Regards from Medieval Times

Dec 01, 2015 Published under Israel, Middle East

Yedioth Ahronoth – November 30, 2015

Regards from Medieval Times

By Nahum Barnea

An American acquaintance of mine got up one morning after a sleepless night, read the newspapers, brought herself up to speed on the social networks, and told her husband in a minor state of panic: “The Middle Ages are making a comeback.” When he asked what she meant, she said: the massacres being committed by ISIS in Syria and Boko Haram in Africa; the terror attacks in Sinai and Paris; the knifing terror attacks in Israel and the territories; the xenophobia in Europe and the United States; the statements being made by contenders in the race to become the Republican Party’s presidential candidate.

That is certainly quite a long inventory. Even if the Middle Ages aren’t really making a comeback—history repeats itself only in poems—it seems to me that millions of people, members of competing nations and religions, today yearn for the values that reigned in Europe during those dark days. The world is too complicated for them: they want it simple, basic, visceral and unambiguous. Either you submit to me on everything, or you’re to be sentenced to death.

A large portion of the people who preach for a return to a better past wear the long robes of religious clerics. Some are Shiites, others are Sunnis, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Hindis—and also rabbis of our own. There is no point in writing at any length about them; the danger they pose to the wellbeing of human society, human dignity, to life itself, is clear and immediate.

It is harder to measure the damage posed by the others, those who don’t dress as ayatollahs but who merely think like ayatollahs. The American presidential elections are less than a year away, and the two candidates currently leading in the polls in the Republican Party are a disgrace to the political system and the party in whose name they want to be elected. The entire free world turns its gaze to America. It hopes for a leader of vision it can stand behind. What have the Republicans offered? Donald Trump is an Oren Hazan who has made money. He is a rude, quick-tempered man who is addicted to the noise he manufactures as if it were a drug; Ben Carson is a Smotrich with a doctoral degree. His opinions are benighted, his ignorance is outrageous, his credibility is problematic. The possibility that one of those two men might hold the free world in the palm of their hand is suddenly no less frightening than ISIS’s sleeper cells in Molenbeek.

The time machine has been working overtime in Israel as well. Instead of the government and the Knesset gaining control over the street, the street has gained control over them. MKs have been encouraging citizens to act in ways that are necessarily going to lead to manslaughter and murder. Public discourse is awash with racist comments. The prime minister announced last week that he would not tolerate racist comments, and forgot that his racist, mendacious and inciting speech on Election Day is what brought about the election to Knesset of the man in the 30th slot of the Likud’s list, Oren Hazan. Thanks to Netanyahu’s disgraceful gambit, we’ve been blessed with Hazan.

We are justifiably taken aback when we hear Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s belligerent remarks; we justifiably feel aversion to the threats that are aired by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They have both gotten mixed up in acts that jeopardize the world’s safety (and indirectly so, Israel’s safety). They are part of the world’s backsliding process to different times. But the cabinet ministers in the current Israeli government view Putin and Erdogan as role models to be emulated.

Netanyahu recently remembered that he promised to change the system of government in Israel within 100 days of being elected but forgot. He quickly appointed Minister Yariv Levin to head a committee to oversee changing the system of government. He didn’t ask Levin, a self-declared enemy of the Supreme Court and of the checks and balances in Israeli democracy, what kind of regime he’d like to see ushered in here. Or maybe he did ask him. It is hard to say which scenario is more troubling.

Ostensibly, we’re immobile: the country is mired in the swamp of its own comfort zone, in the eternal status quo. But in practice we keep sliding back. One of the bumper stickers that has become very popular in Israel in recent years reads: “We’ve got no one to count on except our Father in Heaven.”

When I first came across that bumper sticker, I was upset: how could members of such an ambitious and creative society that is brimming with talented people, a society that has been coping on its own with enemies that seek to annihilate it, come to embrace such a weak, apathetic, despondent slogan? On second thought, I might have misread the slogan: the first half is the important half: We’ve got no one to count on.

Nahum Barnea is a leading Israeli journalist for Yedioth Ahronoth. In 2007, he was awarded the Israel Prize.

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