Wanted, a leader of vision
In the past we were blessed with leaders of the first rank, both national and sectarian. What characterized them? Why aren't there others like them? Is this a matter of bad luck or of the force of an inevitable reality?
Israeli society lacks an inspiring leadership that arouses the imagination and has the ability to move the masses. Time after time the elected politicians are revealed as brambles that have neither substance nor shade. This has not always been the case: In the past we were blessed with leaders of the first rank, both national and sectarian: David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin; Rabbi Menachem Shach and the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Meir Shamgar and Aharon Barak. What characterized them? Why aren't there others like them? Is this a matter of bad luck or of the force of an inevitable reality?
The basic characteristic of leadership is the existence of a vision. A public figure can attain the rank of leader if he is impelled by a basic ideological view that has the power to shape the reality he aspires to lead. The leaders whom we knew acted out of an "internal combustion" that aspired to instill their vision in society: in support of socialist or nationalist Zionism, the study or the promulgation of Torah, the restrained and stern rule of law or a liberal constitutional revolution. Each of them directed his leadership according to a personal visionary compass and found the meaning of his life in a determined striving to instill his truth in the target audience.
However, in more and more parts of our world there is no longer a significant demand for vision. In the post-modern era ideologies are not important. Vision is perceived as something archaic or as a manipulative tool. For many, the truth is always in doubt; its messenger is under constant suspicion. The audience is never captive: It prefers a question mark to an exclamation mark; the thing and its opposite. As opposed to every "ism" there is a "post-"; behind every value stands an interest; before every truth strides a spokesman and behind it a legal adviser. And if we open the bag we will - invariably - discover a cat inside it. It is not by chance that the most common word in spoken Hebrew is the noncommittal ke'ilu, or "like."
In the absence of demand for an organized philosophy, and in the lack of buyers for a national agenda, the range for the creation of leaders diminishes. Therefore, many despair of the chance for leadership, become addicted to grumbling or to hauteur and choose escapism. The interest in participating in elections and democratic processes is waning. In the future it will be necessary, as in Australia, to impose a fine on anyone who does not vote. The small difference is that the Australians worry about the question of whether to permit sea scooters on the beaches of Sydney and the Israelis elect someone who will have to deal with the sound of centrifuges coming from Tehran.
There are those who mistakenly think that democracy is a matter for experts, for research institutes or for people who have interests. They say to themselves "to thy tents, O Israel." However, just a few months after they refrained from the bother of voting, they were sent to a war for their lives by someone whom the democratic process had placed in the decision-making position.
The vision and the leadership that have vanished have been replaced by three overriding factors. The first is image. As is known, the ability to get elected does not depend on the content of the message, but rather on the image of the bearer of the message. Former United States president Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair managed to create an aura of charismatic leadership. Ehud Barak was like that until the wrappings were removed.
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon's illness fixed them in our minds as leaders about whom we are nostalgic. It is very doubtful that they were worthy of being called leaders with respect to the real contents of the vision they promoted. Does Sharon have a legacy? Did Rabin symbolize any defined ideology? Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu, who presents a clearer ideology than others, also succeeds in floating on the surface of our politics, thanks to his communicative advantages. And let it be ascertained: Contrary to the popular assumption, the media do not dictate the absence of ideology, rather the dissipation of ideology creates a vacuum in the public discourse that the media penetrate, thereby magnifying the strength of image.
The image game promotes and strengthens people who have charisma. But what will be done by those who find it difficult to formulate slogans, whose smile is not gleaming and whose hair is not anointed with oil? This is where the second overriding factor comes in: the process of selecting candidates. Mechanism, method, framework, budgeting, connections, access to centers of power - all of these have always been important; they are doubly important when the vision is dulled and the ideological debate has dwindled. Hence the increasing interest in the electoral system: For many years we lived in peace with the old system and then, with the strengthening of the post-modern trends, we were tempted into a hasty change in the system. When the dimensions of the failure became clear, we went back to the original system. But now, too, we are not satisfied and many are calling for us to rescue ourselves from ourselves by means of proposals for another change: Committees, experts, party platforms and newspaper headlines are all dealing with the framework, with the procedure. This, like the image, is another substitute for content.
And the third substitute is the law. In the absence of vision a nation will go wild and therefore a professional, determining element is needed to prevent deterioration. As the questions are not perceived as ideological, it is possible to rely on an objective, unbiased, disinterested system that will fortify our public life. From this derives the increasing strength of legal advisers and the proliferation of petitions to the High Court of Justice on every public issue. Questions that in the past were discussed in party platforms - society, security, religions, identity - are transferred, routinely, to the conveyor belt of professional judicial rulings. The heads of the state are all ceaselessly busy with defending themselves or attacking by means of the judicial system. Instead of a leadership vision we have judicial discretion that examines the world through a filter of reasonability, proportionality and balances.
The three substitutes for vision - image, system and the professionalization of decision-making - have transformed the heads of state from leaders into executives. Unlike leaders, they are not required to lead beyond the horizons of the existing system but only to operate and control it. They do not set the rules of the game, but rather play according to them. The good executive knows how to control people, to promote a pleasant atmosphere, to act efficiently and to calm the system. By way of contrast, the leader is required by his vision to ferment, arouse, annoy, push people to struggle, challenge them and impel them to counter what is taken for granted.
There is tension between leadership and management: The executive sanctifies the rational, the practical and careful consideration. The leader, however, aspires to break through these boundaries. In the name of the vision he is interested in changing a reality and demands that citizens deviate from themselves, act counter to a sectarian or short-range interest, and take a risk at the end of which a great hope is dawning. At important moments, the leader decides not to continue to plow the existing row but rather, despite the difficulties, to start a new furrow.
Our enemies, near and far, realize that the current limping nature of Israeli society is connected to the webs of doubt in which it is entrapped, and to the absence of leadership power that will rip them asunder with the strength of a vision. When will we understand this, too? When will we have the sense to use our ballot on an ideological basis?
The very survival of the State of Israel depends on our ability to establish for ourselves defined concepts that will lead to the implementation of a plan for national life. The global post-modern mood is not suited to the State of Israel's complex existential reality. It should not be denied that we are in this mood, but neither should we surrender to it.
Relativism, individualism and the death of all the gods are liable to lead us to disaster. We must use critical sense and skepticism even with respect to the skeptical mood. We need leadership because an executive, no mater how talented he may be, will not stimulate a movement of immigration from the wealthy countries to Israel, will not lead the Jewish public to relate with equality to the Arab minority, will not stop the pernicious effects of globalization on Israeli society and will find it difficult to shape the Jewish character of the country.
Executive power is not enough because in all these examples the rational, measured, considered answer is not effective, as it is not worthwhile to emigrate from the United States to Israel, to waste resources for the benefit of malevolent Arabs, to set ourselves apart from the world or to fight for an independent Jewish culture. A gifted executive will perhaps succeed in creating a tiebreaker in our stationary relations with the Palestinians and the Arab countries, but he will not be able to lead to a fundamental change in our geopolitical situation. He will change, perhaps, the menu of the status quo, but he will not bring us to a formal agreement on an exciting Israel constitution.
All of this requires thinking outside the box, accompanied by a courageous willingness to pay the price, as well as the ability to lead and the motivation of a vision of leadership. The voters and the elected must wake up and realize that vision is not necessarily a manipulative tool. Sometimes it is an elixir of life, an anchor of stability around which a functioning national community can coalesce.
Avi Sagi is a professor of Jewish philosophy and exegesis, and Yedidia Stern is a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.