My Word: Rejection and acceptance

Israel’s entry into the OECD carries a message of hope.

oecd demonstration 311 (photo credit: AP)
oecd demonstration 311
(photo credit: AP)
Happiness eluded me last week – at least in the virtual world. I was Googling the terms “wealth” and “happiness,” researching a different column, when I came across a tragedy which hadn’t impinged on my consciousness before.
The main claim to fame of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is the creation of the gross national happiness index as a measure of psychological well-being much as the gross national product is an economic indicator. So it was in that particular part of the global village that I started my search. One thing led to another – as it so addictively does on Google – and before I knew it, I was witnessing the misery of the approximately 100,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin, ousted from the kingdom for refusing to live in accordance with the Buddhist traditions which prevail there. From what I read of their condition, it seems clear that their continued existence in Bhutan – had it been permitted – would seriously have upset the happiness measure.
Their lives following expulsion are still awful.
For close to 20 years, most of these refugees, mainly Hindu, have been forced to live in refugee camps in Nepal. Last year, the UN World Food Program reportedly announced that it had to reduce food rations in the camps due to funding shortages.
Several countries – the US, Canada and Australia among them – have accepted a limited number of these stateless people, but many still languish hopeless and helpless in the increasingly impoverished refugee camps.
What bad luck to be born a non-Buddhist Bhutanese. At least the Palestinians have mastered the art of public relations; how many people have even heard of this Bhutanese minority? And when the “oppressor” happens to be Buddhist as opposed to Jewish, who’s going to take them seriously? Blaming poverty and a refugee problem on the Jews is so prevalent it’s practically the norm. But fingering smiling, pacifist Buddhists is as far from the bon ton as Bhutan is from Tel Aviv.
Many years ago I met the Dalai Lama during one of his visits to Israel and asked him about the phenomenon of Bu-Jews and young Israeli backpackers who set off on a post-army trek in the Indian subcontinent and return months or years later as Buddhists. He told me he thought people should stick with their original religion and just adopt those customs and beliefs that they want from others. So the story of the Bhutanese minority being persecuted for refusing to adopt Buddhist traditions is even more disturbing.
I thought I’d share their plight with you because it was hard to get it out of my mind once it had entered. And they obviously need help when it comes to public diplomacy.
Various groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are on the case, but the Far East is not the Middle East. Bhutanese refugees aren’t particularly good front-page headline material for some perverse reason. There is even a version of “proximity talks” taking place between Bhutan and Nepal, but I haven’t seen any dire warnings from President Barack Obama and his staff on what might happen if the situation isn’t resolved.
NONETHELESS, MY natural cynicism took a severe but wonderful blow last week. It is so much better, as they say, to be a disappointed pessimist than a disappointed optimist. Israel is obviously not the pariah state that many of us feared.
In the perfect match between happiness and wealth, the country was accepted as a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on May 10, “a historic day,” as Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz put it. Seeing that any one of the 31 member states could have prevented Israel’s inclusion, and pro-Palestinians demonstrated outside the Paris building as the voting took place, being allowed to join really seemed a cause for celebration. A confused radio presenter at one point couldn’t figure out whether an interviewee’s greeting of “hag sameah” referred to Jerusalem Day or the OECD vote.
As a Jerusalem Post editorial pointed out: “Israel’s impressive accomplishments are best appreciated when scrutinized by a forum of highly developed countries committed to democracy, liberalism, equal opportunity and the market economy using objective socioeconomic criteria. In contrast, negative misrepresentations of the ‘Zionist entity’ as a repressive, racist, apartheid state belong to the fairyland world of hateful propaganda and a well-developed Palestinian victimization complex.”
Israel joins an exclusive club of countries – and finds itself in the enviable situation of being stronger economically than many other members (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Iceland, to mention but a few).
Apart from the feel-good factor, joining the OECD comes with some very real benefits, including the likelihood of greater foreign investment, preferential treatment in international tenders and probable improved credit rating.
One less obvious side benefit is the potential for lessening social gaps. The OECD requires frequent reports on issues relating to socioeconomic equality and can be used as a tool to improve the situation in such fields as education, poverty levels and participation in the workforce.
For although we are worlds apart from places like Bhutan and happily better off financially than many other OECD member states, there is still work to be done. At least, now we should be in a better position to carry out that work.
A few months ago, MK Ahmed Tibi, Yasser Arafat’s former adviser, called on the OECD to block Israeli membership until Israeli Arabs enjoy full equality.
Tibi conveniently ignored the fact that his very presence in the Knesset is proof that Israel is, for all its faults, definitely a democracy. He also failed to internalize that the OECD could help improve the situation.
Some commentators suggested that Israel would not have been accepted had the proximity talks with the Palestinians not been taking place at the same time. However, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund economist, lobbied actively against Israel’s inclusion and was recently photographed throwing Israeli products on a bonfire as part of a boycott effort.
That he should consider such publicity stunts as a means of improving his popularity sadly belies Fayyad’s image as a moderate. Even sadder: Instead of accepting that economic growth and development for Israel can have a positive effect on the Palestinian economy, Fayyad seems intent on stymieing progress that could benefit all. And, rather than learning how Israel absorbed millions of Jewish refugees and thrived, Fayyad still seems keen on preserving the status of the “poor Palestinian refugees.”
Still, he could teach the Bhutanese refugees something about gaining world sympathy.