“YOU HAVE SAT there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.” So spoke Leo Amery MP to Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons in the wake of British military failures before the Nazi advance in 1940.
These words, originally attributed to Oliver Cromwell during the English Republic, symbolised the beliefs of British Jews that the policy of appeasement should finally be buried in the graveyard of good intentions and that a new leadership was called for.
Was this a Jewish issue? In a national sense, of course there was a Jewish imperative to fight the Nazis. In a wider sense, the universalism within Jewish teachings cried out that it was a necessity to prevent the enslavement of millions by Hitler’s war machine.
Was it merely coincidental that Amery was of Jewish origin while Chamberlain was known to have very negative views about Jews?
Last week, Amery’s famous epithet was hurled at Boris Johnson in the House of Commons during a debate on “partygate” by a committed ally and stalwart of the Conservative party, David Davis. Johnson, the author of a book on Churchill, professed not to recognise these famous words of Leo Amery.
Davis later told the British press that his unexpected intervention was the outcome of a lack of integrity by Johnson. “It is not what I expect from a leader.”
This was followed by a daily series of new scandals, ranging from Islamophobia in the Conservative party to bovver-boy skulduggery from parliamentary whips to prime ministerial birthday parties. Boris Johnson sank deeper and deeper into the protozoic slime.
However, it was his flip-flopping between one explanation and another about raucous gatherings in Downing Street during a time of pandemic and personal tragedy that deeply annoyed the British public beyond the arena of party politics. The police are now conducting an investigation into these events in Downing Street which in all likelihood broke the law.
While ordinary citizens remained isolated behind closed doors, expecting a visit from the virus, personal advisors partied, ate and drank. As in the case of Novak Djokovic, it indicated that we are not all in it together.
For many Brits, it was an abrogation of “fair play” and the rule of law. It was not cricket. For several British Jews, it was the abolition of the solidarity of the collective and the promotion of the selfishness of the individual.
In Israel, it brought back memories of deflection strategies during the Netanyahu years. The “greater good” was depicted by the persona of Netanyahu as the protector of the Jewish people and the guarantor of public security — regardless of his flaws and foibles. In a similar fashion, the Johnson faithful have pointed to the vaccine turnout in the UK and government performance during the last two years.
Should we therefore expect our leaders to possess a moral compass when in public office and project an exemplary conduct to the governed? Or should this behaviour be left to vicars and priests, rabbis and imams, and their pronouncements safely confined to the House of Worship?
Like Netanyahu, Johnson has attempted to depict any attack on him as an attack on the Conservative party. Yet, as in Israel, there are also dissidents — those who do not see the leader as one and the same as the party.
The Likud contenders for Netanyahu’s crown are waiting in the wings in the hope that he will be put out to pasture and permanent retirement in a political never-never land. During the last week, Netanyahu’s position has become clearer.
According to leaks on Israeli television last week, Netanyahu is considering a plea bargain with the Attorney-General, Avigdor Mendelblit, which would mean acceptance of the charges of fraud and breach of trust in the three cases which are now ranged against him in a criminal trial in Jerusalem.
The sticking point for Netanyahu however is an acceptance of the charge of “moral turpitude” — this is an ironic wording because it is not morality that worries Netanyahu, but the greater glory of political leadership. “Moral turpitude” would mean that he would not be able to stand for public office for seven years — by which time, he would be touching 80.
A stand-off currently exists between Netanyahu and Mendelblit, who is due to retire shortly. Netanyahu is hoping he will have more success with Mendelblit’s successor.
Several opinion polls have shown that a majority of the Israeli public is opposed to a plea bargain for Netanyahu and want the Bennett government of “national unity” to continue. Even so, if the Likud was led by someone other than Netanyahu, it is possible that several of the far- right parties, now in government, could easily defect to a new Likud-led coalition. This would spell the end of the Bennett experiment.
In the cases of both Johnson and Netanyahu, a limit was reached by hitherto loyal supporters. For several — including the most hardened and cynical political operatives — morality did matter. It relates to the reason why they came into politics in the first place. They have grown tired of the golden phrases of figures such as Johnson and Netanyahu. Public relations is not the same as public reality.
Yet how people in public life act did matter in an earlier phase of Israel’s history. It was exemplified in the difference between Yitzhak Rabin who resigned in 1977 over an unauthorised bank account in Washington, and Ariel Sharon who refused to resign in 1983 over his conduct during the invasion of Lebanon and the killing of Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila.
The Kahan Commission found that Minister of Defence Sharon “disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps”. The Israeli cabinet accepted the recommendations of the Kahan Commission, 16 to 1 — only Ariel Sharon refused to accept the verdict of the judges.
While there have been numerous instances of wrongdoing by Israel leaders such as former prime minister Ehud Olmert, there has been a plethora of accusations, trials and imprisonments which have swamped religious parties such as Shas.
Last week, Arye Deri, the long-time leader of Shas, was forced to resign from the Knesset, amidst a plea bargain — this was a second conviction following charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in 1999 for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. Even so, unlike Netanyahu, this current deal allows him to remain at the head of his party.
It is significant to note that the common denominator in forming Bennett’s coalition of eight widely diverse parties was not simply an abhorrence of Netanyahu’s political practices, but also a distrust of the Haredi parties.
That distrust emanated from an ongoing disregard by the Haredim of any sense of normative morality in the political arena and that the rule of law could be suspended when necessary. Their political interests came before anything else.
This was reflected in the growing support of evangelical Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States for Donald Trump during the last years. Trump’s support for their vested interests superseded any religious concerns that they might have had about his many moral failings. Questions of turpitude never entered the discussion. When push came to shove, they acted in an irreligious fashion.
Johnson, Trump and Netanyahu today all share an addiction to the allure of power which is manifested by a common desire not to step down from public office, to use wriggle room to delay the day of reckoning and to use ambiguity and external interpretation as a means of prolonging their tenure.
In contrast — and despite the inanities of social media — the internet has also provided the tools to research the subterranean machinations of those who regard themselves to be above the law.
There has been a new generation of journalists who refuse to be cowed. They work for outfits such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Bellingcat. Ha’aretz recently partnered with these groups in a remarkable global investigation into the nefarious activities of NSO and its Pegasus spyware — how this Israeli firm seemingly facilitated the electronic surveillance of dissidents in dictatorships while parading the fig leaf of monitoring potential terrorists and criminals.
Shining a light into dark corners is not new. As the many collective letters of Soviet Jews who struggled for the right to emigrate to Israel after 1967 indicate, authoritarian leaders feared being caught in the headlights of public opinion.
Many young people have logically found a home in the fourth estate, a twenty-first century media seeking to challenge the mighty and the privileged — and Jews are to be found among them. They carry on an age-old Jewish tradition in speaking truth to power. As it states in the Gemara, “greatness seeks out the person who runs away from greatness”.
Plus61j 28 January 2022