Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 12, 2019 / 7 Nisan 5779
On May 23rd, I360 will host a Lag B’Omer post Israeli election discussion. Barring rain, we will meet in the lower courtyard and sit around a bonfire. Our gathering will feature Israelis and Americans sharing their perspectives and discussing how elections over there affect us here.
Summary: Rabbi Kosak speaks from the heart about his reaction to the Israeli election, what the results share on a global level, and how we as individuals can respond and carry ourselves.
Three days ago, Israel voted. Speaking personally, I found the results of that national election both hopeful and discouraging. What was quite heartening was that in a very short period of time, Israel’s newest political party, Cahol v’Lavan (Blue and White—the colors of the Israeli flag) became a force to be reckoned with. In the United States, we have been impotent to launch a meaningful third party since George Wallace ran in 1968. So to see Israelis vote in such strong numbers for a newcomer the Blue and White party is reason for optimism.
Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White is a fledgling politician with a long and storied military background. In Israel, where security remains a heightened concern for the average Israeli, these credentials served him well. Gantz and his party earned 35 seats in the new parliament (Kenesset). To put that in perspective, Bibi Netanyahu, edged out this newcomer by only one vote, landing 36 seats. All expectations are that President Rivlin will give the go ahead to Netanyahu to form a new government.
As a consequence, we are unlikely to witness much change in Israel’s current policies on either the world stage or vis a vis the Palestinians. Parliamentary systems, however, are highly dynamic, and even with the same partners, Israel could well see some changes internally as different portfolios of responsibility are doled out to the various parties who form a majority coalition. However those adjustments play out for Israeli public policy, I am disappointed in the election results.
My distress is not about the obvious issues, such as pluralism, religious equality or a just and equitable solution between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no doubt that those are all crucial matters that speak strongly to me. But as the rabbis of the Talmud would often say, “peshita”—obvious explanations aren’t worth discussing precisely because those are givens. We don’t learn anything by rehashing our basic assumptions; in fact we will often miss what is important by focusing on what we already know.
If one truly believes in democracy, one has to accept with at least some measure of equanimity that the voice of the people may diverge from the voice of any individual. Democracy is not meaningful when those who lose are unable or unwilling to seek the wisdom and values of their political opponents. Nor is it robust when the victors—especially in such a narrow win as Israel just experienced, use their slim majority to enforce unpalatable views on a significant segment of the population. Yet increasingly it feels (I don’t know if I have solid evidence) as though the present political moment is only about raw power grabs. It seems as though this phenomenon is increasingly global and widespread within countries. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, when one gains national power, there is a shameless desire to exploit that moment for maximum benefit. (I am not including politics on the local level here in this description).
I state this without naïveté. It is not as though the above phenomenon is new. Any second rate student of historian understands that the “will to power” appears consistently throughout different cultures and societies. Yet history is also replete with more idealistic models, in which vision held the upper hand over raw power. The founders and pioneers of nations often hewed to this higher ideal, in part because the country they were building were not yet seats of power. When I consider the founders of America or Israel, I don’t find perfect leaders, but I do identify remarkable individuals of character and intelligence. We could deal with more leadership like that on the national and global stage.
This then is what most discouraged me about the recent Israeli elections. There are things that Netanyahu has managed well (the macro-economy, enhanced relations with many more countries, no major wars and overall restrained use of the military), and areas where he has been far weaker or even callous (increased poverty and wealth gaps, pluralism, advancement between the Palestinians and Israelis, addressing the human crisis in Gaza).
Where he has completely failed, however, is in matters of character. Bibi is under indictment. His wife misused government funds. It is clear even to most Israelis that Netanyahu is a crook. Yet in this historical moment, citizens in countless countries no longer care if their leaders engage in criminal behavior. As long as their views correspond sufficiently with the electorate, modern voters don’t seem to care. That creates an invidious downward spiral in nation states. Among other things, it is a disincentive to more honorable candidates WHO MIGHT OTHERWISE SHARE THE SAME VIEWS as these more tarnished individuals. Whenever we take a short term view on our electoral choices, in other words, we are bolstering self-aggrandizement. We do so under the rubric that we are “choosing the lesser of two evils.”
Yet that is a false dichotomy—or it is a dichotomy that only exists in the short term. If citizens consistently refused to support any candidate or politician who had serious character flaws of this sort, the nature of those who run would slowly change. The tenor of politics would be raised. The electorate’s general cynicism about government itself would diminish. In the medium to long term, character matters for societies.
