’ economy is state-controlled as per the Chinese model. Although there are economic opportunities and entrepreneurship, and massive building projects throughout the city, greater opportunities still abound in America. And it would be hard for an American raised with constitutional rights to freedom of expression and others to tolerate the limitations on speech that all totalitarian countries demand. (Freedom of religion is guaranteed. The shul in Minsk has no guard or security, which, as the Rabbi said, has never been needed.) It is fascinating that we encountered several Israelis who had been young olim from the former Soviet Union and who have now returned to live and work in Minsk – notwithstanding their inability to vote for their leaders.

Still, seeing the exterior of what was once a backwards country and is now ultra-modern makes one wonder about the survivability of democracies that fail to address the concerns and needs of its citizens. The USA today is a troubled country, and casting blame at President Trump or the Resistance to President Trump actually obscures rather than illuminates its troubles, and makes rectification much more difficult. We tend to believe that the status quo never changes, and that powerful empires cannot collapse – until they do. Indeed, the truism of history is that something that is always is – until it is not. And that last stage shocks the onlookers, even if it was predictable.

So how do great nations fail?

President Xi of China said a few years ago, before he began his crackdown on the limited freedoms Chinese enjoyed, that “to destroy a nation, you must first destroy its history.” The United States is doing a magnificent job in that respect. Several generations of American students have grown up learning in American public schools how the US has always been a force for evil in the world, marred by its original sins of stealing land from the Indians and enslaving blacks, and guilty of attempted colonization of various parts of the world and of creating a rapacious capitalist economy that rewards the few and hobbles the many.

Ironically, each point can be argued, but to look at America this way is to embrace a grotesque picture and a bizarre distortion of its founding principles, purpose and politics. The Indians had limited claims to sovereignty; most of the land was vacant. Slavery, accepted then across the world as normative, was indeed the dark cloud that hovered over the American experiment. The founders argued over it and dealt with it – and eventually fought a war over it that claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans – more than 300,000 dead who were enlisted in the cause of abolishing slavery. Never in the history of mankind had so many free people fought and died to gain freedom for the enslaved.

Yet, those founders who wrestled with slavery and those Union soldiers who fought to end it are never credited for their morality or sacrifice. It is as if the sin of slavery can never be expiated.

What is studiously ignored is the fact that these same founders created – for the first time in human history – a republic in which people voted for or against their leaders in regular elections (beginning only with male, white landowners, and then gradually expanding over two centuries to include all citizens), which guaranteed the natural freedoms of speech, worship, assembly and the press and curbed the power of the state to prosecute and imprison the ordinary citizen. These same founders created a system of government with three branches, with checks and balances to ensure that what had bedeviled other attempts at self-government would not impair this one. And this American republic has endured quite well through wars and other hardships, and through massive immigration at various times in its history that completely changed the fabric of nation, while asking only that the new immigrants see themselves as Americans and not as foreign nationals residing in the United States.

Decades of teaching and underscoring the negatives of US history, and downplaying its historic successes, have led many young Americans to disparage the American experiment, recoil at the notion of American exceptionalism, and in the case of one recent American president (who also rejected American exceptionalism), traveling the world apologizing for America’s sins while being disdainful of America’s generosity and benevolence towards countries in need.

That is one way to begin the process of destroying a country. The widespread ignorance by most Americans of their history, system of government, accomplishments and successes is breathtaking – those who place the Civil War in the 1940’s and World War II in the 1840’s; those who cannot name their congressman, Senator, or even one Supreme Court justice, etc. – and sobering.

Another way to destroy a nation is for the elites to use the political system to gain power and wealth, and not at all to accomplish anything for the people. This sadly typifies American politics today. The obsession with President Trump – an obsession that has blinded the political class to the need to secure the borders, regulate immigration, rebuild the infrastructure, reward individual merit and not group identity, reform the health coverage system in which so many pay so much to get so little – will require an exorcism to uproot. It is beyond the irrational and has reached the level of the inexplicable and pathological.

