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Moving Beyond Israel’s Leadership Crisis

As in the times of the Judges, our government is composed primarily of sectoral leaders who are oblivious to the wider national implications of their narrow and divisive agendas. 
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April 11, 2023
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The Hebrew Bible (Ta’nach) devotes a great deal of attention to the complexities of leadership, the successes that qualified leaders can bring, and the national disasters that accompany failed figures. In presenting Moses and Joshua, followed by the portrayals of a series of flawed tribal strongmen (and women, as in the case of Deborah) in the Book of Judges, and then Shaul, David, Solomon and the split into two kingdoms, the biblical narrative is a valuable source for exploring different leadership characteristics and their implications. 

These assessments and discussions are essential in every generation, and particularly in the current crisis that has brought Israel to the brink of civil conflict.  And they remind us that beyond the specific issues of judicial reform, in order to end today’s dysfunction, we need leaders who focus on the national interest and are able to unite different groups and find common ground.  

In the Jewish tradition, Moses is the archetypal leader, who, under God’s tutelage, brought the Israelites from slavery to freedom and then 40 years in the desert. The portrayal of Moses is multilayered, beginning with a unique backstory – saved from Pharaoh’s brutal infanticide by the Egyptian ruler’s daughter, raised in the royal palace, but still able to identify with the enslaved Israelites. Although hot-headed in killing a brutal taskmaster, which forces him to escape to the desert, Moses is also painfully modest, repeating excuses when God tells him to return to Egypt, confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of bondage. A successful leader, then as now, must be a convincing orator but Moses stutters and God has to send his brother Aaron as spokesman. 

Gradually, Moses masters the job. In the desert, his speeches become cogent and powerful, and he acquires confidence and charisma, leading military operations against attackers, and putting down the revolt of Korach and his allies, who sought power for its own sake. At the same time, throughout the portrayal, Moses remains human, with imperfections and mistakes – such as striking the rock in anger when the people complained (not the first time) about being thirsty. For this, he paid a high price, when God precluded him from entering the promised land. 

In modern western democracies, including Israel, leaders are not chosen by divine intervention (at least not visibly). Instead, they must run campaigns in order to secure their positions, and this usually comes with a significant ego and sense of self-importance — qualities far removed from the reluctance and modesty displayed by Moses. To generate the headlines and social media buzz necessary to get elected, they need teams of spinners and influencers, and this costs money which must be raised, usually from wealthy patrons, who have their own interests. 

But none of these factors justify corruption or eliminate the need for humility, at least off stage. Leaders who lose touch with the citizens, or treat them with disdain, isolate themselves from the general public, and lose legitimacy. A successful leader must also have qualified experts and advisors (as distinct from career politician-supporters and yes-men or women), and be able to listen to and act on their analysis. One of the most significant moments in the Biblical narrative shortly after the Exodus takes place when Moses becomes overwhelmed with the demands on his time from the people. At this point, his father-in-law, Jethro the Midianite leader and management guru, advises him on setting up a hierarchical legal structure, which is immediately accepted and implemented.  

Leaders who lose touch with the citizens, or treat them with disdain, isolate themselves from the general public, and lose legitimacy. 

In modern Israel’s first decades, our leaders fit most of these criteria. Ben-Gurion and Begin were modest — neither led ostentatious lives, both eschewed the trappings of power and access to wealth, and stayed focused, for the most part, on the shared goals of the Jewish nation-state and its citizens. They were careful to not allow family members to benefit from their privileged positions and did not isolate themselves from the general public. They sought out and listened to different views and analyses before making fateful decisions. When responding to criticism, they usually demonstrated respect. (Ben-Gurion’s boycott of Begin and his Herut faction until 1967 was an exception.)  

In recent decades, these essential leadership elements have faded, at significant cost. Many of today’s political classes ignore professional experts on critical national issues, because their analyses are inconvenient. As in the times of the Judges, our government is composed primarily of sectoral leaders who are oblivious to the wider national implications of their narrow and divisive agendas. 

It is now the norm for leaders from different parties to use their positions and power in order to seek personal gain – a feature predicted by Samuel when the people demanded the appointment of a king “like the other nations.” The prophet warned them “He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen … and your best fruits and vineyards and olives,” and this described many of the rulers that followed. Today, corruption takes different forms, but the results are similar. In contrast, the Bible gives us a standard set by Abraham, who told the King of Sdom “I will not accept even a thread, or a strap of a sandal … lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich,’” and by Samuel, who proclaimed “Whose ox or donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated or oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe and closed my eyes?” How many of Israel’s leaders today could come close to their records?   

It is now the norm for leaders from different parties to use their positions and power in order to seek personal gain – a feature predicted by Samuel when the people demanded the appointment of a king “like the other nations.”

Corruption, oversized egos, narrow horizons, manipulative and divisive policies, and misplaced priorities are some of the characteristics of what passes for leadership, as a divided Israel approaches the 75th anniversary of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in our homeland. This would be an appropriate occasion for voters from all sectors to demand much more from candidates and leaders.

 


Gerald M. Steinberg is an emeritus professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor.

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