NOW THAT Israel is going to the polls on March 17, the air is befouled with gutter invective, accusations of treachery and thinly veiled racial baiting. The ruling Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has been consumed for a month with complaints of malpractice and legal wrangles, arising from the primaries that were supposed to determine the composition of its slate of candidates. Yisrael Beitenu, the party led by the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is imploding under a wide-ranging criminal investigation for corruption. The largest Orthodox Jewish religious party, Shas, is headed by the Moroccan-born former interior minister Aryeh Deri, who served a prison term for bribery; after a party rival released uncomplimentary tape recordings of a speech by a dead rabbi, denouncing Deri, he theatrically resigned—only to reemerge, unabashed, a few days later (his party, meanwhile, split). Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former finance minister Avraham Hirschson have been sentenced to prison terms for financial crimes; former president Moshe Katsav is serving time for rape. And these are only the most prominent such cases in what some like to call “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
The first line of defense when such awkward facts are mentioned is invariably, as in the Kremlin of yore, the tu quoque : Israel, indeed, is far from alone in exhibiting grave defects in its governing elite. Is American political discourse these days, even in the once gentlemanly Senate, so civil? Is extremist populism unknown in Greece, Spain, France or Sweden? Is Italian public life a model of rectitude? Are politics untainted by religious fanaticism in Turkey or India or, for that matter, the United States? We look in vain in modern democracies for a latter-day Pericles or Demosthenes—and, if truth be told, even those paragons were accused in their own time of demagogy, warmongering, inconsistency, cowardice and peculation.
Nor is the disagreeable, often-hysterical tone of Israeli political debate altogether new. Politics here have always been a rough-and-tumble affair. Westminster-style courtesies have never been the rule. Even before the Jewish state was established, there were political murders in Palestine of Jews by Jews. As in America, the more closely we examine the characters and behavior of the founding fathers of Israel, the more blemishes we find.
Withal, there has been a perceptible decline in the standards of conduct of the Israeli political class. The other day I walked down a street in Tel Aviv past the former home, now a museum, of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. This was where he lived while leading Israel to independence and then to victory in the wars of 1948–1949 and 1956 (after the 1967 Six-Day War, he urged Israel to withdraw from its new territorial conquests). It is a spartan two-level dwelling, drably furnished, with one striking feature: the library, which runs from floor to ceiling around all the walls of several rooms. It comprises about twenty thousand volumes. Although Ben Gurion formally studied law in Constantinople, he was really an autodidact rather than a conventionally educated man. On visits to England in the 1930s, he would alternate calls on the Colonial Office with trips to Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, where he would stock up on classical texts. Anita Shapira’s new biography of Ben Gurion relates how his intimate friendship with a young Englishwoman was nurtured by a shared love of the ancients, especially Plato. She would write to him from London and send books from Blackwell’s. Apart from Shimon Peres, the last member of the founding generation, I cannot imagine any Israeli politician today who boasts a library half this size or quality.
And that was not even the whole of it. After his retirement, when he had retreated to the Negev desert kibbutz of Sde Boker, I met Ben Gurion. He was living in a small cabin that was crammed full of yet more books. A welcoming, gnome-like figure with white tufts of hair, he was a rumbustious, if one-sided, conversationalist, happy to reminisce about his relations with British, Arab and Jewish figures of the early twentieth century. He rambled on amiably far beyond the time allotted for our meeting.
Only at one point in the conversation did a cloud cross his brow. That was when I noticed, half-hidden among the massed tomes on an upper shelf, a television set. I was puzzled because, as prime minister, Ben Gurion had never permitted a television broadcasting service to be established in Israel. He thought it would lead to Americanization and a decline in Zionist cultural values. A little cheekily, I said to the old man that I was surprised to see the offending object perched there. Visibly cross, he tossed my remark aside, declaring that the set was a gift from an American friend and that he never watched it. I believed him: he much preferred browsing in Plato and Aristotle.