The stability of any society is endangered when the political system is no longer responsive to the needs of the public, and especially when the society is composed not of individuals all claiming the same rights and privileges but different groups, basing themselves on accidental or ancillary characteristics, claiming for themselves special rights and privileges and willing to use force if their demands are not met. That has engendered the fear of controlling legal immigration and banning illegal immigration, of having college admissions or job opportunities based primarily on merit, of allowing the people the self-expression to live their lives even though they spread disease (measles in some of our communities and now the typhus in LA) and soil the streets of major cities (as in San Francisco, among other places).

A country that no longer has common bonds, a shared history, or a collective identity will disintegrate. Right now there are two Americas that barely interact or understand each other. Wait until there are four or five such Americas.

Another way to destroy a civilization is to saturate the masses with mindless, stultifying entertainment to distract them from the failure of the ruling class to solve any outstanding problem or even to deal with them constructively. And then legalize a range of narcotics that will lead to further stupefaction. Add to that a culture that is awash in moral relativism, that has abandoned even the lip service once paid to biblical morality, that has no clear conception of moral rights and wrongs or any cogent way to ascertain them and whose national birth rate has fallen below replacement level, and we have a society that is adrift and yet celebrating the disappearance of traditional values.

Typically, today, the elites argue over who is a boy and who is a girl, or none of the above, or all of the above, while every few weeks there is a mass shooting that takes multiple lives. The right to murder full-term fetuses and even newborns is revered by too many people, even as tens of thousands of people annually drug themselves to death. That is a society that is incapable of dealing with any substantive issue with anything more than clichés, or with proposed solutions that have no chance of succeeding but will attract the most votes to put those who proffer them into power.

Here is another tried and tested method of destroying democracies: investigate and hamstring the leaders to the point of paralysis, while simultaneously intimating to all the nation’s adversaries to just wait the guy out. It is increasingly clear that such messages have been sent to countries as diverse as Iran, China, Mexico, North Korea and others – there is no need to negotiate or concede anything because there will be a better deal to be obtained in a year or two (or five). As democratic leaders change fairly frequently (in the US it is every four or eight years; in Italy, every four or eight months), autocracies have the upper hand in negotiations and their negotiating positions have staying power. No wonder China steals American intellectual property with impunity.

A society that doesn’t understand or derides its history, that revels in its decadence, that harasses its leaders and that sees every problem through the prism of the zero-sum game of politics gives democracy a bad name. When most people despair of solving any of the nation’s ills and just want their team to win, the idea of a benevolent, G-d-fearing dictator becomes much more attractive.

Of course the practical problem is the dearth of dictators who are actually benevolent and G-d-fearing. And that is how nations wither, wane and disappear.

Everything is as it is, until it isn’t. And the seeds have already been sown.

 

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The War on Truth

“The world only endures in the merit of those who restrain themselves (and do not respond) during times of strife” (Masechet Chulin 89a).

How quaint that must sound in modern times, especially in an era notably marked by acrimony, recriminations, libel, slander, gossip, name-calling and outright lies. Not responding to an insult, slur or accusation is considered foolhardy and unmanly, and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Similarly, the Torah’s injunction against lashon hara, speech – even if true – that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject in the eyes of the listener, is particularly eccentric these days, honored only in the breach thereof. We can and should try but even if we succeed, the culture is so awash in personal vilification that it is impossible to remain above the fray.

From “deplorables” to “losers” and everything in between, modern discourse has become so coarsened that there is no obvious way to reverse this onslaught, partly because it is also entertaining. Wikipedia specializes in underscoring and exaggerating peccadilloes, errors, misstatements, and the like that often results in a caricature of its subjects. Worse, it relies primarily on media accounts, which are often half-baked and half-witted attempts at furthering someone’s agenda, and occasionally will publish information without source or citation – in other words, totally made up or heard by A from B who read it somewhere.

Truth is the first casualty of war but truth itself has become just another version of a narrative. We tend to believe and propagate anything good about someone we like and anything bad about someone we don’t like; objective truth is not really relevant. This is perhaps the greatest failing of today’s advocacy journalism.

Take one recent example – a well known declaration by a prominent individual, debunked but still extant – and we will understand the dangers that abound.

