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Goodbye 2021

An accumulation of geo-political crumbs and scraps of social commentary — the detritus of a second messy pandemic year

“Nothing’s happening in Washington — Congress is on vacation” is a refrain that I hear this time of year from our man in D.C., Omri Nahmias. So as politicians rest from their weary labors to celebrate an ever-more-secular new year, this is our chance to clean out the inbox. Humbly offered is an accumulation of geo-political crumbs and scraps of social commentary — the detritus of a second messy pandemic year.


News Cycle

First, a related musing: Ever wondered why news rarely happens on weekends or when politicians are vacationing? Barring the odd Friday hurricane or August Taliban takeover, the 24-hour news cycle seems to run out of steam at intervals that conveniently coincide with politicians’ time off. In Israel, business booms after political faction meetings on Monday, and in the UK, things get jolly after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. In other words, much of what dominates the airwaves is manufactured. Takeaway: Politics doesn’t deserve the prominence we as a community have given it recently.


View from the Top

That said, President Trump’s defenestration of Bibi was a vital public-interest story that we’ve probably not seen the last of. Most worrisome is the former — and possibly future — president’s impatience at Netanyahu’s lack of interest in making a deal with the Palestinians. But for anyone (not me) with a C-suite office view all the way to Ramallah from Mishpacha’s new HQ high up in Givat Sha’ul, that ignorance of the reality on the ground is dangerously naive.


Tragic Loss

Fifty miles north of Ramallah are the ruins of what was called Chomesh, a yishuv in Samaria destroyed by the Sharon government in 2005. It was the site of a terror attack last week in which Yehudah Dimentman, a student in Yeshivat Chomesh, was killed. Days later the yeshivah caravan — built illegally — was destroyed by the army despite the pleas of the bereaved family. The tragedy on the remote hilltop was a symbol of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s recent transformation: In a deep embrace with left-wing and Arab parties, the once-hawkish politician ended the year by destroying a settlement symbol.


Shared Values

Pictures of the slain young father of one, his peyos-framed face beaming, featured in chareidi outlets such as Mishpacha’s Hebrew edition. It was another sign of the times: as a secular-Reform-religious-liberal alliance has taken shape under the Bennett government, there are signs of closer ties between the chareidi and Chardal (chareidi national-religious) worlds. Are we witnessing a historic convergence? A lot still separates the two publics, but the rise of the Chardal sector, which prizes long-term Torah study, high halachic standards, and a conservative view of the religion-state issues besetting Israel, makes this a relationship to watch.

But, but, but…

Admittedly, it did feel at times that the bulk of the really lurid anti-vax fear-mongering was on the right, as part of the resistance to the liberal Big State.

But it’s now abundantly clear that anti-vax sentiment is where the far-left and right meet. And in the politicization of science, the left is just as complicit as the right: witness an interview of mine that never happened in mid-2020. Back then, a well-regarded scientist from Yale was silenced by his colleagues for daring to advocate the benefits of hydroxychloroquine. It was enough that the drug had been advocated by Trump to disqualify it, the researcher told me in shock, before backing out of the interview.


Modest Ministers

And over to the pandemic. No one would have suspected it, but 2021 has revealed an unbecoming modesty among politicians everywhere, manifested at press conferences whenever a new variant surfaces. Given politico appears, flanked by scientific experts, to announce new measures. The purpose of the scientists is to emphasize that the president/prime minister in question is “following the science.” What’s wrong with that?

As Margaret Thatcher memorably said, advisors advise, and ministers decide. What this year has demonstrated is that there are giant trade-offs — in terms of the economy, health, children’s education — for last year’s lockdowns. That doesn’t make them wrong — it just means that scientists can’t decide policy alone. Politicians know how to take the credit for success; they need to take responsibility for risks as well.


“The Science”

That leads to the phrase of the year, for which I’d like to nominate the above. “The Science” has come to define the yawning partisan chasm over Covid. Politicians — and even scientists — who departed from the pro-lockdown, pro-restrictions orthodoxy over the past year — even after the advent of vaccines — were dismissed as “anti-science.” That, even though pandemic science is still clearly a work in progress.


Decrees’ Limits

Fans of the Boris Johnson genre of enthusiastically staccato Chanukah greetings (“They tried to kill us! We survived! Let’s eat!) may wonder who writes his Jewish speeches. Answer: probably chief of staff Dan Rosenfield. Whoever the advisor is though, isn’t doing his job. Because amid the scandals surrounding 10 Downing Street’s alleged lockdown-breaking last year, there’s a lesson from Chazal on the limits of government by decree. The idea that a gezeirah should only be enacted if the tzibbur will cooperate is a basic Gemara principal. As British commentator Daniel Hannan put it, it wasn’t the fact that Boris’s staff broke their own lockdown rules that was the problem, so much as the fact that they made impossible laws to begin with.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 892)

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