Events in different parts of the world shine a light on the similarities of the political class, their elastic attachment to truth and the ease with which they attempt to frighten the masses that are largely uninterested in facts and mostly swayed by rhetoric.
Here in Israel, the post-election coalition talks have dragged on for over a month and not yet found a ready solution. The usual alignment – if it could be suggested that there ever is such a thing in Israel – has not coalesced. A Likud prime minister has failed to persuade his “natural allies” on the Right – the Haredi parties and Bayit Hayehudi – to join him, when they alone could form a narrow government. Instead, Bayit Hayehudi has cast its lot for the moment (if not longer) with another party of mixed heritage – Yesh Atid – and to date nothing has swayed Bayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett to play the usual political game of making deals, renouncing them, making more deals and winding up with ministries and funding for pet causes. For that, he is being roundly criticized by some, but not by me.
The reason is simple, if not fully accepted. Bennett aspires to leadership, and not only patronage. The best comeback line of the post-election period has been Bennett’s: accused of being a political novice who doesn’t know how to make deals, play games, just join the government and share the spoils of victory, he answered, in effect, “indeed, I am a political novice. Therefore, all I know for sure are my values and principles, and on those there is no room for compromise.”
A leader has to aspire to more than the assumption of power for power’s sake. He has to want to fix the country’s problems as best he can, and not simply want to kick the can down the road in order to retain power and its perks indefinitely. Bennett has no illusions about diplomacy, and will not indulge in illusions for the same of media popularity. And diplomacy is likely to be on the backburner for some time. The more pressing issue to deal with – somewhat contrived but real nonetheless – is the “equality of burden” matter, the failure of Haredim to serve their country and/join the workforce in substantial numbers.
Obviously, Talmud Torah is a great value, and the loftiest activity of the Jew. But one has to struggle to piece together sources that can justify learning for years into adulthood at the expense of others, not to mention learning Torah while others are risking their lives defending them. Granted, Talmud Torah protects as well; but army service remains compulsory, and Torah study remains voluntary. Do the Torah students ever serve in a compulsory way? In my perfect world, all Jews would serve for three, two in the army and one learning Torah, or one in the army and two learning Torah. This way, each person would fight for Israel and know for what they are fighting. (Don’t protest that mandated Torah study would be considered “religious coercion; one could just as easily argue that mandated military service is “secular coercion.” The same government that orders one into battle can order one to learn about why Jewish nationhood is important and why Jewish identity is dependent on Torah.)
My good plan is not the Bennett approach – but society will not long tolerate an inequity of public service. Part of the problem is that the Haredi world has not done a good job of convincing the Israeli public of the importance of Talmud Torah, perhaps because self-segregation is usually not an effective way of gaining general acceptance; another part of the problem is that Haredim find it difficult to express appreciation to the Israelis who do serve. One question to which I have yet to receive a cogent answer, despite numerous Haredi interlocutors, is: why don’t Haredi shuls say the prayer for the IDF every Shabbat? Forget, for a moment, the tefila for the medina, but there is a separate tefila recited for the army that protects them. Why don’t they recite that? It seems like rank ingratitude – and if they did? Small gestures would go a long way in repairing relations with the rest of society. And if this problem could be solved responsibly, through negotiations, through love and appreciation for all – how that would transform Israel? But it will not happen if the political class simply makes unenforceable deals and keeps kicking the can.
Likud leaders have lambasted Bennett for “betraying” his voters and bypassing the opportunity to form a “right-wing” government and risking the formation of a center-left government that will not be able to “stand up to Obama.” This sounds plausible on the surface, but is risible after the slightest analysis. It was the “right-wing” Likud government that withdrew from Sinai and expelled Jews from Yamit; the “right-wing” Likud government the surrendered Hevron to the Arabs; the “right-wing” Likud government that expelled Jews from Gaza and northern Shomron; the “right-wing” government that froze construction in Judea and Samaria for almost a year for no discernable reason or advantage. Perhaps the “right-wing” Likud government is not as “right-wing” as they imagine themselves to be; thus, there is an advantage in having a broader-based government that exercise checks and balances on policies that can easily become detached from reality, like the “peace process.”
And one who imagines the Shas party to be part of that “right-wing” bloc clearly does not remember the Oslo Accords, which passed the Knesset only because Shas voted in favor. Indeed, another reason why the Haredi parties attract no general support is because they seem to join whichever party promises them money for their parochial causes, and have no principled positions on matters of national importance. When that changes, then their image will also change, for the better, and so will the Torah’s image. The secular Israeli prefers to castigate the Haredi straw man as the symbol of the Judaism they spurn, rather then extol the Religious-Zionist as the symbol of the Judaism to which they should be attracted.
Speaking of kicking the can down the road, Americans are just hours away from the…SEQUESTER!! Oh, horrors!! Rather than increasing federal spending by $100B this year, the federal budget will only increase by $15B – and you read that correctly.
For all the hand-wringing, the crocodile tears, and the warnings of impending doom, the US budget will increase this fiscal year, even with the sequester.
So how can President Obama threaten the imminent end of all public services, airline safety, the collapse of education and probably looming starvation of millions? Because he is not a serious man, and he recognizes that he is dealing with a most gullible audience. The sequester effectively reduces the amount of a budget increase – in many cases, it will freeze spending close to last year’s level – which doesn’t sound that draconian at all. Failing businesses routinely cut spending, reduce staff and prioritize budget allocations; why should the US government – economically, a failing enterprise – not to the same? Any government agency can easily re-arrange its budget to apportion its funding to reflect the new economic reality, and to prioritize where the public money should be spent. That Obama has suggested – if not demanded – that agencies cut spending in areas that will most affect the public rather than will least affect the public is simply beyond outrageous.
Obama knows only taxing, spending, and income redistribution. For one of the few times in his presidency, he has found himself with no leverage – and, sweet irony – sequestration was his idea to begin with. Rather than govern and lead, he sees fit – once again – to campaign, read speeches, threaten and demoralize. And the saddest aspect of this process is that it has become abundantly clear that federal spending will never be cut unless government’s hands are tied, its feet bound, and its tongue silenced.
Both here and there, one thing is clear: people have less to fear when politicians tell them to be afraid if they don’t get their way – than we do when the politicians actually get their way.
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- The Presidents and the Jews, Part 26: Barack H. Obama (44) [audio]
- The Presidents and the Jews, Part 25: George W. Bush [audio]
- The Presidents and the Jews, Part 24: Bill Clinton (42) [audio]
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- Interview with Rabbi Pruzansky [audio]
- Inaugural Issues [audio]
- The Torah State, Part VI: "Law and Minority Rights" [audio]
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- The Torah State, Part V: Culture [audio]
- The Torah State, Part IV: "Social Justice" [audio]