The whole world knows that two years ago President Trump called “some” Nazis and white supremacists “very fine people.” Even Joe Biden referred to this in his campaign announcement. For this, the President was lambasted as a Jew-hater, a dog-whistler, and a closet neo-Nazi himself – all risible, tendentious and false accusations. But of course, he said no such thing, as those who listened to that press conference and read the transcript with an open mind and a clear eye can easily ascertain.

In the wake of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia back in August 2016, Trump said this in response to a “journalist’s” question: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group.  But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.  You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did.  You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

     Moments later, he added, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” 

How did that become “Trump supports Nazis, deems some of them very fine people?”

There were actually four groups in Charlottesville that fateful day: the two major groups represented people advocating for the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks and people protesting against the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks. Those were the two groups who had come to demonstrate and, indeed, there were “very fine people” on both sides. That debate is an especially vexing one, with cogent arguments on both sides that has been addressed here. The removal of General Lee’s and other Confederate statues has, as predicted, engendered the demand for the removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and even George Washington and other legendary American heroes. But we can whitewash all of history by erasing the memories of imperfect people because, after all, we are all imperfect. Christopher Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant and even Martin Luther King all had their sins and prejudices that could lead to their public expunction by the self-anointed League of Perfect People which sits in judgment of everyone.

I can see both sides without calling pro-statue people racists and anti-statue people troglodytes.

There were two other groups in Charlottesville that day – the white supremacists and their Antifa counterparts. Both sides came with hatred and violence and both were only tangentially related to the statue demonstrations. Thus, there were many people who supported removing the statues who were not associated with Antifa and many who opposed their removal who were not neo-Nazis.

It is clear that Trump referred to the first two groups as those containing “very fine people on both sides,” and not at all to the Antifa-White Nationalist rioters. So how were his remarks distorted to make it appear as if he was praising Nazis? How, indeed. It is because that suited the narrative of his enemies who assume the worst about him and find confirmation everywhere they wish.

Of course, the President often says colorful, off-color and regrettable things – but honesty dictates criticizing him for what he does say and not mangling what he did not say in order to further an agenda.

Nonetheless, all this reinforces another societal norm: if you have to explain, you have already lost. Leaders are admonished: “Sages, be careful with your words… (Avot 1:11). But that doesn’t give anyone a license to distort, disfigure, or twist someone’s words, propound them in the most negative light possible, or just lie about them.  And there are dozens of such examples among public figures and even in our private lives, where the tendency to believe the worst about people is too accepted and further inquiries about the disparaging information are deemed unwarranted or unnecessary.

That this has become almost a sport further degrades our lives and compels us to adhere ever more closely to the norms of communication mandated by the Torah. But it also confirms the observation of the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: “Don’t waste your time with explanations: people only hear what they want to hear.”

The Holocaust: The Darkness and the Light

Here is a video of a speech I delivered for Yom Hashoah at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, NY, on May 1, 2019.

Dayenu

This is the Dayenu for President Trump, based on the simple realization that there has never been a president as pro-Israel as Trump, and it is almost unthinkable that there will ever be another. Let us count the ways, individual acts for which alone we would sing Dayenu, “it would have been enough:”

  • If Trump had only ceased calling the Palestinians “refugees,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only rejected the notion that the fate of the Palestinians is the crux of every conflict in the Middle East, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only halted financial aid to the Palestinian Authority to protest their diabolical “pay to slay” program, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only questioned the wisdom and viability of the two-state illusion, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only devastated ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only canceled the Iran nuclear deal and committed to thwarting an Iranian nuclear bomb, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only acknowledged Israel’s right to settle throughout its ancestral homeland, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only vetoed every anti-Israel resolution tabled at the United Nations, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Commission and from UNESCO for their vicious anti-Israel bias, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self-defense, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only formally recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only routinely denounced the scourge of Jew hatred, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only said – as he did after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – that “those who are trying to destroy the Jewish people, we will destroy them,” it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only ostracized anti-Israel voices in America, it would have been enough;
  • If Trump had only warmly befriended Israel’s Prime Minister and its people, it would have been enough.

That is some list, even without reciting the al achat kama v’chama that would marvel at the achievement of each of the above. It is unprecedented in the history of the relationship of the United States and Israel and the president is only two years into his administration. Of course, there have been other presidents who were “pro-Israel,” and others who were less than friendly – but there has never been a President whose support was unambiguous and influenced so many other nations around the world as this President. We should be thankful, and express our gratitude without hesitation.

