Cult of Personality

    As we embark on another election campaign that is certain to produce another uncertain outcome, it might be helpful to ponder how we reached this stage in our politics. And it is far deeper than pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi, the reason de jour and probably pour le futur.

    Consider this fascinating bit of political trivia. From 1948 through 1992, the ruling party in Israel’s governments (i.e., the party of the prime minister) always had at least 40 seats in the Knesset (reaching a high of 56 mandates with Golda Meir in 1969). But since 1996, the ruling party has never had 40 seats or more. That is a huge difference and reflects an enormous change in government, and its functionality and stability. In other words, the political situation is so unstable because there is a plethora of small parties. There always were small parties – many did not cross the threshold – but there were also big parties. For the last 25 years, without any big parties, there is instability, turmoil and even chaos built into the system.

     How did this come about? It is because our political system and its participating voters have moved from the world of ideas and values into the cult of the personality.   

     At a recent talk in the United States, I challenged my audience to deduce where I live. “In my country,” I said, “the leader of the right-wing party is immensely popular among his supporters and fanatically unpopular among his detractors. There is no middle ground. This leader is a punching bag for the leftist media and a relentless target of the legal establishment. When he was in power, the government was polarized. When he is out of power, the government and the electoral system are polarized. Many people who have worked for him hate him with a passion and have turned on him with a vengeance. Others swear never to work for him. Still, his allies are numerous and fiercely loyal and so he has a hold on the electoral system. His supporters are fervent, and would do anything for him, legal or otherwise. He has immense national pride, believes in strength, is conservative with traditional values, yet has been married several times and his personal relationships are challenging, to say the least. His party is stagnant until his future plans are resolved. He has been accused of crimes and of cutting ethical corners and his supporters deride those prosecutions as political witch hunts. So, where do I live to have such a leader?”

     From that perspective, the similarities between Israel and the United States are uncanny. Both countries live under a foreboding cloud or glorious sunshine, depending on one’s politics and the leader of the moment. Both countries political systems are paralyzed. That of the United States is in a slightly better state than Israel’s because at least in America there are regular elections. Israel is in a permanent state of turbulence and disorder because elections are irregular. Not since 1988 has a scheduled election in Israel occurred. But both Trump and Netanyahu, different in so many ways and alike in so many ways, hover over the electoral map like a Colossus. How did that happen? It can’t be a coincidence. It is that something has changed in both countries.

      As the political scientist Gene Healey noted in his book, “The Cult of the Presidency,” the American presidency has evolved in unanticipated ways. The founders feared a national leader who was too powerful, so quadrennial elections and the Electoral College (and impeachment) were checks against presidential overreach. For well over a century, the president was perceived as a mere administrator. Skip past the founders, and from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt – more than six decades – the only memorable president was Abraham Lincoln, and he was routinely accused of overstepping his authority.   

     Teddy Roosevelt enlarged the position and its role (creating the “bully pulpit”) but it was Woodrow Wilson who gave it its imperial quality. The president who leads (domestically and globally), and seeks power and not just influence. The modern president is responsible for the nation’s soul, curbing inflation, bringing down prices, creating jobs, spending money, defining the culture, and infusing the nation with his personality.

      Until the 20th century, it was considered unseemly for a president to even campaign for the office. Subordinates spread his message. While William McKinley broke one barrier by delivering speeches from his front porch, Wilson began the tradition of frontal campaigning and directly asking for votes. In due course, candidates began to be marketed like cereal and soap and their images polished for prime time. Candidates, allegedly, appealed to voters if they could play the saxophone, and voters presumably wanted a president with whom they would be comfortable drinking beer. That has led to the modern era in which candidates are celebrities, and quickly become media stars or villains. With the process shallow and regularly becoming shallower, presidents are bound to disappoint and usually do. The presidency has become a cult of personality; ideas and policies are secondary concerns.

