The photograph published on the front page of Haaretz last Thursday still disturbs my sleep. It showed Benny Gantz – at that time the Knesset speaker, the vice prime minister-designate, the chairman of a party that did quite well during the many elections held here recently, a former military chief of staff, a fighter, a tall man in the prime of life – bowing low before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
President Donald Trump’s envoy came at the height of a coronavirus pandemic that has hit the entire world hard, but has been especially terrible in his own country, a vast empire that doesn’t believe in compassion or in state medical insurance for all. It believes in the free market, but not human freedom. It believes in its own rights, but not those of others.
Pompeo came to Israel to bolster its acting Israeli prime minister in his decision to annex another unimportant, unnecessary bit of land so as to continue tyrannizing its inhabitants. And Gantz came to appease him and opened the meeting with a bow.
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Both men were wearing similar dark, tailored suits. The incident took place in the courtyard of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, whose opening sparked a great deal of opposition, as well as unrest in which around 60 people were killed. Its location is a provocation by Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the entirety of international law.
It happened in an interior courtyard in Jerusalem, reached by an arched doorway and surrounded by blooming geraniums. It resembles many houses in the Mediterranean region – in Italy, Israel or Jordan (and perhaps it actually is in Jordan).
Gantz cast a symbolically small shadow on the floor, paved in Jerusalem stone, as if to hint at his real value in this unnecessary encounter. Even with him bowing, it was clear that he’s taller than the man to whom he bowed.
This photograph has hounded me for days, and with it, the historical memory of a walk to Canossa that took place around 1,000 years ago. Back then, Emperor Henry IV came to ask forgiveness and pardon from Pope Gregory VII for the quite legitimate steps he had taken. This incident has been memorialized in many works of art.
But what’s so troubling isn’t the story itself or what happened next, but how it began and ended. The story began with a ruler attempting to stand up for his own beliefs. It continued with capitulation and self-abasement, and it ended, as every child knows, with the Catholic Church richer and stronger than any other organization in the world, and the pope able, just by crooking his little finger, to move millions of people to do his will.
Perhaps this bow was neither the most humiliating nor the most puzzling thing Gantz has done over the last two years. Perhaps in his view, the meeting, the bow and the annexation are nothing more than additional reasonable steps down his political path. Perhaps, in private meetings with Netanyahu, far more humiliating things have been said and done.
If so, why is it this picture in particular that so troubles my sleep? Why is this the thing that evoked in me an ancient memory of an event from days gone by?
Perhaps it was something in the tangibility of Gantz’s hunched posture, or in the pastoral setting of the courtyard, the flowering geraniums, the strong sunlight on the stone floor. Perhaps it was that I wondered whether Gantz, too, thought about that historical event. Has he even heard of it? And does he understand the depth of his betrayal of his voters and his partners?
Tchia Dov is an Israeli poet.