Living in Israel during the present American election cycle definitely has its pros and cons.
The pros have to do with intelligent conversations with thinking Israelis who aren’t addicted to sensationalist TV and never-ending social media.
The cons? It’s a little awkward trying to explain to Israelis how the so-called presidential debates have, in any way, offered serious opportunities to evaluate America’s presidential candidates.
This becomes especially difficult when both Israelis and Americans look at the record of the White House’s present occupant – once the darling of the campaign circuit and the media’s golden boy.
Will the next president be wise and strong enough to steady the Ship of State’s wavering course? Or to push the global “reset button?” Or, in non-metaphorical terms, to undo the enormous damage that has been done by the present administration’s feckless policies both at home and abroad?
Have the debates helped or hindered us in making wise choices?
My Facebook friend Clarice Feldman described it well:
The trigger for this week’s madness was what was absurdly called a “debate,” a format designed specifically to encourage the candidates to attack each other instead of explaining their views on significant issues. A Jerry Springer-type gladiatorial contest to up the network’s rating. Did you watch it? I didn’t. I like to get my information from the written word. I could get whatever meat was in it by spending a few minutes online and spared myself the discomfort of watching this disaster. I no longer consider watching these farcical entertainments a civic duty.
I couldn’t agree more. The lack of dignity, the mocking and the loss of courtesy have been appalling.
But beside the unpleasant shouting matches that the TV format demanded, I’ve been reminded how I deeply I dislike politics to begin with. Years ago, I edited a book called “Just Politics,” written by my friend and colleague Paul Marshall, whose Ph.D. is in political theory.
When I expressed to him my personal aversion to all things political, he wisely counseled me that although politics are indeed a dirty business, they really are very important. And nowhere are they more significant than in nations where decent and just politics are a matter of life and death.
Of course, Marshall was correct. And that’s precisely the case in Israel. One has to only look at the politics of the Oslo Accords and the “disengagement” from Gaza to see that destruction and bloodshed have followed in their wake – violence that continues to destroy and debase Israeli/Arab relations. Shortsighted, foolish and even well intentioned political choices can have devastating results.
Maybe that’s why most of my Israel friends are cringing (to put it mildly) at the “reality show,” “hate fest” or, probably most damning of all, “clown car” descriptions that have been laughingly applied to this year’s American presidential contest.
This has, no doubt, been exacerbated by the disagreeable price Israel continues to pay for America’s last presidential elections. The current United States administration has not only spurned Israel and her prime minister, but has turned its back on America’s other longtime allies in the Middle East.
To make matters worse, America’s Middle East policy has elevated the terror-supporting Islamic Republic of Iran to heights of glory that even its founder, “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, could never have envisioned in his wildest megalomaniacal dreams.
The Middle East is in the midst of a dangerous meltdown, thanks at least in part to our U.S. leadership’s seeming disinterest in massive death tolls, bloodthirsty dictators, bloodstained minorities, dispossession of innocents and, of course, that controversial little word: genocide.
But now we look to the future. The election. The inauguration. The newly anointed president of the United States who will have the unique challenge of trying to repair what has been broken.
In Israel, politics may be hair-raising, accusatory and personal, but people do like to get to the point. What do the various political parties bring to the table? What do they believe in? What do the representatives of those parties offer, both in military and political experience? What can they do and what will they do?
Around here, the picture isn’t so pretty at the moment. There is blood on the cobblestones of the Old City. A Tel Aviv café has been ripped apart by Arab gunfire. Communities in Judea and Samaria are losing fathers, mothers, sons and daughters to ongoing terrorism.
But that’s not the only problem. Along every border prowls a genuine threat to Israel’s security. The Islamic State in the Sinai. Hamas in Gaza. Instability in Jordan. Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Iran’s forces in a tug-of-war with Sunni radicals in Syria.