Gratitude is an especially cherished virtue among Jews and particularly on Pesach when we celebrate our nation’s founding. And even if we limit the real Dayenu to the King of Kings, we do acknowledge that, as King Shlomo put it, “Like streams of water the heart of a king is in G-d’s hands…” (Mishlei 21:1).

Sure, he may tweet a bit too much and much too vividly at times, and one can quibble with a questionable policy here and there, and others can criticize a character weakness or two, but we betray ourselves and our deepest values if we do not express gratitude. Only a Trump, not beholden to the tired thinking of all the old Middle East experts and their evenhandedness, their failures, and their anti-Israel animus scarcely concealed, could have pulled this off –a re-alignment of American foreign policy.

And even if Jews are not one-issue voters, it behooves us to at least acknowledge the contrast with prior presidents – some of whom made promises they did not keep, berated Israel and Jews when new rooms were added on to apartments in Ofra and Kiryat Arba, never acknowledged (or acknowledged grudgingly) Israel’s natural, historic, religious and moral right to its homeland, embraced wholeheartedly the chimeras of “land for peace” and the “two state illusion,” urged restraint and proportionality whenever Jews were attacked and wished to retaliate and pre-empt future attacks, and were obsessed with again partitioning the land of Israel and excising its heartland from Jewish sovereignty.

Whether President Trump is guilty of the crime of obstruction of justice or the virtue and natural right of obstruction of injustice (it seems more like the latter) will be settled according to the new American custom: by the media. As for us, even Jewish Democrats should at least acknowledge these blessings and how the current administration has strengthened Israel – and regardless of the fanciful “deal of the century” coming down the road. We should not only see maror but open our eyes to the wonders of a friendship and alliance that has achieved heretofore unimaginable heights.

Sometimes we are tested with an abundance of good and not the incidence of evil. That too is a gift of Providence for which we should be ever grateful.

 

The Rishon Who Thwarted Arab Terror

      We can start with two trivia questions – trivia, but not trivial. What three word phrase in the hagada is the most frequently recited? That’s the relatively easy question. The more difficult one is this: what paragraph did Rav Soloveitchik say is the most important in the hagada? If you know the first, the second should come naturally. And it all goes to prove this amazing story, a true story entitled “how the responsum the Rashba (Rav Shlomo ibn Aderet, 1235-1310) of the eliminated the terrorists.”

     The Gemara (Pesachim 33a) states that one can only give terumah to a kohen if he is able to consume it immediately but not if it is something that he would have to burn. For example, “wheat that became chametz while it was still attached to the ground.” That means that if wheat is rained upon, the wheat becomes chamtetz even before it was harvested. But how can that be? All wheat receives rain; if not it does not grow!

     R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, native of Barcelona, asked this question (Rashba, Volume 7, Chapter 20) and he answered that this is only true if the wheat is fully ripened and doesn’t require any more nourishment. In that situation, it is as if it is already in a jug and will become chametz if rain falls on it. Indeed, this is the halacha, as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 467:5) and the Mishna Berura (467:17) adds that “for this reason, the pious ensure that their matzot come from wheat that has been watched from the time of the harvest and that they are still a little moist,” just as the Rashba required.

     Practically, this rarely presents a problem because in Israel the rainy season ends long before the time for harvest. But in 2014, there were sudden and unexpected thunderstorms across the south of Israel right before Shavuot, and that endangered the whole crop. The Badatz had to invalidate most of the wheat fields because the rain had fallen on ripe wheat. They searched and researched, and the rabbinical court in Bnei Brak found that there had been no rain in Kibbutz Sufa, adjacent to the Gaza border, quickly negotiated with them, and harvested their entire wheat field in June 2014.

    Unbeknownst to anyone, Hamas terrorists had for the previous six months dug a tunnel from Gaza under the wheat field into Kibbutz Sufa. Their reconnaissance had revealed that it was perfect cover – a large field covered by high stalks of wheat. They planned a terrorist attack on Sufa for the end of June, 2014.

