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Saturday, 14 February 2009

On Real Leaders and Israel’s ‘Leaders’

Thursday February 12th

On Real Leaders and Israel’s ‘Leaders’

Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago today. And in the century and a half since his election as US President in 1860, how many great leaders of nations have the Western world seen? Leaders whose vision for their community, their nation, transcended the narrow parochialism of ‘my nation, right or wrong’? Or even transcended the short-term political pragmatism of ‘my party, right or wrong’? You can count such leaders on the fingers of one hand (and maybe still have fingers to spare). Perhaps Roosevelt in the US, Churchill in the UK, Konrad Adenauer in West Germany rebuilding a devastated land on new principles, Gorbachov in the Soviet Union, (Mandela if you add South Africa to this fictional entity ‘the West’)...Who else?

Leaders whose vision ends up being destructive of national interests and human hopes (and lives) are far easier to list. Because real vision, humane vision, a vision which holds true to ethical and moral values of a society grounded in justice and compassion and righteousness, is a vision that seems almost impossible to achieve in the face of innate human competitiveness, rivalry and hatred – endlessly played out both within a society and between nations.

‘Justice and compassion and righteousness’ are of course Judaic values – and the foundation of contemporary democratic societies. But while monotheistic religions are keen to propagandize about our potential for human goodness, they find it difficult to accommodate in their thinking our more destructive emotions: envy, jealousy, murderousness, possessiveness, stubbornness, and beneath it all the fear of our mortality, our small span of years, our fragile grasp on life, precious and unrepeatable.

Will President Obama become one of our handful of ‘great’ leaders? As we know, he comes to power at a time of unprecedented (I use the word advisedly) threats to the well-being of his nation, our nation, our world: the financial, ecological and environmental crises, the threats from nihilistic terror, the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical devices that could wreak havoc to millions when wielded by those of malicious intent. It’s easy to be afraid if one looks at all of this full in the face. Yet it is easy too to look away, heads down, and get on with our lives as best we can. But this fuller knowledge, this knowledge of the larger picture, infiltrates our minds in spite of ourselves. Who is not haunted, in the secret crevices of the night, by the shadows cast on our world by the human potential (our own potential) for self-destructiveness?

And yet our own very Jewish ‘audacity to hope’ won’t let us succumb to despair: political vision that transcends inward-looking, short-term and self-protective actions could yet see us through. That, and our own human creativity in the endless struggle for justice and compassion and righteousness.

Rarely in my lifetime have I seen so much hopefulness being invested in one individual as I see invested in Obama. Inevitably we will be disappointed. But he carries our best hopes, and our sincerest prayers, into these next four years.


And what of Israel’s leaders? Does it actually matter who ends up as Prime Minister? Livni may have won more seats, and on the surface is a more appealing centrist figure than the smooth-tongued Netanyahu. But she’s as tough as nails, like her father, and just as unlikely to lead Israel out of its nightmare as the slick, self-important, self-serving showman who has already served in the role and singularly failed to advance Israel’s greatest need: peace with its neighbours.

And because of Israel’s voting system, a form of proportional representation that leads to the ugly horse-trading necessary to form a viable coalition (“I’ll give you civil weddings if you give me tax exemptions, or a ministry to run”), the real winner has been the former nightclub bouncer from Moldova, the racist and crypto-fascist Avigdor Lieberman with his fantasies of an ethnically pure Israel.

His campaign slogan was ‘No loyalty, no citizenship’ and if he has his way, Israel’s 1.45 million Arabs will have to swear their allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state in order to be allowed to vote in their own country. It’s as if we were asked as Jews in the UK to swear loyalty to Britain as a Christian country, otherwise we’d have our right to vote (and State provision) taken away.

But really there were no winners in this election. Whatever combination of parties and personnel form the next government, the central dilemma facing Israel will remain unresolved.

This dilemma has been expressed bluntly by Uri Dromi, the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992-96, as follows:

‘In order to remain both Jewish and democratic, Israel will have to pull out of most of the West bank and work tirelessly for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Anything else will doom Israel, in the long run, either to become an apartheid state or to lose its Jewish identity. In these elections, this strategic dilemma is barely on the table’.

Even the blessed Obama – Barack is Swahili, derived from the Arabic Baraka,’the one who is blessed’, the same root as the Hebrew ‘baruch’ and ‘beracha’ – even he will have his work cut out both to save the world and - even more daunting - save Israel from itself.

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