By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Tolerating uncertainty while enjoying luxuries


Things have never been better for many of us.

Europeans are quarreling rather than killing one another.

Jews are capable of reaching the top of virtually all professions, with decent housing and no worry about gentlemen’s agreements or restrictive covenants, and safe from plunder and pogroms.

Life expectancy and other good stuff are at historic heights in much of the world.

No longer do we tell our children and grandchildren to clean their plates because Chinese or Indian children are starving

There are problems.

South Koreans—at levels of development inconceivable a generation ago—worry about their impoverished and excessively armed cousins over the border.

The Israeli equivalents are the armaments in the hands of Lebanese and Iranians sworn to destroy us.

Individual Syrians and Iraqis, along with Afghans and Pakistanis lead the list of people currently suffering from violence directed against civilians.

Africa remains the darkest continent, although there has not been a recent warning of mass starvation, and the AIDS epidemic may be retreating under the onslaught of new and lower cost drugs. Or both starvation and AIDS have slipped out of the headlines.

One can find reasons to be concerned about ethnic minorities in Myanmar and the Amazon, and perhaps a few other places.

We should worry about North Korea, Syria, Iran, an uptick in tensions involving the U.S. and Western Europe with Russia, and the prospects of Chinese wealth turned into military power.

What to do is another matter.

Don’t make things worse should be the primary guidance.

Look on the bright side also helps.

With all the dangers of venturing into what is not politically correct, we can welcome the news about several clusters of Muslim fanatics doing battle against one another in Syria.

Anyone thinking that they have identified the good guys, and preparing to help them, should take a breath and look again.

In the considerable attention paid to Syria, there is no clear sign of any militias whose leadership can be relied upon to turn that country, or part of it, into a place that would be welcomed for its decency and enlightenment.

I’ll admit to a lack of expertise, but remain more impressed by the chaos than any speck of light over our northern border.

The latest confusion, welcome to my ears, is news of two Iranian allies (i.e., Hezbollah and Hamas) cursing and fighting one another.

Israel and South Korea bear comparison for their capacity to reach admirable levels of development and safety despite threats of destruction by neighbors.

My first visits to Korea, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, featured encounters with poverty and political repression. I had to fend off frequent proposals from prostitutes of both genders. At a social gathering that included representatives from the peaks of the Korean political establishment and U.S. functionaries, I was warned to avoid any discussion of “politics.”

My most recent visit was to a place with Western European levels of order and cleanliness, no encounters with prostitutes, and no one telling me not to talk about this or that. I found  the restrooms in Seoul’s subway stations as clean as in Swiss hotels. Long ago I learned that U.S. subway stations either had no restrooms, or they were chained and locked against the prospect of violence. Currently I’m writing this on a Samsung screen, and if I polish the prose while away from home it will be done on my Samsung cell phone.

South Korea is virtually tied with Israel on the economic indicator of GDP per capita, with both of them in the top 30 among 180-200 countries listed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the CIA, Both are considerably more well to do than any country in Eastern Europe plus Greece and Portugal, and on some lists above Spain, Italy, and New Zealand..

Israel’s modern history began with migrants fleeing pogroms and the Holocaust in Europe, unrest elsewhere in the Middle East, then violence  comparable to the Korean war of 1950-53, and threats like those against South Korean from North Korea. 

Both countries have had help, both have made deals with their adversaries and have engaged in occasional violence. There has been considerable South Korean food and financial assistance to the North, and joint industrial ventures, along with some battles and casualties. 

South Korea finds itself allied with Japan against the potential madness of North Korea. Israel’s close relationship with Germany fits in the same category of historic change.

Israel has negotiated with terrorists while denying it, and has chosen targets in order to foil those Palestinian groups viewed as most dangerous, while protecting those inclined to co-existence. 

Neither South Korea nor Israel can relax their guards. Both are among world leaders in the proportion of resources devoted to defense. Both nurture good relations with countries that assist them in providing economic and political pressures against their adversaries, and promise more deadly stuff if the need arises.

Pre-emption is somewhere on the agenda. There are Israelis who prefer attacks against the sources of evil as opposed to continued uncertainty. So far the doubters–in both military and political sectors–have held the balance of power. The complications of Iran and its friends in Syria are providing additional reasons for restraint, along with the hope that saner elements will come to power in Iran’s election.

South Korea faces the more immediate prospect of catastrophe, given the proven nuclear capacity of North Korea. However, the combined threats of retaliation by the South Koreans themselves along with Japan and the United States may keep the North Koreans busy with domestic miseries.

Israel’s losses and threats from low level violence have been greater than those of South Korea, but Israel’s own demonstrated capacity to wreck havoc in Lebanon and Palestine have minimized the damage to itself. There are daily threats of individual and small group violence, but they are within the capacity of the police and security services, along with heavy investments in various kinds of intelligence.

It ain’t ideal, it’s far from Paradise, there are no guarantees about the near or distant future, but it’s what exists for us and the Koreans, and things have been a lot worse for both of us.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He may be reached at


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