    I have seen the video. Almost 15 terrorists emerged from the opening to the tunnel, and scattered in two different directions. You can sense their surprise and confusion – they had anticipated a field that was covered with wheat. Instead, they found a field that was open, flat and exposed. They ran from the opening, and then they aborted the attack, and ran back to the opening, scurrying about frantically. They made it back to the opening and started climbing down – but not before they were greeted by one IDF missile. Six terrorists were killed, seven wounded and captured. The wounded related that they knew the field was not harvested until latesummer and they did not understand why the field was harvested that year in the early summer. It was perfect cover – but they had not planned on the responsum of the Rashba!

     This was not 3000 or 2000 years ago – but five years ago. This is the law of grain that is completely dry and no longer needs nourishment. Look it up – you have to harvest the grainbefore rain falls on it. And so they did, and a great salvation occurred. True story.

     The three word phrase that occurs most in the hagada iski l’olam chasdo, that G-d’s kindness is everlasting. And Rav Soloveitchik wrote that the most important paragraph in the hagada islefichach:” “therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol and exalt He who performed for us and for our forefathers all these miracles.” The whole hagada, the whole seder, and the entire Pesach are designed to bring us to the point that we are imbued with praise of G-d and gratitude for the kindnesses that He has done for us and our forefathers. Everything leads to praise and gratitude – and so it is in our lives as well.

     We don’t only rejoice over the miracles done to our forefathers; if we have eyes and ears, and a mind and a heart, we will see the miracles of today as well that G-d for a nation that is not always aware of it and does not always appreciate it – but should.

   We do – and so we welcome Pesach not only for the mitzvot, the wonderful spirit and the joys of family, but because we can utilize this moment to declare His name and proclaim His deeds to the nations, with the hope and prayer that we will again behold His redemptive hand.

      Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

​​​

 

Takeaways

Who holds an election – and almost nothing changes? Israel. Almost the same configuration of parties that dissolved the last government will form the next one, and hope that this time they can make it work a little longer. It is also extremely rare, to say the least, to have an election in which everyone claims victory when the results are in, but such is the case in Israel. Here are some takeaways from the results, subject to change at any moment.

  • No Netanyahu fatigue:

PM Netanyahu will soon become the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, breaking founder David Ben-Gurion’s record, which, in the tumult of Israeli politics and its mercurial populace, stood like Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive game hitting streak.

How was this accomplished? He is a unique political figure who has learned to follow the consensus and gradually shape it in the direction he wants. He also knows how to manipulate the electorate, in the classic and non-pejorative sense of dangling before moderate voters the dire prospects of an opponent’s victory as well as very subtly offering his more right-wing electorate the possibility of achieving some cherished goals. In the first category was painting the new “Blue and White” Party (a conglomeration of several parties, with a lot of generals at the top) as another leftist party. To the others, he offered – again – the prospect of a tougher hand against Hamas, no Palestinian state and a potential declaration of Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria.

Of course, when he announced the latter this past weekend, I wondered why he just didn’t declare it then, or the day before, or the month or year before. But that is how politicians operate, and he is a master politician.

Part of his allure to his supporters is that the people who dislike him are overrepresented in the media, which has hated him for over twenty years. The happy faces when the first projections were made that showed a “Blue and White” victory turned sour over the next few hours as the returns came in. The same dynamic occurred when PM Netanyahu first won in 1996 – coming from behind, so to speak, as the returns came in. And for those who remember the long, dark faces in the US media on election night in 2016 – well, it wasn’t that gloomy but it was competitive.

Netanyahu has learned to handle the media well (he ignores hostile outlets for as long as he can) and does interviews very selectively, except during election seasons. He has been remarkably successful on the domestic and international scene. There is no other national leader who is on good terms with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Talk about collusion! President Trump sees Netanyahu as a kindred spirit, a tough leader, and in his presence, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights after almost forty years, and to the horror (again) of the American and world foreign policy pointy heads. Putin, whom Netanyahu has visited even more than he has Trump, last week orchestrated the return of the remains of Zachary Baumol Hy”d, killed and missing in action since 1982. It was at some risk to the Russian soldiers currently occupying Syria (whose cruel, lying leaders had denied any knowledge of Baumol’s whereabouts) and tapped into something essential in the Israeli psyche: its concern for every soldier, universally acknowledged even if the execution of that value is often flawed.

