Lieberman’s Payback, Netanyahu’s Torture and Israel’s Schadenfreude

Not one to turn the other cheek, the outgoing foreign minister seems more of a Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained kind of guy.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israel's Foreign Minister and head of Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman, March 15.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Judaism does not condone vengeance on a personal level. It’s all right to wipe out entire nations that have done you wrong – the Midianites, the Philistines or Amalek for example – but vindictiveness towards other individual Jews is considered sinful. “You shall not take revenge,” the Book of Leviticus says emphatically, “and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people,” it then adds, unrealistically.

My great-great-great grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, tried to outsmart the prohibition: get your revenge by being nice, he suggested in his 19th century blockbuster codex Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. “If you seek vengeance from your enemy, increase your positive qualities and follow righteous paths. In this manner you will retaliate against your foe, he will feel bad because of your qualities and mourn when hearing about your good reputation.”

Of course, Ganzfried could not have envisioned Israeli politics, in general, or Avigdor Lieberman or Benjamin Netanyahu. The former is not the type of guy to exact retribution by turning the other cheek or helping old ladies cross the road, and the latter doesn’t seem to be someone who would be devastated by the moral lethality of good behavior. Lieberman is more of a Django Unchained, Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill kind of guy: I can imagine him as Lord Walder Frey enjoying himself in the famous Red Wedding scene of carnage in Game of Thrones, massacring the Starks for reneging on a wedding pact (it was more complicated than that). Nuances, needless to say, aren’t Lieberman’s strongest suit.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have known each other for over 25 years: at one time they were thick as thieves, if you’ll pardon the expression. Lieberman rose to prominence by latching on to Netanyahu’s coattails while he was still Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1980’s, but the higher Lieberman climbed, the more disdainful he grew of his benefactor. Over the years, the first element of their love-hate relationship dissipated as the second grew stronger and stronger.

After failing to emerge as Netanyahu’s heir apparent following the 2012 merger of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, Lieberman’s set his sights on breaking free: he would not only be the instrument of Netanyahu’s downfall, under certain circumstances he might position himself as his replacement. Netanyahu’s still unfathomable decision last December to call for early elections seemed to present a golden opportunity, which Lieberman was eager to exploit: the polls were working in his favor. But his ambitions were crushed under the weight of the corruption investigation suspiciously launched against his party only a few weeks later. Lieberman, a graduate of Russian paranoia and a complete agnostic as far as coincidence is concerned, had only one address for his fury: Netanyahu, it seemed, had become his nemesis.

“Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind, and makes it fearful and degenerate; Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep,” Lieberman told himself, echoing Shakespeare’s Henry VI, though possibly not with the exact same wording. Lulling Netanyahu into a false sense of inevitability concerning Yisrael Beiteinu’s eventual entry into the coalition, Lieberman waited until 48 hours before Wednesday’s midnight deadline before pulling the plug. Netanyahu, he knew from experience, would immediately enter into dangerous and potentially self-destructive panic mode.

If he had received seven or eight Knesset seats instead of six, Lieberman could have probably blocked Netanyahu’s way back to the Prime Minister’s Office entirely. With his six, he was forced to opt for making Netanyahu’s life miserable: instead of finishing off Netanyahu’s career in one fell swoop, he is now condemning him to the political equivalent of Chinese Water Torture. In a coalition of only 61 Members of the Knesset, Netanyahu is doomed to twist in the wind, beholden to the whims and caprices of each and every parliamentary joker. At the hands of Lieberman the alchemist, Netanyahu’s great electoral victory has metamorphosed into a grueling and ultimately humiliating political grind.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Lieberman has thus bestowed on many of his greatest critics on the left a gift made ever more precious by the simple fact that it was so unexpected: Schadenfreude. That’s another trait that the Bible frowns on: “He who rejoices at the misfortune of others will not go unpunished” and the famous “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth,” as King Solomon notes in the Book of Proverbs. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was even harsher: “To feel envy is human, to savor Schadenfreude is diabolic,” he wrote.

A 2009 study on “Politics, Schadenfreude and Ingroup Identification” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, on the other hand, found that “the domain of politics is prime territory for feelings of Schadenfreude, especially for people strongly identified with political parties”. According to the study, this applies not only to personal embarrassments of your rival but to events that are “objectively” harmful for all, such as economic hardships, military setbacks and, presumably, an unstable, extortionist, narrow coalition.

And bear in mind that a famous Hebrew saying acknowledges that, wrong or right, “There is no joy like the joy at another’s misfortune.” Given their despondence and depression ever since Netanyahu’s shock victory in the March elections, perhaps anti-Netanyahu voters can be forgiven for the pleasure they have derived in the past 24 hours from Lieberman’s shenanigans and perhaps their amusement will somehow mitigate his own biblical sins.

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