Democracy depends on its systems of checks and balances to prevent excessive abuses of power. That’s a hard requirement. Democracy also has a set of “softer” needs. Integrity and the honor of its leaders may not be hard baked into the written codes like the separation of powers in America. Yet let us never doubt how essential those softer, social goods are. There can be no freedom when basic trust is eroded.
There will be people who think rabbis should always publicly support Israel. And there will be individuals who will want to take this out of context as a condemnation of Israel. Let me be clear. The conditions I have analyzed are hardly unique to Israel, and in many quantifiable ways, I believe Israel outperforms other countries in the metrics of democracy and in how it responds to a political web of Gordian knots that lack easy solutions.
But neither can I be silent. As citizens of the world, our voices, our votes and our actions matter. Politics is nothing if it is not the distillation of a nation’s many perspective and the willingness of its citizenry to accept complacently what is or to seek bold change for the better. Nonetheless, after upsetting elections, we might sometimes question what capacity any single one of has.
Given that, I am attaching here some recent comments made in the last couple of days by Israeli novelist, David Grossman (the English translation and any errors in it are mine). He speaks of his own reaction to the election outcome. More germane for us, he prescribes a way to carry ourselves in a world which has forgotten what matters.
“There are moments and situations in the life of a nation, just like in the life of a person, that you find yourself taking pause. You do not understand how this happened, or who thinks like this or how is it possible.
And you try to draft explanations from various disciplines: economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and psychology. But in the end, you still do not understand how it is possible.
You stand in the face of these things as though they were a natural phenomenon—let’s say a flood or a Tsunami. You know there must be an explanation but it is unimportant. For now you need to try to cope with the wreckage.
And all this time, you understand that although you tried, you in truth have no control over the way things happen nor any power to influence anyone else. You can only control yourself and your own way of responding, thinking, feeling, and speaking.
So in the footsteps of this elections day, that seems like the beginning or the continuation of a disaster, I promise to check myself every day to make sure none of this evil spirit touches me. Not the racism. Not the exploitation. Not the evil. Not the belligerence. Not the stupidity or the short-sightedness.
And I will continue, like a child, to believe that there can be justice here and equality and tranquility and peace between individuals and peoples. Even if my elected representatives do not believe in this and my government is not doing it. I will strive to get there in my own four cubits.”
כי יש רגעים ומצבים בחיים של אומה, כמו בחיים של אדם, שאתה מוצא את עצמך עומד ומשתהה. ואתה לא מבין איך זה קרה, ומי חשב ככה, ואיך זה ייתכן.
ואתה מנסה לגייס הסברים מתחומים שונים, הסברים של כלכלה, וחברה, ואנתרופולוגיה, ופילוסופיה, ופסיכולוגיה, ובסוף אתה שוב לא מאמין איך זה ייתכן.
ואתה עומד מול הדברים כמו מול תופעת טבע, נגיד מבול או צונאמי, ויודע שככל הנראה יש לו הסבר, אבל הוא לא חשוב כרגע, וצריך עכשיו לנסות להתמודד עם השבר.
ובכל הזמן הזה אתה חוזר ומבין שאולי ניסית, אבל אין לך באמת שליטה על מהלך הדברים, או יכולת להשפיע על אף אחד אחר. שאתה בעצם יכול להחליט רק על עצמך, ועל הדרך שלך להגיב, לחשוב, להרגיש ולומר.
אז בעקבות יום הבחירות הזה, שנראה כמו התחלה או המשך של אסון, אני מבטיח לבדוק יום יום את עצמי, לראות ששום דבר מהלך הרוח הרע הזה לא יידבק אלי. לא מהגזענות, או הניצול, לא מהרוע, או הכוחנות, לא מהטמטום או הראייה הצרה. ושאמשיך, אולי אפילו כמו ילד, להאמין שיכול להיות פה צדק, ושויון, ושקט, ושלום בין אדם לאדם, ובין עם לעם. ואפילו אם הנבחרים שלי לא מאמינים בזה, והממשלה שלי לא עושה את זה, אני אנסה להגיע לזה, בדלת אמותיי הקטנות.”
Shabbat Table Talk
- Do you believe that one can be honorable and successful in national politics? Why or why not?
- If a candidate shared your views on policy, would you vote for them even if they committed serious ethical flaws? Do you think that you apply this evenly regardless of party?
- Have you ever voted for someone with whom your views diverged but who had a sterling reputation?
- How do Israeli elections impact us here in Portland?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.