Both Trump’s and Putin’s actions were warranted and justifiable in their own right – but to have both come right before the election was…no coincidence. Israelis, used to being international pariahs, reveled in the prestige and concrete achievements that Netanyahu has brought to Israel through his diplomacy and alliances. Rather than grow tired of him, the opposite occurred: the Likud won more seats in this election that in any previous Netanyahu election.

Part of this was a campaign strategy, used to great effect in 2015, that warned right-wing voters that casting ballots for small parties would dilute Netanyahu’s strength and boost the leftist or moderate parties. It worked – to the great detriment of the New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, which has been emasculated.

 

  • Blue and White falls short:

One of enigmas of Israeli politics, fostered by the leftist media, is the fascination with the “new party.” Every election features some “third” party, composed of first-time politicians, who do well, only to fade in subsequent elections. Last time it was Kulanu, the previous time it was Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future” – an incontrovertible contention) party. It has been a staple of Israeli politics since Yigael Yadin’s Shinui party (“Democratic Movement for Change” party; new politicians always want change, and sometimes even hope) in 1977. Their rise is meteoric, and their fall is equally so.

This year’s version was the Blue and White party, led by three former generals and the aforementioned Lapid, and it did remarkably well for a first-time party.  Several points were indispensable to its success. It was a union of several parties and thus garnered support from many different quarters. The generals, all former chiefs-of-staff, had great name recognition before a public which venerates the military, sometimes to a fault. And the party, because it was an amalgam of different personalities and policies, studiously avoided taking strong or clear positions about anything but their opposition to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s efforts to paint this group as lefties was successful only to the extent that it drove more right-wing and religious voters to him but it failed to convince the bulk of the electorate. Few of the individuals involved presented as hard-core leftists who would surrender land to the Arabs in exchange for smiles and promises. The party leader, Benny Gantz, is not my cup of tea but is impossible to demonize. I spoke to several Israelis who said they would never vote for him but they had served under him in the army, and they termed him an excellent commander.

That being said, it is hard to see what he achieved as Chief of Staff, and his conduct of the Gaza War in 2014 was harshly criticized. Moreover, Israel is enamored with generals but has not fared very well with the three generals who served as prime minister: Yitzchak Rabin orchestrated the catastrophic Oslo process, Ehud Barak pulled the IDF from Lebanon precipitously in 2000 (handing Hezbollah access to Israel’s northern border), and Ariel Sharon fomented the calamitous retreat from Gush Katif in 2005. So much for the wisdom of generals, who failed to learn that military and political/diplomatic strategy are two wholly different games.

If, as expected, Blue and White winds up in opposition, expect its dissolution at a certain point. Generals who are used to giving orders and having them carried out will find life in opposition quite frustrating. But, come next the election, expect another new party on the block, and with some of these same faces.

 

  • The New Right Disappears:

I made only one prediction before the election, and that was that Naftali Bennett would not do as well as he anticipated. It was the gamble that failed spectacularly – suddenly breaking away from the political home that he created , the “Jewish Home” party – in order to establish a party that was nationalistic and mildly religious-Zionist in nature but would appeal to nationalistic secular Israelis as well.

The problem with his theory always was that such a party already exists – and it is called the Likud, which contains on its list a number of prominent religious Zionists. If Bennett’s goal was to establish Likud B, it is quite understandable why, given the choice and the potential consequences, voters flocked to Likud A. Even if the New Right squeaks past the threshold, a more and more unlikely scenario, the party Bennett leads would have shrunk from 13 seats to 8 seats to 4 (or 0) seats. That is not a good trajectory in politics and a timely reminder of the Talmudic dictum “If you grasp a lot, you grasp nothing” (Rosh Hashana 4b).

Worse, the splintering of the right-wing parties into several groups that did not pass the electoral threshold cost the religious-Zionist camp more than 100,000 votes that translates into several more seats in the Knesset. They need to learn a little John Greenleaf Whittier rhyme: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!” Or even a little Torah, and stop fighting over “Mi Barosh”  (Masechet Sanhedrin 102A). The quixotic Zehut party of Moshe Feiglin especially disappointed, and its advocacy for marijuana legalization most unhelpful; perhaps its proponents were too stoned to realize Tuesday was Election Day – and engendered even more wasted votes.

