He's a somebody
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 27, 1998
In college, I once debated the proposition, "The dove should be the national bird." Arguing against the proposition, I noted that replacing the bald eagle by the dove would expose America to worldwide ridicule. (It was then the height of the Vietnam War.)
Instead I proposed the turkey, whose earthy materialism had commended it to no less an authority than Benjamin Franklin as the appropriate national bird.
Israeli presidents are, or should be, like national birds: symbolic. If we want turkey--someone best representing the national stereotype then clearly Ezer Weizman is the man. He obviously delights in the role of archetypical Sabra macho, loud, opinionated, gruff exterior concealing a warm heart.
And if it is a bald eagle or dove that we seek someone to express our highest aspirations it is doubtful that either President Weizman or his challenger Shaul Amor has the rhetorical power or overarching vision necessary for the task. Nor is it clear that our society retains any animating vision capable of articulation. As a pilot and architect of Israel's air force, Weizman has served his country well and earned our lasting gratitude. As president, his impressive capacity for empathizing with bereaved families has been a too frequently needed national resource.
Yet despite his distinguished national service, Weizman lacks the elementary prerequisite for the presidency: an understanding of its institutional limitations. The presidency is not an opportunity to pursue politics in a new forum. Nor is the president meant to be our Delphic oracle, with an opinion on every subject.
President Weizman first gained fame as a dashing young pilot in the fledgling Israeli air force, and he remains, five decades later, a flying ace at heart the consummate individualist, the eternal maverick, impatient with all institutional constraints and incapable of learning from past mistakes.
Eight years ago, while a member of the internal security cabinet, he embarked on a one-man foreign policy, in direct contravention of the national unity government's guidelines as well as the existing law, when he advised the PLO on the negotiating strategy it should adopt vis-a-vis Israel.
As president, he criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu's foreign policy to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and encouraged her to bash heads.
Crossing every red-line governing presidential conduct, he engaged, in the words of Shlomo Avineri, a former director-general of the foreign ministry, in nothing less than "a presidential coup."
Nor was his foray at policy-making harmless. Just when the Americans were finally giving priority to the Palestinian Authority's failure to restrain terror, Israel's president was advising Albright not to put pressure on the PLO.
Netanyahu, like prime minister Rabin before him, is quite justified in wishing to be rid of an unguided missile in the President's Residence.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's dictum "Not everything that one thinks should be said; not everything that is said should be written" - applies to all of us. But to no one more than the president, who must constantly distinguish between his private opinions and his public role articulating a national consensus. It is a distinction utterly lost on President Weizman.
As soon as a microphone is thrust in his face, he spouts off whatever is on his mind with the excitement of someone on TV for the first time. Whether his opinions are right or wrong is irrelevant; they characteristically come forth without prior thought or awareness of his role.
This week's quick, "Why not?," in response to a question about the distribution of antibiotics to the public, was typical. It seems not to have occurred to the president that there might be fiscal, logistical and medical reasons why not.
If only because of his recognition of the symbolic role of the presidency, Shaul Amor would be a far better choice for the job. At the very least, he would not undermine Israeli diplomacy. Nor would he cause international embarrassment, as Weizman did with his ramblings about good food and drink at the Rabin funeral. Nor would he offend various segments of the population with glib off-the-cuff remarks, as Weizman has done repeatedly.
Yet Amor is dismissed by the pundits as a non-entity, a political lightweight, someone lacking the requisite stature. Such dismissive attitudes come naturally to our opinion-makers, who labor under the mistaken impression that by casually labelling others as nobodies they become somebodies and that by questioning the intellectual capabilities of others they thereby show their own superior intellects.
In a political scene dominated by MKs who act as if they had a personal mandate, even though most of their party's voters know little about them, and who spend their time in attention-getting stunts to improve their place on the next Knesset list, journalists have fallen into the trap of confusing noise with substance. A man acknowledged by one and all as a good person is not a nobody.
"Anyone whose behavior brings pleasure to his fellow man, also brings pleasure to the Omnipresent." A man who, without fanfare, invites convicted murderers and orphans to live in his house is not a nobody. A mayor whose has led his city out of the hopeless rut into which most development towns have fallen is not a nobody. Would that we had more like him.
As a society, we have to rid ourselves of the habit of nullifying our fellows, of viewing them as zeros and acting accordingly. Rabbi Reuven Dov Dessler, leader of the Kelm Talmud Torah, wrote in one of his Erev Yom Kippur resolutions: "Anytime I meet someone, I must quickly reflect on all his good qualities and make those uppermost in my mind. And especially so, if I have any complaint against him."
Perhaps good, modest Shaul Amor can show us the way to treat one another with respect and become the healer he seeks to be and we so badly need.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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