Center Field: Gantz’s ‘gantzer’ gift: Demonstrating character, not being one

We should still pronounce Benny Gantz’s inaugural speech last week a winner.

BENNY GANTZ gives his inaugural speech last week (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
BENNY GANTZ gives his inaugural speech last week
Although no one can predict who will win this election, we should still pronounce Benny Gantz’s inaugural speech last week a winner. After enduring mockery as a sphinx, keeping too quiet, Gantz found his voice, flapped his wings and soared.
The speech didn’t offer any new policies. It lacked innovative solutions to Israel’s challenges. That’s not what the speech was about. Instead, Gantz’s oratorical grand slam was a testament to temperament.
Good Ben(ny) tried breaking the spell that Bad Ben(jamin) cast on us. Good Benny warned against the corrupt Bibi-bargain – purchasing a stable foreign policy and economy at the cost of our souls.
In an age when politicians, especially our prime minister, play to the base base – vulgar partisans – Gantz aimed higher. At a time when politicians would rather be characters than have character, Gantz exuded menschlichkeit. Facing a wily incumbent who thinks the way to hold on to power is to slash and burn, Gantz showed how to dream and build.
Speaking an elegant Hebrew brought alive with a lovely, guttural accent I, as an American oleh, deeply envy, confusing cynics by not just looking like a hero from central casting but actually being one, Gantz chose the high road, not the Bibificacious low road.
Line after line skewered our now panicking prime minister, who has overstayed his welcome. Point after point resisted the defeatism and despair Netanyahu spreads. Value after value again invited us to dream Zionist dreams.
Take just one of my many favorite pitch-perfect paragraphs in Gantz’s speech as proof:
• “I am not prepared for an entire generation to live here without hope!” he said, echoing our miracles, our past, our traditional faith in the future, our anthem – “Hatikvah”!
• “We all deserve a leadership that gets up in the morning and thinks about us” – indirectly, elegantly, constructively, but firmly saying Bibi: Habayta, go home.
• “We all need a government that solves our real problems and is not preoccupied with itself,” he continued, evoking problem-solvers like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, sworn enemies who each retired in modesty – Begin to an apartment with a simple salon, Ben-Gurion to a kibbutz hut.
• And, the knockout punch: “Therefore, I thank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his service for 10 years. We will continue from here” – loosely translated as, yes, time to go, Bibi; no, I won’t drink from your poisoned chalice of hit-and-run politics but will be gracious instead; so yes and no, we will continue from here but without perpetuating your boorish, selfish, divisive politics.
BUT, YOU may ask, what’s the gantzer – big – deal here? Many a pretty boy on a good day can make a great speech. And, yes, Gantz inevitably will take positions that annoy while making some missteps along the way. In fact, Gantz already stumbled. My astute fellow Jerusalem Post columnist David Weinberg recently observed that Gantz’s first batch of ads boasting of Gaza body counts “won’t buy Gantz any votes on the Israeli right-wing, because Israeli rightists are nothing like the caricature of the bloodthirsty hound that Gantz’s left-wing campaign team seems to have in its head.”
But even if he proves to be a flash in the pan or a political babe in the woods, it won’t diminish Gantz’s achievement. Gantz reminded us that you can champion Zionist values and still charm the Israeli voter. And he proved to be courageous enough to be a muscular moderate – a tough, principled, bridge builder – not a marshmallow moderate.
Standing up as a centrist takes guts these days. It’s not just a counterculture move, it reflects a deep, principled position. It means you believe in reason and acknowledge that different folks may reason their way to different conclusions. It means you believe in respecting the truth, not twisting half-truths into partisan rallying cries, punch lines and tweets. It also means that, like a true democrat, you revere the people, understanding that politicians serve them, they don’t serve you.
Gantz rooted himself in the Jewish political tradition, too. Many biblical heroes conquered passions, controlled impulses – or suffered the consequences by indulging their emotions excessively. Leaders, in particular, succeed when they’re “discerning and wise” like Joseph. Proverbs teaches: “Those who are slow to anger are better than the mighty, and those who rule or conquer their own spirit are better than those who conquer a city.” And it was Maimonides who charted the golden mean, urging individuals – certainly leaders – to follow the “golden path,” seeking intermediate midpoints in their emotions, appetites, personal dealings and business.
What a pleasure it was to hear a leader who gives liberal nationalism a good name, who doesn’t use pride in the nation as a battering ram to knock others down or a clubby secret decoder ring to stroke insiders’ egos. He views nations, communities, as values frameworks for dreaming, stretching, inspiring, hoping. What an honor it was to see a politician ready to give politics, Israel, Zionism, good names, treating this election as a race to the top, not a plunge to the bottom. And what a thrill it was to watch my fellow Israelis rally around someone inviting us to march forward together, to talk about “personal example and mutual responsibility” as values “that will ensure the Zionist enterprise.”
On the basis of this one speech, Gantz did not yet win my vote. But he certainly got my attention, stirred my patriotism, made me proud, won my respect, while challenging us to demand similar leadership from every other candidate.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.