Bennett and Shaked are very talented individuals who did exceptional work in their respective ministries, and they should take the time to regroup, accept high-profile positions (in diplomacy or organizations), keep serving the public as they have done quite well in their previous ministries, and they will yet return to politics. Remember that the world counted out Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999 after his landslide defeat to Ehud Barak, and he even retired from politics for several years.

I heard he made a comeback.

 

  • The Two State Illusion is Dead

There is one overriding message that emerged from this election: there is no constituency to again partition the land of Israel and create a second Palestinian state (the first being Jordan). Parties who support that position barely eked out a dozen seats in the Knesset.

Leftist American Jews who remain wedded to the idea that the future of mankind depends on the surrender of more land in Israel to a sworn enemy should have a reality check. They are living in the past, man. That ship has sailed, that train has left the station. Stop waiting for it – and especially because it was a disaster in the making anyway.

I sense that Trump’s Deal of the Century was always fluid, never fixed, and should be no cause for alarm for Jews. Whatever final form it takes, it will go nowhere.

It is hard to believe, and a source of great encouragement, that Israel is in such a strong position today – militarily and economically. Certainly anything can change in an instant, and clear and present dangers lurk all around. The Haredi parties slightly increased their mandates, perhaps attributable to their growing population. But religious Jews vote for all sorts of parties and many Haredim and Religious-Zionists vote for Likud as well, itself a warning of the foolishness of diffusing into so many different boutique parties, some that make it into the Knesset and some that don’t.

 

The elections were exciting, and I hope to vote in the next one, which might some sooner than most people would think; the fissures that caused this team to disintegrate season will surely recur this season. But Israel’s notoriously volatile electorate voted – and produced almost the same configuration of parties in the next government as served in the past one.

 

Parents Gone Wild

The prophet Yirmiyahu challenged not only his own generation (and not always successfully) but also continues to challenge ours. He says, in G-d’s name, “just add your burnt-offerings (that are entirely consumed on the altar) to your other offerings” (Yirmiyahu 7:21) that may be eaten by those who bring them, and eat it all. Eat them too, Rashi comments, since G-d says “I won’t accept them anyway, so why should you lose out and let good meat go to waste?”

Why doesn’t G-d accept them? Because they are insincere: “I didn’t speak to your forefathers nor did I command them on the day they left Egypt about offerings. What I did say to them was obey Me, I will be your G-d and you will be My people. You shall follow My path that I will command you, so that it will be good for you” (ibid 7:22-23).

Of course, we might fairly ask, why does G-d reject some offerings? I can hear a modern questioner asking, “well, at least they showed up, at least they came to the Bet Hamikdash and went through the ritual. That should count for something.” And the learned among them would even add “doesn’t the Talmud (Masechet Pesachim 50b) state that “through doing something for ulterior motivations you will come to do it for the right reasons?” Didn’t Woody Allen assert that “showing up is 80% of life”? Apparently, he was wrong about that too. G-d would rather not have us show up than show up for the wrong reasons. Why is that?

The answer is very relevant to us. Motivations matter as much as actions.

I often get the feeling that we are driving our children crazy and not in a good way. Parents tell me how busy they are; they work, and then after school, there is barely time for kids’ homework or dinner, because the children have to be driven to basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, dance, tutoring, parties, study groups, volunteer work, and who knows what else. And parental pressure on coaches is often intense – to choose the child for this team, and then they badger the coach for playing time, and some will badger the referees at games for bad calls. There is pressure on teachers to ensure that the children all receive good grades and are never disciplined because that might hurt their self-esteem.

There are Jewish schools that shy away from teaching young children about the true events of Purim and even elide the ten plagues G-d inflicted on Egypt before the Exodus, fearing the possible trauma it might bring to young children. Is it that our children are too fragile to handle the truth – or have we made them into fragile creatures?

The recent college admission scandal surprised no one and I am sure it is still going on in some form. Whatever tactic is used – bribes, cheating on tests, and (the worst of all!) faking athletic prowess – is obviously a poor reflection on parents. But why are so many so quick to let the children off the hook. Of course, sometimes they are just pawns, but children certainly know when they do or don’t deserve something, certainly they know whether someone is taking tests for them certainly they know when they are pretending to be top athletes when they struggle to tie their designer sneakers.

