Middle Israel: The biblical forebears of Netanyahu's downfall

Our biblical forebears wandered between three political models: dictatorship, anarchy and a tribal confederation.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks with his entourage in the Knesset on Wednesday night.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks with his entourage in the Knesset on Wednesday night.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Displaying on one of its 1985 covers a joint portrait of rising pop queens Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, Time magazine predicted Lauper’s future would swallow Madonna’s.
Reality inverted this forecast, vindicating the “cover curse” rule, which claims that if a magazine cover hails a public figure’s future, it in fact announces that future’s end.
Such suspicions abounded when Time dedicated its entire cover to Benjamin Netanyahu’s face, with the logo splashed across his forehead and the headline – “King Bibi” – kissing his right cheek.
Seven years on, the King Bibi-cover deserves a journalistic salute. Netanyahu’s reign proved more durable, his clout more solid, and his political centrality more unquestionable than anyone had bet.
Even so, the political circus it has just produced should spell this kingship’s end.
OUR BIBLICAL forebears wandered between three political models: dictatorship, anarchy and a tribal confederation.
Dictatorship was introduced by Ahab and Jezebel, who trampled justice’s every engine.
When Jezebel framed her neighbor and had him executed and his vineyard confiscated by a kangaroo court’s show trial, she destroyed the court system; when she alleged that in cursing the king (which he never did) he deserved a death penalty, she rewrote the law book (the Torah punishes by death only he who curses his parents or God); when Ahab cultivated the false prophets who were “with one accord, favorable to the king” (Kings I, 22:13), he invented the state-run media; and when he said of the true prophet “I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me but only misfortune,” the king of Israel waged war on the free media.
Dictatorship’s inversion, anarchy, was articulated by Gideon, whose response to the people’s plea “rule over us” was: “I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord alone shall rule over you” (Judges 8:22).
Fear of political power produced an all-out attack by the biggest anarchist, Samuel, when the people demanded that he appoint a king.
“The king who will rule over you,” he predicted, will “seize your choice fields, vineyards and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers,” and he will make the people’s boys “plow his fields” and “reap his harvest” and “make his weapons,” and their daughters the king will make his “perfumers, cooks and bakers.”
The Israelite anarchists preferred the era when “there was no king in Israel” and “everyone did as he pleased” (ibid. 21:25), the time when peasants who never met a taxman, a policeman or a conscription officer ostensibly flocked on their own volition to fight a town that refused to punish its criminals (ibid. 19-21); a time when war was the business of volunteers, while others could choose to “stay among the sheepfolds and listen as they pipe for the flocks” (ibid. 5:10).
This model’s naivety is obvious, but it survived for more than a thousand years, and ultimately fed the anti-Roman revolt, whose last leader, moments before his suicide atop Masada, said he and his followers had “long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself” (Wars of the Jews, VII 8:6).
Between ancient Israel’s dictators and anarchists sprawled a third way – the path of Moses.
MOSES WANTED a workable government, but he wanted it balanced and measured. That’s why he let the people decide whether to crown a king (Deut. 17:14); that’s why he limited the prospective king’s women, gold and horses; that’s why he worked with a council of 70 sages alongside him (Numbers 11:16); and that’s why he made the appointment of judges the duty of the people rather than of the king (Deut. 16:18).
Yet in his quest to decentralize government, Moses haphazardly went too far, twice: first, when he heeded two tribes’ request to settle east of the Jordan, thus turning the tribe into a political actor with its own legitimate will; and then, when he ruled in response to another petition that if a couple from different tribes marry, real estate should under no circumstances revert from one tribe to another (Num. 36:9).
The tribe thus became not only a political actor, but also a legal entity with its own delineated land. Tribalism thus became a fixture of Israelite politics and an engine of repeated civil wars, including one that opened with one tribe’s leader shouting at his enemy brethren that God gave his tribe lordship over the rest of Israel, “a covenant of salt.” (Chron. II, 13:5).
NOW, AS we emerge from the most appalling political week in Israel’s history, we must suspect that all three models of our forebears’ political dereliction have come to nest in the modern Jewish state.
The totalitarians’ targeting of the judiciary, the media and the law book has been incubating here for years.
The tribal model’s cultivation of the religious and social ghetto at the expense of the nation that sprawls beyond it has been around for decades.
And now, the anarchic bug has attacked a pair of political egomaniacs, one a judicially embattled king, the other a usurper intoxicated by the smell of royal blood. As they see things, their personal situations justify the national tizzy of back-to-back general elections.
No one who cares for this country, from left to right through the middle, top, and bottom, can forgive what Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman have just done to the Jewish state.
Hopefully, Time magazine will soon have reason to display this pair of political judokas in a joint portrait, and crown them as the year’s political has-beens. Before that, all of us must take to the streets and force them to make way for new leaders; patriots who will know how to distinguish between the personal, the national, the reasonable, and the insane.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.