Published in THE JERUSALEM POST on August 17, 1997
We’re in jeopardy – all of us, citizens of Israel – of growing accustomed to a caliber and style of political leadership that is, to put it mildly, disappointing.
We more or less expect our political leaders, of either main political bloc, to spend major chunks of their time leading a campaign of vilification and delegitimization directed at the rival party. Daily routine involves the waging of an unrelenting, internecine propaganda war. (Last week — over responsibility for inflation or blame for the apparent demise of the peace process). Listening to the news, you begin to wonder: are our leaders at all capable of rising beyond the sport of one-upsmanship? Is there a promise, dare I ask for vision, beyond the predictable polemic prattle?
Now, it certainly can’t be easy to be king of the ever-fractious Jews. But is it wrong to hanker for leaders with some draw at my kishkes or higher brain functions?
Israeli politics seems to have reduced the leadership alternative to a management contest; which party or politician will better ‘handle’ the economy and diplomatic matters. Or to put it less charitably — who will do less damage. In considering Bibi vs. Barak, I find myself setting minimalist benchmarks and sifting the news to determine which man is simply less inimical to my interests. I don’t hold out for much more.
The Bible, Israeli history, and even the world around us provide alternative models of leadership. Moses was noted for his humility and ethical modesty. King Solomon — for his majesty of mind coupled with intellectual caution. (How about the cerebral Henry Kissinger or the worldly Dr. Joseph Burg?). Ronald Reagan and Shimon Peres boast neo-prophet status, each offering their publics a comprehensive, if not always cogent, vision for the future. Others, such as the late sage Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik, or perhaps Menachem Begin, served as links to history, tapping into the consciousness of their followers and connecting them with the glory of past generations.
Then there’s leaders whose draw is personal example and nobility of character. The courage and self-discipline in face of adversity exhibited by Vaclav Havel or Natan Sharansky is simply an inspiration. David Ben-Gurion possessed a perceptiveness and determination that forced the hand of history. And outside the political arena, one can identify leaders of compassion, such as the famed Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem, or in a different vein, Mahatma Ghandi, each of whom served as a comforter and guide both to the individual and the broader public.
Consider Havel. After leading a political revolution against the communist regime by sheer moral force and the power of the word, the Czech poet and playwright today has articulated a teleology for politics in the post-modern world. Havel writes and speaks of the supremacy of morality in an age of technology and personal liberation. His success as a politician – despite policy failures and misjudgments — stems from the respect Czechs accord him as a thinker and idealist. That’s a far cry from choosing a leader who merely “will do less damage”.
It’s wrong to settle for the mediocre or the imperceptibly competent. This is too great a country on too historical a journey with too complex an agenda — to leave the reins of power to the conventional.
Daily we petition the L-rd in prayer: “Bring back our judges of yesteryear and our advisors of old….” We’re supposed to hunger for leadership that occasionally will make our hearts soar and our intellect go into overdrive. It’d actually be refreshing to hear our would-be leaders appeal to a sense of ‘community’ or ‘commitment’. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, intoned President Kennedy, and no-one considered him phony or melodramatic.
Israel of the nineties may be more centered on self-fulfillment than ever before, but is still fitted, I think, for moral leaders of perspicacity, capable of evoking the spiritual or covenantal or whatever we might still believe in – every once in a while. We deserve no less.