Monday, Apr 15, 2024

Some Potential Potholes Along the Road

On a recent MSNBC Morning Show, Niall Ferguson made mincemeat of an overmatched Mika Brzezinski. The latter tried to get him to admit that the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak represented a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration. In a voice dripping with the contempt employed by Oxford dons when dealing with the lower orders, and which is all that remains of the once great British Empire, Ferguson pointed out that the administration, by its own admission, had never contemplated a situation in which Mubarak was forced from power or run a single simulation as to the possible consequences. The result was a seat of the pants response, with various administration officials making contradictory statements on successive days. The failure of American policy vis-à-vis the uprisings in the Arab world was one of a lack of imagination - the inability to conceive a world any different than that which has been in place for decades. As the only other superpower on the planet, the chareidi community must do better in anticipating future possibilities than did the strategists at Foggy Bottom. That involves, inter alia, looking at present trends and events and anticipating their potential implications for the chareidi community.

The recent turmoil in Egypt is one example. On its face, the shifting reins of power in Egypt would seem to have no direct connection to the chareidi community, other than to increase the peril to chareidi residents of Israel (as for every other Israeli citizen). But that is not necessarily true. For the last two decades at least, Israeli military planning has been predicated on the assumption that Israel faces no danger of a confrontation with the most populous and best-armed Arab state, i.e., Egypt. It has neither had to deploy a large number of troops against the threat of a possible attack from Egypt, via the Sinai, nor position large quantities of weapons in the south of the country. But that may change along with the regime in Egypt. Already, Iran is exploiting the uncertainty in Egypt to stir up Sinai Bedouins. And there are indications of an increase in arms smuggling into Gaza.


Over that same period of time, the chareidi community in Israel has been fairly confident that no government – even one without chareidim in the coalition – would push a full-scale confrontation with the chareidi community over army service, because the IDF’s manpower needs do not require chareidi soldiers. But just because that was once true does not mean it will remain so forever. Even before the ouster of Mubarak, and the attendant doubts over the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, it was possible to conceive of a situation in which Israeli soldiers were simultaneously fighting ground operations in three theatres – Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and possibly the West Bank as well. The instability in Egypt dramatically exacerbates that situation and thereby increases the potential for a major confrontation over the issue of army service.


IN RECENT YEARS, a large consensus has emerged in Israeli society with respect to the peace process. A large majority of Israelis now recognize the inherent danger in any territorial withdrawal based on the experience of the withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, both of which resulted in Iranian proxies filling up the vacuum left by Israel’s departure. A similar majority recognizes how unlikely any current Palestinian leader is to affix his name to any remotely plausible peace agreement, and if he did, it would be rejected by the larger Palestinian population. Thus, the only thing that separates the two largest secular parties is no longer ideology or strategy, but the ambition of their leaders to remain or become prime minister.


In the past, the ideological incompatibility of Labor and Likud, for instance, served the interests of the chareidi community because it virtually assured that the major parties would never form a majority coalition by themselves, and that whichever major party did succeed in forming a government would require a number of coalition partners among the smaller parties. Thus, the chareidi parties often held the balance of power between a right-wing coalition and a left-wing coalition.


But with the disappearance of a clear left-right chasm between the two largest secular parties, the danger that they will one day form a coalition between themselves grows. If that were to happen, chareidi political power would decline precipitously. There would be no chairmanships of the Knesset budget committee, for instance. It is even conceivable that the two largest parties might find it in their mutual interests to form a temporary coalition prior to elections in order to “make seder.” (Such a theoretical possibility always existed, but the former ideological chasms made it unlikely ever to happen.)


That “seder” would certainly involve electoral reform, with single-member districts replacing proportional representation, at least in part. Such an electoral change, which would be popular with the public on any number of good government grounds, would offer the additional “benefit,” in the eyes of the non-chareidi public, of lessening the number of chareidi representatives in the Knesset.


Nor would “making seder” necessarily stop there. It could include drastic cuts in state funding to schools that do not teach the mandated “core curriculum.” Even if such cuts were directed only at the high school-age yeshivos (yeshivos ketanos in the Israeli parlance), they would wreak havoc in the chareidi community. Even today, most yeshiva ketanos, especially those without their own buildings, struggle financially. A large percentage of their parent bodies are not able to pay anything close to full tuition. Without government funding, many could not survive.


Even without Knesset involvement, the danger of the Supreme Court mandating the severance of government funding to non-complying schools looms large. (The Court has already done so in theory, without yet fully enforcing its edicts in practice.)


THE THREATS MENTIONED SO FAR originate either in events – the political upheaval in Egypt – or in developing trends – the narrowing of ideological debate over the “peace process.” But even trends in the realm of ideas can have large implications for the chareidi world. One such trend would be the end of the era of “multi-culturalism.” In recent months, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all pronounced the “failure” of multi-culturalism – i.e., the view that a nation is little more than a conglomerate of separate ethnic communities.


That perception has developed in response to the failure of European countries to integrate their large Muslim populations. In France alone, there are 760 separate “no-go” areas, where even the police and fire departments do not enter, except in the direst of emergencies. In response to the internal Muslim threat, a new appreciation of the need for the defense of a common national culture and for joint participation in the fundamental societal institutions has developed.


The growing rejection of multiculturalism has nothing to do directly with chareidi Jews. But that does not mean it is without implications for us. In Israel, the ever louder calls for chareidi participation in common aspects of national life – national service, the workplace, and a common curriculum – gain added force from the general recoil in the Western world from the excesses of multi-culturalism. In this regard, it is worth noting that Prime Minister Cameron, in his much noted speech rejecting multiculturalism, focused on national service and the restoration of the teaching of a common national curriculum as two remedies. Those are precisely the most hot-button issues between the chareidi and non-chareidi communities in Israel.


SO FAR, THE PRIMARY IMPLICATIONS discussed have been with respect to the Israeli chareidi community. But one issue that will have larger implications for the American chareidi community concerns end-of-life care. Whether one chooses Sarah Palin’s evocative language for health care rationing – “death panels” – even the Obama administration officials charged with implementation of Obamacare acknowledge that it will require healthcare rationing. And such rationing inevitably favors the young over the old and the potentially well over the chronically ill.


But the call for health-care rationing is not limited to supporters of Obamacare. Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, about whom I wrote admiringly last week, is a strong opponent of Obamacare. Nevertheless, in a speech that I just came across this week, he too said that Americans will have to rethink end-of-life care if they hope to ever arrest skyrocketing medical costs.


Governor Daniels did not spell out his approach. But the fact that even socially conservative Republicans, worried about the impact of huge budget deficits on the prospects of the next generation, are talking about finding ways to limit end-of-life expenditures is chilling. Even assuming that Daniels is not talking about turning off respirators and other forms of life support, it is conceivable that he means caps on spending that could leave families with agonizing decisions. Even a few days in a hospital, without surgery, can easily result in a bill of $25,000. Were governments to permit insurance companies not to pay for certain forms of life-sustaining support, families could easily have their entire lifesavings wiped out in a matter of days or weeks in order to keep an aged parent on a respirator.


NOT SUPRISINGLY, I have no solutions for any of the potential scenarios described above. But that doesn’t mean that we should not be thinking about them. Before the crisis hits is the time to develop possible strategies and responses. Pretending that the present constellation of forces will remain in effect forever is not an option. What the changes will be no one can predict, but that things will change we can be sure.



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