For parents it is partly about shielding their children from pain and disappointment but it is mostly about ego, status, bragging rights – and they don’t care whether the accomplishment is real or phony. (Why did it have to be the lawyer who said, “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about …if she’s caught doing that.” Why couldn’t that have been one of the actresses? Why did it have to be the lawyer?!)It is sometimes hard for parents to let children be children, to let them make mistakes, to let them learn from their mistakes, and even not to let them have something they want but they think they need. It is even difficult for some parents to acknowledge that their children possess any imperfections.

But parents must balance idealism with realism. They must be idealists – seeking the best for their children, maximizing their talents, and exploring all the possibilities that the world has to offer. That idealism, though, must be tempered by realism. Not every painting by a four year old child heralds a future Rembrandt, and not every layup made by a six year old is the second coming of Michael Jordan. There is a bright line that divides between being supportive and encouraging…and being delusional, and parents should situate themselves on the right side of that line.

Parents who are always giving their child a leg up are really tying a ball and chain to their feet. And one sin engenders the next: those who cheat to get into college will have to cheat to stay there, and then cheat to be admitted and remain in graduate school, and the cheat in their profession of choice. And when they are eventually prosecuted for something, they will claim it is their first offense and appeal for leniency, when in reality they or their surrogates have been committing these offenses since they were five years old.

If you never stumble, you will never know how to stand up on your own.

This is a classic case of the Talmudic dictum (Masechet Megila 6b): “if a person says ‘I didn’t exert myself at all but I was successful anyway,’ don’t believe it.” But aren’t there people who coast, and do succeed without real effort? Yes, but R. Chaim Shmulevitz explained “don’t believe it” to mean that we should not believe that such success has any value. We should not believe that the person has really achieved anything meaningful that is earned with an absence of effort. And he added, in a beautiful simile, that self-development, always gradual, is like a field that is strewn with rocks that have to be cleared one by one to make the field productive. “I tried and I succeeded.” But if you just fly over the field or someone carries you over the field, what have you really gained? The field is as unproductive as before.

Yirmiyahu informed us that G-d admonished us to combine our burnt-offering with our other offerings, and eat them all, because the offerings were valueless. When people perceived the institution of korbanot as a shortcut, a ceremony, lacking any substance or sincerity, evincing no genuine change in the person, and certainly no effort in its offering, then what good was it?

Too many parents routinely try to rig the system – doing their children’s homework for them just so the parents can get it over with; falsely claiming their child is learning-disabled so they can have more time for tests; falsely claiming their child has ADHD to get a medical letter so they do not have to wait in line at an amusement park; etc. – and they are doing their children a huge disservice. They are ruining them – perhaps because they themselves were ruined. The accused here are people who have become such great manipulators that it will be shocking if there are any real legal repercussions to this scandal. Why, there is a 40% chance they will plead their way into a fine, probation and some type of community service, because after all, you know, it is their first offense.

A child’s worth, in the real world of the spirit, is determined by his or her goodness, and not by which Ivy League college she attends, how much money will will earn, or how many of their accomplishments feed their parents’ insatiable ego. These days, indeed, one can make a cogent argument that attendance at most of these so-called prestigious, elite colleges impairs one’s pursuit of good character rather than advances it. And the objective of parenting is to maximize a child’s strengths while minimizing and rectifying, but not denying, any flaws. Children are allowed to be imperfect – just like their parents are, and to occasionally fail – just like their parents did.

“The reward is proportionate to the effort” (Masechet Avot 5:23). Shortcuts in life, like in Torah, are usually spiritually destructive. That is not what G-d commanded us or why He liberated us from Egypt to be His people. What He did impart to us was this eternal message (Yirmiyahu 9:22-23): Do not boast about your wisdom, your athleticism, or your wealth – they all mean nothing if misused. If you wish to boast, boast about this – about understanding what

G-d wants from us, to perform acts of kindness, righteousness and justice, for our own benefit and for that of the world, and transmit that ultimate value to our children.