Middle Israel: Jewish values in the Netanyahu era

In Netanyahu’s court, as in paganism’s shrines, the worship of things underpinned a disparagement of people.

Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during an event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during an event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.
Referring to sex, British secretary of state Philip Stanhope noted three centuries ago that “the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.”
One cannot assume, but must hope, that this is what Benjamin Netanyahu now thinks of his penchant for luxury.
That his ill-begotten luxuries cost him dearly, Netanyahu surely understands by now; at stake, after all, is his career’s collapse in – so to speak – a cloud of smoke.
Similarly, the embattled prime minister realizes by now that political aftertastes might outlast a glass of bubbling spirit’s sweetness and the fragrance of a Cuaba or Cohiba cigar.
What Netanyahu doubtfully gets even now is how Middle Israelis detest the very hedonism with which he is evidently plagued, and that their expectations of him were the same as they were of Ehud Barak, when they scolded him for nesting in a NIS 26 million flat on a skyscraper’s 31st floor, and of Ehud Olmert, when they decried his camping at a $4,700-per-night suite between the Lincoln Memorial and Embassy Row.
Yes, times have changed, and we don’t ask of our leaders to live in a shack in the middle of the desert, the way David Ben-Gurion did, or in a two-bedroom basement flat like the one on Tel Aviv’s Rosenbaum Street, from which Menachem Begin led the opposition for 29 years.
What we ask is that our leaders not sail too far from the average citizen’s lifestyle and priorities; that they live among us, both physically and mentally, the way Yitzhak Shamir lived in a regular apartment building on Jerusalem’s Jabotinsky Street even as speaker of the Knesset and foreign minister.
That’s not the path Netanyahu chose.
TO GET a feel of the path Netanyahu chose, go the corner of Balfour and Brenner streets.
Having walked that sidewalk since my childhood, I arrived there one morning last year, only to be blocked by an armed guard who told me that this end of Balfour Street is permanently closed for pedestrians. I looked beyond the guard’s shoulder at the Prime Minister’s Residence, and recalled the days when I went along its fence to music lessons at the Rubin Academy which abutted the villa’s other side.
I also recalled how, following Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, the villa’s wall was raised, and how all accepted its fortification as part of what security now legitimately demanded. That is also why, when I arrived at the villa’s gate the following decade to meet Ariel Sharon, I accepted stoically the security procedure’s multiple rounds of ID inspection, questioning and frisking, on both sides of the heightened fence.
The sidewalk, however, remained where it belonged, in the public domain, until 2016, when – like the biblical Naboth’s vineyard – it became the king’s.
Netanyahu would probably say about the sidewalk’s expropriation that it’s not him, it’s the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Well, that’s hard to believe. For 21 years following Rabin’s assassination, the Shin Bet was fine with us having our sidewalk.
The sidewalk was robbed following Netanyahu’s fourth electoral victory, when his power seemed ironclad and eternal, and its abuse a divinely bestowed right.
This dispossession having happened outside the Balfour Villa, while within it unbought Havanas’ smoke billowed and unpaid alcohol flowed, brings to mind pope Leo X’s reputed statement as he ascended the Holy See in 1513: “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”
POPE LEO and several other renaissance pontiffs are a case in point, not because of the mistresses and bastards some of them had, but because they followed a new paganism that made them worship luxury, collect art, throw lavish parties, and auction their forgiveness for sins, unaware all along that they were losing their following’s respect.
In Netanyahu’s court, as in paganism’s shrines, the worship of things underpinned a disparagement of people.
Netanyahu has specialized over the years in shedding loyal followers and able aides, from former Likud ministers Moshe Kahlon, Moshe Ya’alon and Bennie Begin through his former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin to his former chief of staff Naftali Bennett and his former bureau chief Ayelet Shaked.
Instead of such skilled people, Netanyahu promoted non-entities such as David Bitan, an anonymous municipal councilman he catapulted to coalition chairman, before the hack proceeded to the police station, where investigators showed him evidence he took NIS 500,000 worth of bribes.
The good people Netanyahu shed for the likes of Bitan are not monks. One – Bennett – is in fact rich. Yet they do not put us off by their personal lifestyles, they are not dazzled by luxury, and they don’t like presents. That is why they are respected not only by their followers but also by their opponents.
Yes, Netanyahu’s conduct may yet prove to have been legal, and he may also survive politically. Morally, however, he is losing even his followers’ respect.
That is the meaning of Bennett’s statement that “accepting gifts on such a broad scale” – a cumulative NIS 1m. – “over such a lengthy period of time” – a decade – “does not meet Israeli citizens’ expectations.” An Israeli prime minister – explained Netanyahu’s education minister – “must serve as a personal example to the Israeli public in general, and to Israel’s youth in particular.”
IN A famous televised audience with kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri in 1997, Netanyahu charged that “the people of the Left forgot what being Jewish means” because “they think our security should be placed in the hands of Arabs.”
This novel definition of Judaism now clashes with the Judaism of Middle Israelis like Inspector-General Roni Alsheich, State Attorney Shai Nitzan, and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, respectively the students of rabbis Mordechai Schwimmer, Aryeh Binah, and Baruch Shalom Halevi Ashlag, all of whom lived ascetically and saw modesty as a supreme Jewish value.
Where Nitzan’s and Mandelblit’s legal judgment will lead is anyone’s guess, but anyone familiar with their Judaic backgrounds can’t avoid imagining them poring over Alsheich’s files of evidence and, as if turning their nostrils away from an idolatrous sacrifice’s foul smoke, muttering King Solomon’s timeless theorem: “He who pursues ill-gotten gain makes trouble for his household; he who spurns gifts will live long.”