Center Field: The Yair Netanyahu scandal has left us besmirched

It’s depressing that we are so familiar with Yair Netanyahu’s behaviors.

Yair Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yair Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The leaked recordings of Yair Netanyahu partying make me uncomfortable – not because the prime minister’s son behaved badly, but because of the pile-on against this 26-year-old who never chose to be in the public eye. It’s bad enough that we live in a world where everyone can be Wiki-leaked and then be defined by the most embarrassing thing we have ever done. Now, apparently, our leaders are going to be defined by the most idiotic thing ever done by their children.
The brouhaha over Yair Netanyahu’s boorish behavior raises three complicated questions: How much privacy does any of us has when everyone has become a camera, tape recorder and gossip- monger rolled into one? How much privacy do our leaders’ children deserve? And is security for our leaders and their families a necessity or just a perk of power?
I abhor strip clubs, drunken boasting and sexism. But I am far angrier at the driver who allegedly recorded Yair Netanyahu’s remarks, the reporters who gleefully broadcast them, and a public that doesn’t realize that democracies – not just reputations – can die from overexposure.
It’s troubling that we have all turned into exhibitionists, posting every trivial thing we do on social media as if anyone cares. It’s disturbing to see people from US senators to high-school students take things even further by sexting intimate selfies on top of their blubbering indiscretions. But in all these cases people make their own bad choices. There’s a reason there are laws against snooping. A society of Peeping Toms is a society of leering, judgmental hypocrites who try to embarrass those they dislike, or criticize them for behaviors they themselves often share.
Democracies do better in societies that show a little more discretion, a little more constructive hypocrisy. It would be better for us to try presenting our best selves in public even if we are posing, rather than expose the worst vices of others. Parading as virtuous is a form of moral stretching.
This growing lack of compassion for others is intensified when we scrutinize our leaders – especially the ones we criticize. I write as a critic of Benjamin Netanyahu, as someone who wants to defeat him, but on the merits of the arguments not the demerits of his kids.
EVEN IN the United States – which leads in this swamp of overexposure and finger-pointing – presidential kids are afforded some privacy. In 2014, Barack Obama’s two daughters looked bored at the annual presidential turkey-pardon that takes place before Thanksgiving. A congressional staffer named Elizabeth Lauten mocked the girls on Facebook, saying: “Try showing a little class... dress like you deserve respect.” The public turned not against the teenagers but, justifiably, against Lauten, who soon after resigned.
Similarly, George W. Bush’s twin daughters first attracted attention by partying and ditching their Secret Service details. Reporters gave the 20-somethings the privacy they deserved, especially after 9/11. More than a century earlier, presidential daughter Alice Roosevelt scandalized America by smoking cigarettes and saying what many people thought but few dared speak. In response, her father, Theodore Roosevelt, offered this: “I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice, I cannot possibly do both.’’ Prime Minister Netanyahu might wish to echo those thoughts.
Finally, neither the press, the prime minister nor his family should be in charge of determining whether the prime minister’s family needs security. That should be left to our security services. Just as we need laws governing the administration of the Prime Minister’s Residence, we need clear laws to determine who, as a matter of course, gets 24/7 state-paid security, the procedures to add such security, and the nature of threats that justify the addition of such measures. Some people who have full-time security love it; most people detest it.
Once assigned, security guards and drivers must become true shadows, keeping their mouths shut, their tape recorders and cameras off and their wits about them. It’s a problem when a democracy keeps its leaders in protective bubbles. It boosts egos and distorts vision. It also prevents the type of spontaneous interaction politicians once had with the people. But the threat of kidnappings and killings cannot be ignored. So security must be assigned to some leaders and to some members of their families, proportionally, and from guards who are trained to behave properly.
Sadly, this affair has left all of us besmirched. It’s depressing that we are so familiar with Yair Netanyahu’s behaviors. It’s distressing that we encourage leakers in their illegal indiscretions and reporters in their voyeurism on our behalf. And it’s disturbing that we indulge and enjoy – and perhaps even prefer – gossip and distraction over thoughtful debate about serious issues.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work and will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in spring 2018. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy