Current politics in the two countries I know best suggest that crowd mentalities are more prevalent than mass enlightenment.
Israelis wanting change are attracted by two out-of-office political veterans with criminal records. A poll headlined in Ha’aretz indicates that an as yet uncreated centrist party with Ehud Olmert among its leading names would garner more Knesset seats than Prime Minister Netanyahu and Likud. The spiritual leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has decided that Ariyeh Deri, once the party’s golden boy until he was convicted, sentenced, and served 22 months of a three year sentence for accepting bribes (released early for good behavior) will return to the party’s leadership along with the current Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
Americans have not searched police files for their current idols, but their attractive and well-spoken President may win a second term despite a record in the important region across North Africa and on to Pakistan that would be laughable if it was not associated with human tragedies suffered by Americans and the peoples they claim to be helping. One can play the game of pick the most foolish by comparing the President’s comments beginning in 2009 with those of his Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations. One of those worthies has claimed that the violence associated with Arab spring is only a temporary blip on the way to democracy and equality, while the other claimed that the killing of the Ambassador to Libya was only a crowd response to an ugly Islam film, and thus nothing that shows a fundamental problem in a region full of promise.
The area from Morocco to Pakistan and down through much of Central Africa does not operate like Middle America, but the President and key aides express themselves as if it does.
Campaigns in both Israel and America suggest that the fears of the American founders who wrote the Federalist Papers, and well known Greeks and Romans who wrote millennia before them, were wise to fear the prospect of the rabble getting its hands on government. Greeks wrote about demagogues, and Romans described the appeal of bread and circuses.
Since those days (i.e., 1789 or more than 2000 years earlier), there have been great strides in mass education. Nonetheless, Americans who aspire to four more years of Barack Obama and his colleagues, and Israelis who think that Ehud Olmert and Ariyeh Deri hold the key to their future remind us of those hoary fears.
Significant numbers of Americans and Israelis also give high priority to what a nasty skeptic might call religious fantasies. The manifestations are different, but problematic in both places. Americans express their religious feelings most explicitly in connection with abortion and everything to do with homosexuality. Christian enthusiasts also line up against taxes, public health care, and gun control. Whether those issues have their origin somewhere in theology would keep us arguing far into the night, but the clustering of attitudes suggests that God may be at work in the whole package.
Religiosity in Israel comes along with enthusiasm for settling the whole of the Promised Land among the Orthodox who describe themselves as Religious Zionists. Concerns of the ultra-Orthodox focus more on Sabbath, kashrut, public support for a lifetime of study by men of material that has no bearing on their capacity to support themselves, along with government money for housing and other goodies for large families with intense commitments to being fruitful and multiplying.
Secular cynics have to put up with all of the above in Israel, and in the America that prides itself in being the teacher and protector of all that is good.
It’s far from ideal, but could be worse. The authors of the Federalist Papers, their successors in America, and government architects from the time of the Magna Carta onward in Britain and after Napoleon in Western Europe crafted institutions to minimize the damage from what is now a mass electorate. The United States works better than feared by Hamilton and Madison.
A great deal of military aid and cooperation has come to Israel during the Obama years, which confounds the image of a President who does not understand the Middle East. Perhaps the aid and cooperation reflects ties between the professionals of both countries that proceed despite what the leading American politician would really prefer. Or Barack Obama may be wiser than suggested by his public pronouncements.
In this connection we should remember the assertions of both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama that the problems associated with terror are not inherently about Islam, along with their both running the most ambitious anti-Muslim Crusade since Richard the Lionheart.
Israel has been stable and reasonable in its major policies despite pressures greater and more immediate than in any other western democracy. Any one wanting to know how bad it might have become need only read Josephus’ War of the Jews.
Judaic morals described by the Prophets (God wants Justice more than ritual perfection: Amos 5) as well as institutions derived from British and Continental models protect Israelis of what could be imagined. Ariyeh Deri is free to run, but Ehud Olmert may be kept out of the race by an ongoing trial for corruption, and prosecutors intent to appeal a recent verdict of not guilty concerned with the receipt of cash-filled envelopes. The key witness about that matter was deemed close enough to senility to be unreliable, but there was a lot of money in those envelopes admittedly received by Olmert when he was serving in a government position.
Both Israel and the United States are lively democracies. But we also benefit from their different varieties of checks and balances, which include cadres of professionals who control finances, decide on criminal prosecutions, and administer the many other laws concerned with public services.
In short, government as it has developed in western democracies may be more reliable and enlightened than elected officials who claim to be in charge.