The Bennett family’s grace trumps its rivals’ gracelessness
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The Jerusalem Post 16/06/2021
The Bennett family’s grace trumps its rivals’ gracelessness
When Naftali Bennett requested “support for the Unity Government … to restore stability and functionality to the State of Israel,” the new Prime Minister sold his government short. In his disciplined, elegant, substantive and moving speech, Bennett did not just take a giant step toward such instrumentalist goals – he also restored grace to Israel’s government.
Admittedly, many Jews consider “grace” a goyish word. Christians say “grace” before or after meals; and seek a “state of grace,” meaning a taste of the godly life as God’s gift; Jews seek to live a good life but understand that humans can never achieve a godly life. And American Jewish comedians have long contrasted their graceful non-Jewish neighbors with a Jewish Braniac klutziness.
Actually, “grace” is a deeply Jewish word too, translated into Hebrew as “chesed,” meaning mercy, compassion, lovingkindness. Those godly qualities have long circulated in the Jewish bloodstream helping us cope with disasters – and bond with one another.
In politics, “grace” combines compassion with class. Every healthy democracy needs heaps of grace, especially during elections and government transitions. Grace allows us to leap from clashing politically to building consensus, from denouncing rivals to cooperating with neighbors.
It’s reasonable to expect political opponents to fight intensely, but it’s also reasonable to expect democratic rivals to lose gracefully, to start healing the nation once the results become clear – or coalitions coalesce. The patriot continues opposing the government on particular policies, but stops questioning its legitimacy. Grace prevents “sore winners” from taking revenge on the losers – while preventing sore losers from still electioneering or plotting when the time for constructive governance has already begun.
Naftali Bennett’s maiden speech graced us. Thanking not just Benjamin Netanyahu but Sara Netanyahu — Bennett’s old nemesis — was one of many elegant gestures. Bennett reassured every citizen: “we have come to work! For everyone.” Beyond reaching out to Arabs –welcomed into coalition politics at Netanyahu’s initiative, Bennett cleverly noted — he reassured “the ultra-Orthodox” too. Promising to “represent” them, Bennett made a lovely move that was just passive-aggressive enough to show he was no patsy. Mentioning “Eliyahu Shmuel, of blessed memory – a 16-year-old ultra-Orthodox” Meron victim, while promising to establish a “State Commission of Inquiry,” Bennett demonstrated this new government’s turn toward menschlechkeit and good governance. Shrewdly, effortlessly, Bennett appealed to the ultra-Orthodox while bypassing their corrupt, self-important, negligent and now-terrified politicians.
Bennett’s address culminated with a novel maneuver using familiar words: by reciting the prayer for the State of Israel, the first-kippah-wearing prime minister celebrated Israel in all its Israeliness as a Jewish and Democratic state. The move was both profoundly religious and delightfully nationalist.
Any fair observer on Sunday had an even greater appreciation of the grace that Bennett — then Yair Lapid — displayed – because the opposition behaved so gracelessly. When Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and others yelled insults as Bennett spoke, these authoritarian arsonists embarrassed themselves – not the nation. They showed their characteristic contempt for democracy and for Israel’s defining Zionist, democratic, and Jewish values.
Watching this spectacle, many of us wondered, do any Likudnikim have any shame? Fortunately, at least one did: Outgoing Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was caught on camera telling Gideon Sa’ar “I am still a Knesset speaker in my soul and what happened in the plenum is unacceptable.”
Sadly, the boorish behavior anticipated Benjamin Netanyahu’s thuggish swan song. Netanyahu started strong, detailing his accomplishments economically, politically, diplomatically. And Bibi got in a few sharp elbows, which were clever enough to be justified. For example, Netanyahu made “just one, modest request. Try to ruin the economy that we are leaving you as little as possible, so that we can fix it as quickly as possible when we return to power.”
Yet, unable to stop himself, Netanyahu crossed the line, snarling, sniping, trying to make Bennett look bad, but ultimately diminishing himself. He claimed, with no evidence, that the Iranian mullahs “are celebrating because they understand that starting today there will be a weak and unstable government that will align with the dictates of the international community.”
What kind of patriot speaks that way about his own government? What kind of a democratic statesman speaks that way about his successors?
Both Bennett and Bibi could have reinforced the celebration of the good Netanyahu accomplished. Instead, Bibi’s nastiness reminded many Israelis why they were relieved to see him ousted despite his accomplishments – and how much harm Netanyahu has done to those invisible but essential threads that keep communities communal and democracies democratic.
Just as typically, Netanyahu’s Iran snipe – and many of his allies’ sneers — implied that all this Bennettian “grace” reflected weakness. But there’s a second translation for “grace” in the Bible – “chen.” Chen can mean charm, that light touch, that essential extra, that makes grace graceful.
But chen also means strength.
That’s where Bibi most miscalculated. Bibi’s bullying boorishness, and his followers’ furious fuming, was supposed to broadcast strength – and make their opponents look wimpy. Instead, all this anti-democratic, graceless hysteria looked weak – and panicky.
Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, and their winning coalition continued conveying grace with a generosity of spirit, a welcoming air, touches of class, and a message of strength and self-confidence. From the gallery, Bennett’s sons showed how democratic bonds are strengthened by grace rather than strained by harshness, when they signed “I-heart-you” to their dad, amid Bibi’s balagan – -ie the Corrupt-one’s Chaos.
We don’t know how long this government will last, but we know its values will outlast Bibi’s.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.
Copyright © 2021 Prof Gil Troy, All rights reserved.
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