August 23, 2004

The March of Folly

This past week we have witnessed the universality of folly. In Iraq Moqtader Al Sadr, that murderous political fanatic with the blood of the saintly Al Khoei on his hands, continues to defy everyone except his own armed thugs. They have hijacked holy places in pursuit of a purely political agenda (something hitherto only seen in Bethlehem). He stands in marked contrast to the saintly Al Sistani and he represents everything that is wrong with fanatical Islam today, putting his narrow and violent perspective and his pursuit of power before the requests of the other and more moderate Muslims both of Najaf and the rest of Iraq.

One can understand why Saddam Hussein suppressed his family and perhaps how that oppression was responsible for turning him into the very antithesis of Islamic spirituality he is, another example of an extremist holding everyone else up to ransom. The only response is to call his bluff and rid the country of him.

In a similar, if less violent, vein the corrupt fanatics of the Likud party in Israel have tried the same tack in Israeli politics. The vast majority of the electorate want peace, are prepared to make certain concessions and want to withdraw from Gaza. The Likud hardliners who last week voted against Sharon twice are set against the practical policies of their own Prime Minister. Likud is the heir to Herut, the part of Menachem Begin. He was just as right-wing as they, but he, remember, met Sadat, withdrew from Sinai, and uprooted Israeli settlements. Likud, which has been shown to be even more corrupt than the average political party, has every right to pursue policies that will lead to its none-too-soon demise. But Sharon should call their bluff!

If Sharon calls an election he will be defeated. Not because the majority of the Israeli electorate does not support him, but because the electorate will punish Likud for holding it to ransom. Sadly, there is no one on the left of any substance. Peres is old and discredited. The next biggest secular party, Shunui, has shown itself be just as two-faced, corrupt, and ineffective as all the others. There is no natural leader of the left or even the center.

I never much liked Sharon, but he seems to be the only guy around at the moment who is prepared to act and stick his neck out. A bit like Tony Blair Lehavdil!

So if an election would only increase chaos at least he should stick to his guns and ignore the pathetic second-raters who surround him in his party.

Down with extremists! We of the silent majority must stop being silent.

It was the historian Barabara Tuchman who wrote about "The March of Folly". Sadly, religion seems only to increase the pace.

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August 12, 2004

Agudah Rediscovers Its Peacenik Roots

It is a common misconception that all ultra-Orthodox Jews are political extremists. In Israel for example, most, though not all, very Orthodox rabbis have always argued that peace is more important than land. After all, they base themselves on the main and moderate Pharisee leadership two thousand years ago, at the time of the Roman occupation, who wanted to negotiate a deal. Sadly, the Zealots insisted on fighting to the bitter end and lost the Temple and their land as a result.

There are several ultra-Orthodox religious parties in Israel of varying ethnic and ideological bent. Over the years, they have allied themselves with whichever main party offered them the best terms, mainly financial, and it mattered little from which end of the spectrum they were. Occasionally parties such as Agudah were either excluded or themselves refused to enter government on terms they found unacceptable. The Likud party for many years funded Shas, the right-wing religious Sepharadi party. But now they need a partner who does not oppose withdrawing from territory.

All of a sudden, the main Agudah religious party is negotiating a deal with Sharon to form a coalition that will preside over withdrawal from “holy land”. Their leadership is justifying it by saying “we have always been in favor of Land for Peace”. Indeed, in theory this was so. But in practice, largely pulled that way by Lubavitch, most of them have been mouthing extremist slogans.

All of a sudden, Agudah has discovered it is moderate. Well, where the heck have you been these past five years leaving the field open to those who have preached immovable intolerance? Why suddenly now have you woken up? Because joining the coalition means money for its institutions and money is power, Agudah rabbis are suddenly coming out from behind the walls of the academy.

So ethical leadership is connected to party politics and this is what happens when politics and religion play footsie. For years, instead of crying out against extremism, instead of taking the lead in matters of social concern, materialism, hypocrisy, instead of decrying the dehumanizing of all enemies as if they were identical, they have kept silent on those issues, arguing instead that suicide bombers are punishments for not going to synagogue or that cancer is the result of apostasy or that the letter of the law matters more than the spirit! No wonder so many secular Israelis are turned off to the Jewish religion.

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