Several items lead me once again to write about the two countries where I have spent my life. Already some of my readers are readying their fingers to accuse me of turning against my homeland, or ignorance about the place that I left half a lifetime ago.
To be sure, I can no longer declaim who are the governors or US Senators of Massachusetts or Wisconsin, where I spent most of my American years, or the several other states where I lived for a year or more. But I'll insist that I still understand the basics of the place where I learned how to be a political scientist.
Both Israel and America have been featured in recent international reports about poverty and inequality. The United States has long led the list of rich countries on measures of poverty, inequality, poor health and life spans. Israel has joined the list of countries with high scores on inequality. In contrast to the United States, which scores in the low 20s, 30s, or 40s of rankings for life expectancy (depending on the source of the data), Israel appears among the highest ranking half-dozen or so countries on the same indicator.
Concepts of inequality are similar in both countries, but the explanations not. The United States has long been the place of opportunity and wealth, along with Third World levels of poverty and inequality. American miseries go back to what remains as a result of slavery, indentured whites, and Native Americans. The United States leads the world in the medicine and education available to the most fortunate, including poor adolescents like me who benefited from scholarships. The United States is home to the companies and laboratories that produce many of the gadgets and medicines that help us to live long, productive, and enjoyable lives. Yet it also invented the cheap and tasty food that has spread across the world to shorten the lives of the less intelligent, less well-off, or less able to control their appetites. If Microsoft, Apple, and some American medical centers are the heroes of the 21st century, Coca Cola, Domino's and McDonald's are the villains.
Israel's inequality is recent. It used to be one of the western democracies that scored among the most equal, but its move toward inequality--while part of a general shift away from socialism--has gone further than others. Among the explanations is the rise of Israel's prominence in the production of high-tech and high-earning products and services, and the vulnerability of simple manufacturing to lower-cost competitors from China and elsewhere. Two items in the news illustrate the process. On the one hand, Apple has joined Microsoft, Intel, and other leading companies in opening a research and development facility in Israel. On the other hand, a factory in the Galilee that had been the livelihood for decades of an entrepreneur and a hundred or so low skilled Arab and Jewish workers has been unable to pay its workers, and seems headed for closure. Like the cases of similar firms in small towns of the Galilee or the Negev, the media showed workers middle aged or older, who cried for the cameras and asked what would happen to them after a lifetime of dedication.
Several items of international politics also invite comment.
One is the noise heard from both Israel and the United States--seemingly in conflict with one another--over their intentions with respect to Iran's development of nuclear weapons. An editorial originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer--and sent to me by an intense critic of Israel from the newspaper in Rachel Corrie's hometown where the Food Co-op boycotts Israeli products--chastises Israel for not behaving as a proper supplicant. http://www.theolympian.com/2011/12/15/1914000/israel-and-us-must-share-viewpoint.html?storylink=addthis#.Tuqp5WFNqSY.email
Meanwhile, something is happening in Iran. I do not know who is responsible for those assassinations and explosions, but I doubt that it is an angel of God. Perhaps an international combine is doing what it can to dissuade the Iranians, or at least postpone their achievements and hinting at worse if it comes to that. It shouldn't surprise us to learn sometime in the future that both Israelis and Americans had their hands in this activity, all the while supplying us with disinformation about their disagreements.
On this point it seems best for all of us to shut up, and see what develops.
Barack Obama posed with returning troops and declared an end of America's war in Iraq. He reminded me of George W. Bush's claiming mission accomplished on that aircraft carrier in 2003.
The response of well-regarded Farsi- and Arabic-speaking Israeli commentators: the United States has left a country not likely to be democratic, currently in the hands of a Shi'ite Muslim government and actually run by Iran. Kurds and Sunni Muslims are restive, and likely to cause trouble. Judge for yourselves if the accomplishment was worth 4,500 American military deaths, as many as a million Iraqi deaths, and perhaps a trillion US dollars (depending on accounting protocols).
Yet another issue has been recent comments coming from the American President and Secretary of State, and Israel's Foreign Minister.
My awards for the silliest or most inappropriate comments go to Barack Obama for demanding the return of that American spy plane that went down in Iran, and to Hillary Clinton for lecturing Russia on the quality of its election. The first is deserving of ridicule, and the second brought forth a response from the man with his finger on things Russian that his country remains a nuclear power.
Again we see that America's prominence in the world derives from its wealth, resources, population, and technology, and not from the wisdom of its political leaders.
Yet it is Avigdor Lieberman who is widely shunned as an intolerable offense to international diplomacy.
To be sure, he would win no prize in a competition for the savviest of diplomats, or the purist of politicians. Yet he often speaks a truth that power holders prefer not to hear. One of my Russian friends expressed a set of attitudes widely heard in Israel: he supports Lieberman as a man who describes the reality of Arab intentions and reliability. He also described Lieberman as a gangster who runs his political party like a tyrant.
The nations of the world cannot shun the American Secretary of State. Lieberman, in contrast, represents a small country that often makes trouble for others. Moreover, he is subject to substantial criticism at home, as well as being the subject of police and judicial investigations of corruption. He is fair game, especially for anyone fed up at Israeli chutzpah.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at December 16, 2011 03:44 AM