May 2016, Elections and Leadership

Dear friends,

With half the world seemingly in a perpetual cycle of election, depressing news stories never seem to dry up.

In the Philippines, the newly elected president Rodrigo Duterte came into power despite making the sickest possible joke about the brutal rape and murder in 1989 of a missionary working in the prisons.  At a campaign rally he recounted “They raped all of the women… There was this Australian lay minister… when they took them out… I saw her face and I thought, ‘Son of a bitch. What a pity… they raped her, they all lined up. I was mad she was raped but she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first.”

Earlier this week it looked very likely that in Austria, Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate, would be the new head of state. Thankfully his progressive opponent won out but it wasn’t by much. Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent backed by the Greens, beat Hofer by just 31,000 votes among the 4.64m cast. That means 49.7% of voting Austrians were in favour of Hofer though he had been photographed sporting the German colours of the nationalist Marko-Germania student fraternity, which stands for “the German cultural community” and bears the slogan “Honour, Freedom, Fatherland”. And at his swearing-in as Freedom Party candidate, Hofer wore a cornflower in his lapel, which was a Nazi symbol in the 1930s.

And of course we have in the US the bewildering rise of Donald Trump.

How are we to make sense of these patterns? How is it that these primitive voices gain so much traction? That these people come to power is not noteworthy in and of itself; the history of human civilisation is filled with tyrants of every colour and description. What is amazing is that these people are democratically voted into power necessarily including people who should otherwise find these people abhorrent. Is there anything positive at all to take away from this?

The key I believe lies in the wisdom one of my favourite all-time quotes from Victor Frankl, “those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’”. Coming from someone who experienced the horror-filled concentration camps of the Nazis, this is a massive statement of the intrinsic human need for meaning.

The implication of this in the political arena we are discussing is very simple. Since humans desperately need meaning but the political establishment and its discourse is universally uninspiring, when one rises with a vision and gives content to the ‘why’ of politics, nothing they say or do will hinder their success.
Unfortunately in the overwhelming majority of cases the meaning provided is highly negative. It focuses on one or more insecurity of the population and changing that becomes its narrative; drugs and crime in the Philippines, migrant crisis in Europe, and the decline of its power in the US. But that is simply because fear is a more innate and accessible characteristic in human beings as evidenced by its ubiquity in the animal kingdom. It is therefore much easier to stoke fear and present yourself as the solution to that fear thus creating meaning, than to actually be inspiring in a positive way.

One positive example though is Denmark which according to the UN-sanctioned World Happiness Report 2016 rates as the happiest nation on earth. In media interviews of Danes of all shapes and sizes trying to get an insight into this phenomenon, one thing that stood out was the Danish belief in the socially just and compassionate system they have created. Taxes may be very high, for some reaching a little over 50%. But the knowledge that this ensures everyone gets a basic share of the pie, the justice and compassion this illustrates and promotes is a narrative that apparently inspires the Danish to Happiness itself.

Which brings me to this week’s Parshat Behar. Some of my favourite laws come from this portion including the laws of Shmittah – the Sabbatical year. Besides being the source for long-service leave and for that we are eternally grateful, the law stipulates that for six years you were allowed to work your land, harvest, and make the profit for yourself. True, there were restrictions which constitute some other favourite laws of mine. You had to leave a corner of your land unharvested for the poor. You were likewise not allowed to collect whatever you accidentally dropped or forgot in the harvesting process; they were to be the sustenance of the destitute.

But in principle private property was respected. On the seventh year however, all bets are off and the concept of private property is suspended in favour of higher values, social justice and even environmentalism. The Torah actually states that the land must be allowed to experience a Shabbat for the year as if the land is enslaved for six years and is being set free on the seventh!

There is no doubt that the Torah has been an inspiration for Jews from time immemorial. I think a big part of the reason is the Torah’s vision of a just and compassionate society which takes care of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And which cares for our environment.

May we merit to witness some real conversation in our own political arena other than fiscal management and supposed black holes in budgets. The people who should be our leaders are not necessarily those with greatest accounting skills. They should have the best accountants working for them but they themselves should be motivated by an inspired vision of positive change in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur