How Tender Was the Night I Hosted the Netanyahus

Over dinner, Benny Ziffer discovered that Sara has a marvelous sense of humor and Benjamin has a phenomenal memory for details. Yes, he's talking about the prime minister and his wife.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Sara Netanyahu, left, at the home of Haaretz writer Benny Ziffer, right.
Sara Netanyahu, left, at the home of Haaretz writer Benny Ziffer, right. Credit: Ilan Biteltom
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

For a moment on that Thursday evening, the living room in our home in Ra’anana seemed to be a salon from days of yore, in Mandatory Jerusalem or in Istanbul, or perhaps in the New York of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” – bathed in the pale light of the crystal chandelier that fell on the porcelain statuettes in the dark cabinets and on the wine glasses, and was absorbed in the deep-purple wall carpets.

Chronological time had receded, and when I looked at the dinner’s guests of honor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, who were immersed in a lively conversation with the other guests, I hoped that the magic would never fade. The brilliant 17-year-old virtuoso pianist Eran Sulkin played a Chopin nocturne and a tempestuous Liszt etude, and then was joined by the classical saxophonist Oren Gross Thaler in a fantasia by Jules Demersseman whose power rocked the earthenware vases.

The hierarchies were blurred by now, too. No longer was it “the prime minister” and “Mrs. Sara Netanyahu,” but two fascinating guests who had seemingly come from some distant place: she with her marvelous sense of humor, he with his dizzying knowledge and his phenomenal memory for details.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, left, at the home of Haaretz writer Benny Ziffer, right. Photo by Ilan Biteltom

The television stations had been threatening since the morning to offer their superficial commentary on this event, even before it began. True, I took it upon myself, before the last election, to come to the defense of Sara Netanyahu, while she was being pilloried in disproportionately severe attacks. Then, in a meeting with her at the Prime Minister’s Residence, I discovered a fascinating woman, and I absolutely riled everyone whose dogmatic image of her was spoiled.

But beyond the journalistic act, something was forged between us that perhaps need not be cast in words. Perhaps personal trust. Perhaps sympathy. After last Thursday’s dinner, I’m even more inclined to believe this. Friends and family surrounded the Netanyahus and plied them with questions, and listened enthralled to what they had to say. And I, at moments, tried to decipher the meaning of the magic that great people cast on us, and how one senses an individual’s greatness.

But before all else, it must be noted that not once during the whole occasion did the sound of a cellphone disturb the out-of-time music of the conversation (Netanyahu said he doesn’t carry a mobile phone). In other words, one possible element of the qualities of a great personality is the ability to disconnect from routine and to soar imaginatively into other realms – exactly as happened that evening in my living room.

Sara Netanyahu, left, at the home of Haaretz writer Benny Ziffer, center. Photo by Ilan Biteltom

How does one sense another’s greatness? I remember my late colleague Yoram Bronowski reflecting once, in a Paris café, on whether people would notice if Mozart suddenly walked in. In regard to Netanyahu, I observed that his greatness is based on his phenomenal attention to details. By this means, he seemingly casts his net of associations and metaphors over the arena he happens to be in, and thus conquers it.

So it was when, immediately after entering our house, he glanced at one of the paintings on the wall and identified it as an aquarelle by the Haifa artist Mordechai Avniel. Nostalgically, he talked about the painter’s friendship with his father. That was the first conquest, and it was followed by another and yet another, with the memory of his father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, being evoked frequently during the evening.

The elder Netanyahu was, for a time, editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, in which framework a philosophical exchange took place between him and Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz over the entry “Creation.” It was clear from the tone of voice of the younger Netanyahu that he missed the days when a Revisionist wolf could live with a left-wing lamb.

Dinner with the Netanyahus at Benny Ziffer's home. Photo by Ilan Biteltom

While he raised questions and replied to questions – about botany and archaeology and economics (in reply to Nehemia Shtrasler), about the science of the universe and medicine (in response to an issue raised by my friend, journalist Ran Reznick), and about veganism (the writer Eyal Megged managed to extract a certain encouragement from the premier for the continuation of the struggle against the wild slaughter of animals) – the memory of my father also came to me, and of the leader he revered, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, who was the image of the statesman most pervasive in our home during my childhood.

And I noticed how much Netanyahu, like Ataturk, unequivocally admires the West and modernity and technology and intellect. Like Ataturk, he too is consumed with worry about the reactionary obscurantism arising from the Islamic East. It was also possible to sense his genuine and sensitive love for Israel as a country of wonders. His amazement at the country and its achievements was as innocent and sincere as that of a tourist discovering it for the first time.

I found Netanyahu to be an inveterate reader of books in the realms of history, thought and science – the complete opposite of the image that prevails about him in the circles I frequent, which are called intellectual but whose members are generally occupied with themselves and with reviling whatever doesn’t accord with their own imagined eminence. In him I encountered a breed of person whose existence I had almost forgotten, of people who love books and pursue knowledge in the most innocent sense of the word.

And with his polished English and his immaculate European education, the impression I formed of them, of him and his wife, on that night, was of mysterious and hypnotic and solitary characters from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. And how tender was the night, as that tormented author from the Jazz Age titled his last book.

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