     Israel has traveled down this same path in a much shorter period of time. For example, neither Ben Gurion nor Menachem Begin had this same cultish following. Ben Gurion stepped down as prime minister in 1963 and hand-picked Levi Eshkol as his successor. When the two had a bitter falling out, Ben Gurion left his party and formed a new one, Rafi, taking with him eight disgruntled Labor MK’s. In the 1965 election, Labor with Eshkol and without Ben Gurion won 45 seats – three more than Ben Gurion’s Mapai had won in 1961. His Rafi party won only 10 seats and did not have a long shelf life in Israeli politics. In other words, the people who voted for Labor voted for Labor, not for Ben Gurion. It was the last time he ran for office.

    Similarly, Begin languished in opposition with a very small but devoted party until Herut merged with other parties and formed a configuration called Gachal that won 26 seats in 1965, his best showing yet. No one was more beloved by his supporters and more despised by his adversaries than Begin but he had an undersized following until his party merged in 1972 with several other parties to form Likud. That party was formed by Ariel Sharon, and it was Sharon who, among other transgressions, established the cult of personality in Israeli political life.

     Until Sharon, Israeli leaders were politicians and members of parties, and party strength and solidarity were the critical factors in elections. Sharon was the first prime minister to leave his party and start a new one – Kadima. He was basically saying – vote not for the party, just vote for me. The party stands for nothing but me. Hence, the surfeit of Israeli political party names that are meaningless. Kadima…Forward? No thought at all was given to the name of Tzipi Livni’s short-lived party – Hatenuah…The Movement? And now our ruling party is Yesh Atid…“There is a Future.” We certainly hope so. Yamin became Yamina and I was hoping this time for Yaminist, but alas it was not to be, at least not in this round.

     The party names don’t matter because the parties don’t matter. Naftali Bennett, now on temporary hiatus from political life, ran through three or four party names. The point was to encourage people to vote for him, as it is to vote for Yair Lapid, or Avigdor Lieberman, or Benny Gantz, or Aryeh Deri. It’s not the party, it’s the person. Often, it is not even discernible what the party stands for (except for those that are extremely parochial and intend only to further the narrow interests of their base) or how it differs from any other party (the plight of the Likud offshoots, defining themselves only as antagonists to the current Likud leader, as well the Religious Zionist and Otzmah Yehudit parties that agree on everything). And oddly, unlike the big parties Likud and Labor (which once was a big party), the small parties never have primaries. They are controlled by the leader. He who doesn’t like it can leave. And if the leader would ever lose popularity, he would just go out and start another party. Most of the current parties are vanity projects.

     Politics has become a nasty trade and campaigns exercises in humiliation because the cult of personality demands unfailing allegiance. And, let it be said, it is difficult to let go and for politicians to bow out gracefully (and permanently). The Gemara (Menachot 109b) quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah who reluctantly became the Nasi during the Second Temple era: “Initially, if someone said to me: Ascend (become Nasi), I would tie him up and put him in front of a lion [out of anger for his suggestion]. Now that I am the Nasi if someone told me to leave

the position, I would throw a kettle of boiling water at him.” He grew to like the position. And so

politics has become the art of throwing a boiling kettle at your opponent without getting scalded yourself.

     The cult of personality has had the effect of exaggerating the virtues and peccadilloes of our leaders. Until Nixon, no president was investigated for any appreciable length of time. Now,  every word and deed is scrutinized, and in Israel, we are witness to endless prosecutions of disfavored politicians that continue until something sticks, even momentarily, and which are widely perceived as politically motivated. These practices have become frighteningly normal.

     Policies don’t matter as much as personalities. Netanyahu was for the expulsion from Gush Katif and then against it, for a Palestinian state and then against it. And he is not the only such zigzagging politician. But he knows, as the others do, that people are voting for him, personally, come what may and whatever he might do.
     We must return to being a people and an electorate of ideas, not personalities. We should never be so charmed by one individual that we throw away our cherished beliefs and principles. We should never be so revolted by one person that we throw away our cherished beliefs and principles in the other direction and latch on to his or her opponent, just because… and regardless of what they will say or do.

     The good news is that, as frustrating as it seems, this indecision is the way it is supposed to be. It is what makes Moshiach stand out – a leader who is moral and unifying and even unimaginable to the generation that welcomes him, who sees himself only as an agent of God. He will be the leader who unites, inspires and exalts his generation. Until that day, may it come soon, we should vote based on ideas and values, and thus better secure our present and prepare for that glorious future.

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