While testifying to the commission investigating how the 2021 Lag Ba’omer stampede at Meron crushed 45 people to death, Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly applied to enter the Responsibility-Dodgers’ Hall of Infamy, claiming “I can’t take responsibility for what I didn’t know” was cringe-worthy. Biographically, the phrase, which sounded even worse in Hebrew by evoking the drunken Purim-spieler’s “ad shelo yada,” suggested that Bibi’s getting stale and is off his game. This was not Bombastic Bibi, the confident, eloquent, wordsmith of the 1980s and 1990s, defending Israel like a lion on the world stage.
This was not Bulldozer Bibi, the proactive, creative, Corona-vaccine trailblazer, catapulting little Israel to the forefront of the fight against COVID. Rather, this was Duck-and-Cover Bibi, skirting responsibility, doing everything he can to be Israel’s forever prime minister: forever washing his hands of anything that went wrong on his long-drawn-out watch. Perhaps the reflections from his worshippers’ cheap, gold-plated Bibi loyalty necklaces blinded him to the need for a leader to be forward-thinking and protective day-by-day, as well as empathetic and accountable when disaster strikes.
This aria of irresponsibility defies Jewish thought, Zionist ideology and Israeli history, while echoing a growing western tendency to dodge inartfully, rather than lead maturely.
From Torah to Talmud, Judaism teaches us to be our brothers’ keepers, even to care about strangers or, as the English phrase has it, to take responsibility, emphasizing that it’s a choice to respond responsibly. Jewish law pivots around the “us.” Characteristically, many students start learning Talmud with Bava Metzia, weighing responsibility after borrowing an animal or object from others. The Hebrew word achraryut, is rooted in acher (other), emphasizing our communal bonds. Acher shapes cherut (freedom), too, because liberty requires democracy, and democracy cannot survive in selfishness.
Millennia in exile often deprived Jews of political responsibility, perhaps explaining the lack of a Hebrew word for accountability. Responsibility emphasizes what you should do and accountability looks back regarding what you should have done, which is why Netanyahu’s words were so painful to families who lost relatives at Meron. The Zionist Revolution ultimately returned Jews to history, sovereignty, responsibility and accountability.
In his insightful essay on mamlachtiyut (sovereignty), reprinted in my book The Zionist Ideas, Michael Oren explains his evolution from a happy, super-smart, occasionally-bullied New Jersey boy to an Israeli paratrooper and now statesman, by admitting: “I was fascinated by the notion of Jews taking responsibility for themselves as Jews for their taxes and their sewers and their lampposts. My Zionism was less Herzlian than Schwartzian, as in the beat generation poet Delmore Schwartz. If Herzl said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream,’ then Schwartz said (as the title of his 1937 short story put it), ‘In dreams begin responsibilities.’ I wanted the responsibility.”
Predecessors took responsibility
SIMILARLY, NETANYAHU’S predecessors, Left and Right, took responsibility. Despite ultimately leading Israel to a come-from-behind victory, Golda Meir resigned after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, rather than scapegoating the military men around her. Her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, resigned in 1977 when his wife Leah was caught holding an illegal US dollar account. In the spirit of all the commanders, he taught to say “acharei!” (After me!), Rabin could not accept feeding her to the legal wolves, “because I feel the formal responsibility is a joint responsibility and, if my wife is to be investigated, I will not hide behind parliamentary immunity.” And the founder of Netanyahu’s Likud, Menachem Begin, resigned in sadness 16 years later, taking responsibility for the hundreds killed in the First Lebanon War under his watch.
Although every day many Israeli youngsters inspire us by shouldering much responsibility to protect us, modern culture mocks these noble sacrifices and validates Netanyahu’s shirk-a-thon, which went far beyond the Meron disaster. The anonymity and massivity of Twitterdumb – misspelling intended – encourage a drive-by-shooting style of communication. Social media users spray one another with poisonous punchlines that polarize and pollute democracies.
The result is an orthodox partisanship that often revolves around a cult of personality and imposes a code of Omerta, silencing any internal criticisms, no matter how reasonable. Note how few Republicans repudiate Donald Trump’s defiling of America’s electoral process. And lest anyone link such bullying only to the Trumpian or Bibi-ist Right, consider wokeness totalitarianism, or among more moderate liberals, the Emperor’s New Clothes approach to Biden’s age.
From the start of the 2020 campaign, sensible worries about this golden-ager’s fitness for this most-draining job were often dismissed as treasonous or Trumpian, which for many Democrats are synonymous. Suddenly, with a midterm disaster looming, the mainstream media finally acknowledged the obvious. Implicitly justifying this dereliction of journalistic duty, The New York Times wrote: “as Mr. Biden insists he plans to run for a second term, his age has increasingly become an uncomfortable issue for him, his team and his party” – as if only the 2024 re-election possibility stirs these concerns.
If Judaism cultivates personal responsibility, and Zionism instills communal accountability, good democratic practice accepts complexity, prizes integrity and prefers mature leadership to temper tantrums, loyalty tests and responsibility-shirking. It’s legitimate in Israel’s elections and other campaigns to apply these values when assessing candidates.
These criteria are not about Left or Right, but right or wrong and democratic or autocratic. All good citizens must hold our favorite leaders accountable when they stumble. And we must start seeing in most of our political rivals fellow citizens who may balance values and perceptions differently, not evil forces aiming to destroy us.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.