Wednesday, January 12, 2005


I'm back from a summer hiatus -- unfortunately, what I have to write about is neither light nor fun.

Much has been written about the human tragedy. It is my hope and prayer that the survivors are tended to quickly and adequately, the sick and injured recover, and that the mourners are able to try and rebuild their lives as best the can.

Although it feels churlish to talk about politics after such a tragedy, a few lessons are evident.

The death toll luridly exhbits the terrible vulnerability of the world's poor. Had such a disaster hit the first world, where people live in solid homes, with access to reliable transport and communications, good medical care and safe water, the number of dead would have been far lower. Tsunamis will always happen, but to prevent them from causing such catastrophic loss of life, living standards in these countries must be raised. Aid is important, but history shows that it is not the main ingredient in reducing poverty and misery. Free trade is necessary now. I strongly agree with the leftists on one point: the hypocritical trade barriers of the rich world must go.

In the immediate wake of the tragedy, many of the world's bien pensants rushed to do that which they like best: blame America (and its mini-me, Israel) for all the world's ills. The fact that the US provided almost all the air and sea transport for the aid, as well as marines to distribute is, as well as a tremendous amount of food aid, was lost in criticism of the federal government's slowness to open its wallet.

For others, the aftermath of the tsunami was an example of why the UN is morally bankrupt. David Frum wrote a wonderful piece in the Telegraph, which I must quote at length:

The UN's authority is instead one of those ineffable mystical mysteries. The authority's existence cannot be perceived by the senses and exerts no influence on the events of this world. Even the authority's most devout hierophants retain the right to disavow that authority at whim, as Ms Short herself disavowed its resolutions on Iraq. And yet at other times those same hierophants praise this same imperceptible, inconsequential, and intermittently binding authority as the best hope for a just and peaceful world. An early church father is supposed to have said of the story of the resurrection: "I believe it because it is absurd." The same could much more justly be said of the doctrine of the UN's moral authority.

Whence exactly does this moral authority emanate? How did the UN get it? Did it earn it by championing liberty, justice, and other high ideals? That seems a strange thing to say about a body that voted in 2003 to award the chair of its commission on human rights to Mummar Gaddafi's Libya.

Did it earn it by the efficacy of its aid work? On the contrary, the UN's efforts in Iraq have led to the largest financial scandal in the organisation's history: as much as $20 billion unaccounted for in oil-for-food funds. UN aid efforts in the Congo have been besmirched by allegations of sexual abuse of children; in the Balkans, by charges of sex trafficking.

Is the UN a defender of the weak against aggression by the powerful? Not exactly. Two of this planet's most intractable conflicts pit small democracies against vastly more populous neighbouring states. In both cases, the UN treats the democracies – Israel, Taiwan – like pariahs.

This record may explain why the UN is regarded by so many Americans as neither moral nor authoritative – and why American leaders of both political parties reject UN attempts to control American actions.

But there are positives in the humanitarian response. Indonesia set aside its hate of Israel, letting an El Al plane laden with aid land.

Special credit must go to the world's cricketers, for rushing in to action and staging a "World XI vs Asian XI" match, and raising $14 million -- a staggering effort (Kiwi hero Chris Cairns raised $100,000 in just two mighty blows, as Toyota had pledged to give $50,000 for each six).

National Religous Punished Again 

An uncle of mine once said to me that the national religous (dati leumi) constituency in Israel was an unfortunate one because they love everyone else, but everyone else hates them. They are willing to work with secular Jews and secular culture for important nationalist goals, and they are highly focussed on the spiritual issues that drive the Ultra-Orthodox (charedi) world. However, the charedi world looks down on them for their secular and nationalist involvements, and the secular world rejects them for their religiosity.

In recent years, we have seen the consequences of this played out time and again. Two examples from the last few weeks bear out this point well.

1) The new educational reforms as modified through coalition with UTJ (the leading charedi party). Reforms cutting funding, firing teachers, reducing the six-day week to five days (Fridays off) will be offset by higher salaries for the remainder and more training. However none of the cuts will be applied to charedi schools. On the contrary, funding will be increased to the independent charedi institutions. The public 'national religous' schools will be cut along with the rest of the public school system.

2) The major changes considered to the military in the wake of growing signs that large numbers of national religous soldiers will refuse to evict the Jewish residents of Gaza in the proposed disengagement plan. As secular Zionism and nationalism slowly recedes, the national religous have been playing an increasing role in the military, volunteering in increasing numbers for front line combat roles in accordance with their belief that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to protect the land of Israel and the Jewish people from attack. This has until now been very convenient for the military commanders and the government, but now the story has changed. Again, in accordance with their beliefs and the instructions of their Rabbis, the national religous have been putting huge pressure both inside and outside the military to prevent the disengagement form Gaza which must of necessity involve evicting Jewish residents. Many have talked explicitly about refusing orders, others have discussed an emotional incapability of carrying out such orders, while many have merely expressed their concern, yet maintained that they would still crry out the order were it issued. In response the government is openly discussing cuttting funds to the hesder yeshivot (national religous establishments that combine army service with Torah study).
The message is clear - 'We'll take your ideology when it suits us, but try and assert yourself, and we'll stab you in the back.'

I don't have the answer to all these problems, but one thing is certain - Israeli society has a lot of problems to work through, and no amount of referendums will solve them (although they might be a good start.)

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