Yes, it gets emotional. Debates rage and op-eds rant. But no matter how much deliberation ensues, recent electoral results reflected Israeli voters’ desire for focused, experienced and tough-minded governance. Hence, Benjamin Netanyahu.
And then there’s America.
Some Americans are indeed concerned about the encroachment of Islamist terrorism that has persisted in recent years and which is often underplayed by media reports. But to many others, terrorism seems like a faraway problem. Economic troubles tend to eclipse dangers that threaten from abroad. Affordable healthcare is a worry, as is future financial security.
Meanwhile, one of the most alarming symptoms of all this is the tyranny of feelings vs. facts.
In popular culture, the question “How do you feel?” trumps (pardon the word) “What do you think?” Or even more offputtingly, “What do you believe?”
Many of the American candidates in question – and part of this was due to the “debate” format – seemed to be focused on stirring up anger, resentment, fear and hatred. And social media has magnified those impulses to a shocking degree. This almost entirely eclipses a call to sane thoughts, powerful ideas and foundational beliefs.
It’s long been my observation that Israelis – emotional though they may be – by and large tend to seek out the rational, the specific facts and the provable ideas. This is probably why America’s 2016 election process seems alien and even frightening to some. And infuriating to others.
Here’s how my friend Ruthie Blum illustrated the point, writing for a New York-based Jewish newspaper:
During Thursday night’s CNN-hosted Republican debate in Houston, Texas, candidate Marco Rubio finally took on leading contender Donald Trump, face-to-face, about Israel. Referring to Trump’s statements that he would be a “neutral broker” between Israel and the Palestinians, Rubio argued, “The Palestinians are not a real estate deal, Donald.”
“A deal is a deal,” Trump replied.
“A deal is not a deal when you’re dealing with terrorists,” Rubio said.
Rubio concluded: “No people on earth want peace more than Israel. No people have suffered more at the hands of terrorism than the people of Israel. If America doesn’t stand with Israel, who would we stand with?”
If the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians were a real-estate problem, even the Democrats would have been able to solve it. In fact, if it were an issue of dividing up plots of land, the Arabs of Palestine would have had a state starting in 1947. Indeed, if killing or kicking the Jews out had not been the true bone of contention all along, the Palestinians today could and would be leading the kind of normal lives that Israelis take for granted.
One of the challenges the United States faces amidst today’s battered “global village” is that whatever dangers threaten Israel, and indeed, threaten the Middle East’s millions of people, are not isolated. They are existential threats to the West as well. And despite many Americans’ longing to isolate – to leave the rest of the world behind and hunker down – that tempting option simply doesn’t work in today’s real world.
The Islamist terrorism that is ripping the Middle East apart has recently devastated Paris, and has put Britain’s security forces in an unprecedented state of high alert.
And setting aside 9/11, that same terrorism has also encroached on the U.S. in places such as Ft. Hood, Texas; Boston, Mass.; San Bernardino, Calif. and more.
So whether or not Americans want to be the so-called policemen of the world, there are self-evident consequences to turning a blind eye, both at home and abroad.
As one Israeli friend said very pointedly, “Americans needs to realize that when they vote for a candidate, they are not only voting for American interests – they are voting for what will happen in the rest of the world, as a result. Maybe they don’t like that fact, but it’s undeniably true.”
The abandonment of U.S. allies and the alignment with Iran – the No. 1 state supporter of global terrorism – has already led to a massive death toll in the Middle East, not to mention the largest tide of refugees since World War II, which is currently creating havoc in Europe and likely will eventually do the same in the U.S.
In light of all this, will goodhearted American citizens look beyond the shallow demagoguery spouted out by their self-serving and sometimes dishonest candidates? Will they demand a practical strategy behind every bumper-sticker promise? Will they choose to think and to assess their core beliefs, and not only rely on feelings?
By the way, what does fulfilling the slogan “Make America great again” really mean? What will it require?
My Israeli friends sometimes ask me those questions.
I wish I knew the answers.