‘Who is a hero?” wondered the sages, and answered: “He who suppresses his impulse” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
There is truth to that, as there is in King Solomon’s insight that “he who rules his spirit” is better than “he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Even so, that’s not what ordinary people talk about when they talk about heroism.
Heroism originally connoted violence. In Jewish heritage, generals like Gideon, Saul and David are recalled as heroes. Then again what made them heroes was not merely their fearlessness. An acrobat walking a tightrope between skyscrapers is also fearless, but he is not a hero. He is an adventurer at best, an idiot at worst.
What makes a hero is the courage to take personal risks in the service of a cause larger than the hero. That is why heroism is applicable beyond the military battlefield, even in the arena least associated with heroism – politics. And if anyone will ever need a fine example of political heroism, they should refer to what happened in the Jewish state over the past 12 months.
The Bennett-Lapid government
NAFTALI BENNETT’S government was short-lived, but during its brief life its leaders displayed an unexpected willingness to sacrifice for a larger cause, reconcile opposites, and jointly deliver results.
The list of this improbable group’s sacrifices, and those who made them, is astonishing.
Yair Lapid, despite heading a parliamentary faction more than twice the size of any other coalition partner, agreed to give the premiership to someone else, and serve as his Number Two. Such gallantry has never been seen in Israeli politics.
Bennett’s sacrifice was even bigger, not only because the former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlers Council agreed to sit in a government with an Israeli Arab party headed by an Islamic sermonizer. Bennett knew he was disappointing many on the Right, but having realized the country’s political foundation was at stake he consciously chose to brave their every insult and abuse.
Mansour Abbas also sacrificed, having braved the vehemence of Israeli Arab politicians, and unlike them began cultivating cooperation and speaking the language of reconciliation.
Lastly, ultra-liberal Meretz swallowed its pride and sat in a government joined by three right-wing parties, and its leader, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, worked closely with the ultra-hawkish Bennett to combat the pandemic.
These improbable bedfellows’ achievements were no less impressive than their sacrifices, maybe more.
Israel’s 36th government passed a budget after three years of political paralysis, defeated repeated pandemic waves without imposing closures, and reduced the budget deficit to zero after it had soared to NIS 160 billion – or 11.9% of GDP – the year before it took office and slashed unemployment from 18.2% in 2020 to a negligible 3.4%.
While this restoration of economic order and budgetary discipline treated the previous administration’s anarchism, the Bennett government was effective also structurally.
On crime, it began tackling the crisis of violence in Israeli Arab society, redoubling patrols, expanding intelligence, confiscating weapons, and honing in on multiple crime families.
In Gaza, it discontinued the Qatari cash payments to Hamas, responded to every explosive balloon it unleashed, and delivered the quietest year we had on that front so far this century. Economically, this government raised women’s retirement age to 65, and it ended the rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision.
In short, “the experiment” unlike what one of the lawmakers who undid this government claimed, did not fail. It was a success. What failed was the conscience of losers like that politician.
Silman and Orbach
THE TWO lawmakers who decided this government’s fate – former coalition chair Idit Silman and outgoing Knesset Committee Chair Nir Orbach – displayed political heroism’s inversion: cowardice.
Yes, they faced pressure from the field, bullies hollering slurs from bullhorns outside their homes, hour after hour, day after day. That’s a serious challenge, no doubt, but leaders are not supposed to crumble under such pressure. They are supposed to brave it, or they are not leaders. That was the difference between Moses and Aaron, who surrendered to the people’s demand that he sculpt for them a golden calf.
Before Silman and Orbach there was another lawmaker who bolted the coalition – Amichai Chikli. In his case, it should be said in fairness that he was not a coward, as he did his number early, before protesters could harass him outside his house.
However, Chikli, like Silman and Orbach, was not elected to the Knesset personally. Instead, they were handpicked by Bennett, whose party held no primaries and created no party forum that would select, or at least screen, its legislative candidates.
Political heroism thus demanded that if Chikli disagreed with the man who got him into the Knesset, he should resign rather than try to twist his benefactor’s arm. That also went for MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, who was personally parachuted into Meretz’s ticket by the party’s chairman despite not running in its primaries, only to then try and blackmail him for personal gain.
Personal gain was also at play with Silman, who was reportedly promised a ministerial position in a future Likud-led government in turn for her defection. Such opportunism inverts heroism’s second element after courage: selflessness.
Courage and selflessness are also what should have made Benjamin Netanyahu realize that if he would step aside, Israel would immediately get the broad and stable government he has lost the ability to deliver.
Alas, political heroism is beyond the man who is too selfish to put the national good above his personal gain, and too cowardly to brave his legal charges like any other citizen – seeking instead legislation that would derail his trial.
This, in a nutshell, is what the approaching election – the fifth Netanyahu has imposed on the Jewish state in less than four years – will be all about.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership. He is currently a fellow at the Hartman Institute.