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Bad Government


Chanuka always reminds me what a sad record we Jews, Israelites, Hebrews, have of government. Yes, I know we pray for the return of King David, but honestly look at what the Bible itself records of Jewish kings during the first five hundred years of our peoplehood. The good ones were few and far between. As for the Hasmoneans, the only half-decent monarch was Queen Salome (Shlomzion). The rest were a bunch of murdering psychopaths. There was Agrippa II, a great grandson of wicked wife-killer King Herod. But he was not even Jewish. One sister, Berenice, was the mistress of Titus, and the other married the nasty Roman procurator, Felix. At least he was popular and pro-Jewish. By then it was the Romans running the show anyway.

As for the Pharisees, they argued over everything from Bar Cochbah to what books you could read. They could not agree on anything about the Messiah let alone his sort of government. When the Priesthood held power, it did not cover itself with glory either, and I suspect a great deal of longing for a return to the good old days was the nostalgia of the dispossessed rather than any evidence that we held some secret of good governance. To those who think theocracy might work nowadays, just ask yourself how, if the major rabbis today (I mean major only in the sense of numbers of committed followers) cannot agree on much from “Land for Peace” to eiruvs, would they ever agree on how to run a country (or which architect should be employed to rebuild the Temple)?

Throughout the two thousand years of exile, with a few notable exceptions, we have not shown those gifts of good people management that give one any confidence that if power were handed back to us we would know how to use it well. And so it turned out. All the good things in Israel nowadays are despite the politicians not because of them. But I guess that goes for everywhere I can think of!

There is a view held in the West that we have the best political systems available, though friends who spend time in China assure me they are running things far better over there with hardly any democracy at all. It seems a cross between an oligarchy, a benevolent dictatorship, and a meritocracy (“banditry” might sum it all up in one word–like Russia, only successful for a greater proportion of its citizens). The US had gone from backing the most unsavory dictators and sick regimes to suddenly finding a passion for imposing democracy. I am glad to see that the US passion for forcing democracy on people who simply do not know how to value it is dimming. So why, I ask, are they and the Queen’s Commonwealth, which has suddenly woken up, leaning on Musharraf of Pakistan instead of the Saudis?

He is not my favorite by any means. He has trotted out the usual hatred against Jews, but this is just par for the course for any Muslim leader nowadays, except possibly King Abdullah and President Mubarak. But look at the country he’s got to deal with. Pakistan has probably a higher percentage of suicidal religious fanatics, of the most obscurantist and primitive nature, than any other country.

The fanatics are counterbalanced by more liberal westernized Pakistanis. But every elected government and prime minister over the past fifty years has been caught, both directly and indirectly, with fingers in the honey pot. Both Sharif and Bhutto, two democratically elected prime ministers, despite their fine words, were found to be corrupt. Although the army has more often than not stepped in to get things back under some sort of control, it too is divided into factions. The nether reaches of Pakistan are lawless badlands like the Wild West, except that there Shariah rules in its most repressive, male chauvinist, and intolerant manifestation. Now is this an environment in which democracy can flourish?

Winston Churchill said, “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The system itself is invariably unfair. In the UK a party that can poll a third of the votes gets a twentieth of the MPs, because of the way the constituency system works. And in countries that have fairer proportional representation, a plethora of small parties haggle for power, forming unstable, improbable alliances that either fall rapidly apart or hamstring government. The United States system is riddled with gerrymandering, and big money influences government far more than is healthy for anyone except big business and special interest groups. But in the West there is usually a solid base of voters who value freedom, liberty, and security and who also believe in open states where people are freer to act or worship whichever way they like so long as they do not infringe the law or other people. Indeed look at the bloody nose Chavez of Venezuela got last week!

What is the point of democracy in the backward world if it would allow its population, if they got control democratically, to dismantle it and hand government over to psychotic clergymen suffering from inferiority complexes who would bring back hand-chopping, lashing, and stoning, and punish women for getting raped?

Churchill was right–the alternatives are usually worse. But there may be exceptions. A benevolent dictator can exist in theory. Think of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. It seems to me that economic progress is far more likely to lead to better government than forced democracy. Even in China the signs are that economics, rather than the Communist party, will eventually shape that country’s future as, indeed, seems the case in Russia too, and with fewer casualties than either Stalin or Mao caused. Musharraf has not shown himself to be cruel, corrupt or immoral. If his only crime is holding onto power, and if the only alternatives are corrupt civilians, then for goodness sakes leave him be. After all, in Bangladesh the army has replaced the two corrupt granddames of Bangladeshi corruption. Perhaps that is what we mean by “King David”–a benevolent dictatorship with a monarch who accepts a rebuke from a prophet and can admit it when he is wrong.

Of course, when all is said and done I prefer democracy to any other system I know of. Sadly there are far too many people on this planet who do not agree.

4 thoughts on “Bad Government

  1. While democracy is not perfect, it is indeed in a world of well-taught ethical and moral people the best possible.

    Without a connection to their conscience, without a moral grounding, people will generally do at best what we see today: a game of voting themselves the greatest largess they can, trading and compromising principles to get what they want. A slow slide to a slow-motion anarchy of stupid and selfish.

    So, it behooves those of us who have some moral and ethical beliefs to do the best we can to teach the rest. I truly believe that by teaching empathy and conscience, combined with honest self-assessment to neither burden ourselves with undue guilt nor with too little responsibility far beneath our means to easily deal with (such as society now does so often) we might make it a better way.

    I think the hardest thing is to have faith and patience but accept it will not likely be in our lives but sometime off, a sometime we will not see but set the stage for. I also think you’re doing your part rabbi.

    Thank you for your continued blogging.

  2. Certainly the notion of democracy versus benevelont dictatorship is a difficult one. I do not know of any democratic precedents in the Jewish world, and certainly the wide spectrum of the orthodox Jewish world works along non- democratic lines. On the otherhand you can argue democracy in Israel has lead to the adoption of anti-Torah values being upheld such as the adoption of tolerance towards the homosexual community whist at the same time democracy has allowed for the growth of the chareidi world in Israel itself. Where else would you find rejectionist parties sitting in parliaments accept in very sophisticated democracies, and I am talking about the Arab wing of the Communist Party as well as various anti-Zionist chareidi parties? The power of a good democracy is to be able to absorb descent rather than to crush it. It is a lesson that should be learnt by the Chareidi world as well as other sophisticated societies. In the long run I agree with you. It the society in question lacks the sophistication to be democratic then a benevolent dictatorship is the best option. Which is why it works in Prestwich.

  3. I suggest (as does Martin Goodman) that the Knesset HaGdola was ignored by the Romans as a representative of the Jews, in favour of the High Priesthood, precisely because it was democratic (or quasi-democratic)! The Romans consistently refused to recognize democratic or populist bodies in favour of ruling classes.

    The Talmud refers to MaaMad HaIr as a representative body, as opposed to Tovei HaIr.
    And the Medieval principle of no taxation without representation is another pointer towards democratic ideas rather than autocratic ones!

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