During a discussion of inequalities in Israeli society last month, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) half-jokingly quipped, “If I were prime minister, I would –“ before taking a pause, shaking his head vigorously and laughing to himself. He quickly retracted his words and replaced them with a more modest, “If I had the ability, I would”
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This off-the-cuff comment, made during a diverse and thought provoking conversation at a conference organized by the Reut Institute, caught my attention. The MK’s absolute rejection of ultimate power reminded me of an intriguing story in Tractate Megilla of the Gemara in which the Talmudic Sages imagine themselves sitting as advisors to Achashverosh, the King of Persia, who asks them how to deal with the disobedient Queen Vashti, who has refused to present herself at the feast.
It’s not surprising that the politically powerless Jewish Sages envisaged such an attractive situation. Who wouldn’t want to whisper in the ear of one of the most powerful rulers in the world? Yet, as they quickly realize, with influence comes tough choices, and with tough choices come potentially dangerous consequences.
The Gemara relates:
“They [the Sages] said to themselves, ‘What shall we do? If we tell him to have her executed, tomorrow he will demand her from us when the effects of the wine wear off. If we tell him to ignore her, it represents disregard for the kingship.’”
To solve this dilemma and escape any apportioning of blame, the Sages come up with a radical solution: exiting the political stage completely.
“So they said to Achashverosh, ‘From the day that the Temple was destroyed, and we were exiled from our land, counsel has been taken from us, and we can no longer judge capital crimes. Go to Ammon and Moav [Israel’s biblical neighbours], who are dwelling in their place like wine upon sediment.’”
For the Talmudic Sages, power and influence might be important, but only as long as one isn’t forced to make difficult or unpopular decisions.
Little has changed in modern times. Our own politicians find it acceptable to criticize budget cuts for welfare or education (or even the army) without providing realistic alternatives, sit in a government whose policies on the peace process they constantly criticize, and join coalitions with the aspiration of only becoming deputy minister. But God forbid any of these individuals gain the ultimate responsibility and power that comes with being prime minister, to be forced to choose between competing interests and values, or to have to abandon absolute values and pithy sound bites. (Whether Israel’s current prime minister actually does these things is a discussion for another time).
Israel enters the Jewish New Year with a series of challenges (and potential opportunities). The aftershocks of the so-called Arab Spring continue to be felt regionally. The Palestinian question – both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – remains acute. We are yet to fully resolve questions over how to best ensure that all Israel’s citizens “share the burden” of military or national service, or how to balance between security and welfare needs in the budget.
In addition to calling on us to take responsibility for our personal lives, the High Holy Days also provide an opportunity to us all – the public and politicians alike – to think about national responsibility and the tough decisions required to maintain our hard won independence in this country. The Talmudic Sages’ response may have been appropriate for a time when “we were exiled from our land,” but that same approach – of fleeing from difficult decisions or from absolute responsibility – can be dangerous today, living as we do in a period in which our sovereignty has been regained, in which we can no longer justifiably claim that “counsel has been taken from us.”
Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He currently works as an analyst in the Policy Planning Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and also lectures on topics of Israeli and Jewish interest. He writes in a personal capacity.