Middle Israel: Person of the year

He showed all Israeli fanatics how to distinguish between civil debate and civil war.

Shas MK Yigal Guetta (photo credit: KNESSET)
Shas MK Yigal Guetta
(photo credit: KNESSET)
Our person of the year 5777 is no celebrity thinker, captivating artist, or high-flying statesman.
Rife with the anxieties of changing times, the departing year produced no such prophet of better days. The fears we counted last year, while crowning then-presidential candidate Donald Trump as our person of 5776, have sadly intensified since his election, as the rifts he exploited widened by the day.
Yet Trump is not the unfolding era’s cause; he is its result. Having reached power thanks to ordinary people’s fears for their jobs, status, identity and safety, Trump the incumbent will be judged by the extent to which he restores the previous era’s confidence. On the eve of his presidency’s first Jewish New Year, such impact has yet to emerge.
The same goes for the year’s other political meteor, French President Emmanuel Macron.
Yes, the young banker buried a 60-year-old political structure that was the linchpin of a remarkable era of European stability. Yet Macron’s task is no longer to bury the past, but to shape the future, and this he has yet to do. That is why he, too, cannot be our person of the year.
Nor was there in 5777 a philosopher, scientist, or inventor who introduced an idea, discovery or device that might radically reboot the age of anxiety in which the world has come to live.
That is also why Brexit, which last year helped us choose Trump, cannot affect this year’s choice, as Britain’s actual exit from Europe was neither delivered nor reversed.
So static was the international arena this year that no new Arab civil war erupted, Vladimir Putin invaded no new land, and no Korean missile hit any of its zany leader’s assorted verbal targets.
Yes, there has been much brinkmanship, particularly on Kim Jong Un’s part, but the actual lives of his citizens and their neighbors have not changed in 5777, even when his words unsettled America and his missiles overflew Japan.
Similarly, the year’s crop of terrorist attacks, which ranged from Berlin’s Christmas market (12 dead) and Istanbul’s Reina night club (39) to the Manchester Arena (22) and Barcelona’s La Rambla pedestrian mall (15), represented no break from recent years’ norm, whereby Islamists habitually storm the rest of mankind. Our person of the year will therefore not be related to this scourge either.
It follows that 5777’s person of the year is an Israeli.
OUR MOST natural candidate is Amnon Shashua, the computer scientist at the heart of Intel Corporation’s $15-billion purchase of Mobileye, the Jerusalem-based driver-assistance systems developer that Shashua and colleague Zvi Aviram established in 1998.
Yet the deal, dramatic though it was, took place years after Shashua and his firm devised the collision-prevention technology that impressed Intel, and years before he hopefully realizes Intel’s great expectations concerning the driverless car. In terms of his impact in 5777, then, Shashua cannot be our person of the year.
The same goes for the political sphere, which was dominated by the investigations surrounding the prime minister and his wife. Here, too, due to the lack of finality, one is at a loss to crown as person of the year anyone related to this saga, from attorneys and journalists to cops and alleged thieves.
The Israeli year also produced no extraordinary cultural, scientific or athletic achievement, a reflection of 5777’s uneventfulness along the borders from which we quietly followed other people’s wars.
In such years, we turn not to people who shaped the year, but to ones who symbolized something that should be meaningful to all of us, the way this column crowned Nobel laureate Ada Yonat in 5770, or fallen soldier Nikolai Rappaport in 5758.
Such a man did emerge in our midst in 5777, and, as would befit this type of person of the year, hardly anyone knew his name outside the narrow circle in which he built a successful career cut short by a very improbable act of social bravery.
BORN AND raised in what then was an impoverished, drab and angry Kiryat Shmona, the 51-year-old Yigal Guetta was a product, tool, and victim of Israel’s social divides.
The remote and humble setting in which the son of immigrants from Libya was raised offered but a fraction of the opportunities that awaited better-born Israelis. Worse, when he was eight, his family’s northern exposure cost it the lives of his brother and sister-in-law, when terrorists who crossed the nearby border gunned down residents in two apartment buildings on Yehuda Halevi Street, killing 18.
With Katyusha salvos a routine part of his subsequent childhood, Guetta matured in a town where many felt forgotten by Israel’s secularist, Ashkenazi, and wealthy elite. This was the socially neglected, economically parched, and politically virgin soil in which Shas would sink its roots, the soil that Guetta – an unassuming yeshiva graduate, infantry private and MBA – was destined to till.
A confidant of Arye Deri, Guetta quietly rose from city councilman in Bnei Brak to CEO of Elad’s municipality before becoming a lawmaker. His future was more secure than most Israelis’ when his nephew invited him to his and his boyfriend’s wedding.
Forced to choose between the sectarianism he served and the fraternity he felt – Guetta chose fraternity.
Guetta did not abandon his religious opposition to homosexuality. He only drew the borders of its intensity, discounting the rabbinical wrath he provoked, and upholding the instincts of humanity, decency and common sense.
In doing so, this unpretentious Middle Israeli showed all Israeli fanatics – from religious parents who disown secularizing children, to anti-occupation activists who won’t cross the Green Line for a sibling’s wedding – how to distinguish between civil debate and civil war.
That is why Yigal Guetta is our person of the year.