By Eetta Prince-Gibson
“The Messiah is not coming. The Messiah is not going to phone, either.”
In a still-popular song from the 1980s, Israeli rock singer Shalom Hanoch mocks secular messianism. But that hasn’t kept secular Israelis from waiting for a political messiah who will save us from our enemies and, most importantly, from ourselves.
Right now, the Messiah du jour is TV anchor and publicist Yair Lapid, a man without political experience or ideological positions. He’s just the latest in a long list of self-anointed political saviors:
• In 1977, IDF chief of staff-turned-archeologist Yigael Yadin promised to save the country from the corrupt Labor groups that had brought us the Yom Kippur War. In its first election, his party, Dash, won 15 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. In its second election, it won no seats and disappeared from politics.
• In 1984, charismatic and macho former Commander of the Air Force, General Ezer Weizman, promised to redeem us from the fiasco of the first Lebanon War. The party he created lasted less than a term.
• In 1992, Rafael Eitan, known primarily as the incompetent IDF chief of staff who had led that first Lebanon War, won eight seats for his Tzomet party, running on an anti-corruption and anti-ultra-Orthodox platform. By 1999, his party was defunct.
• In 2003, TV journalist Tommy Lapid, whose charming public persona combined Central European elegance with Archie Bunker-like tact, created a new party, Shinui (“Change”), which won 15 seats; by 2008 it had evaporated.
These parties burned out because they were opportunistic and lacked substance. Their leaders rode in like saviors-on-demand, promoting lowest-common-denominator politics.
And now we have Yair Lapid, son of Tommy. He, too, has adopted a perfect-candidate strategy: complete lack of political experience, membership in the military-economic elite, vacuous charisma, a generally anti-Haredi stance, and a staunchly non-ideological position except to say that both of Israel’s big ideologies, left and right, have failed.
He refuses to give interviews, substituting his Facebook page for a political platform and virtual “likes” for political rallies. And yet polls have shown that, were elections held now, Lapid—who hasn’t even named his party or chosen a slate of running mates—could win 11 to 15 seats, which would make him a major player in Israel’s moribund political system.
He’s winning because Israel has become a land of reality TV, where image counts more than substance and passive viewers are supposed to suspend critical thinking and abandon any demand for change.
He is, he tells us, quintessentially Israeli. “I’m a patriotic Israeli,” he writes on his Facebook page. “I’m a Jew and a Zionist, and everything else follows from there.” But Israeli society still doesn’t know what those terms mean and is very afraid to find out. It’s easier to think that “Israeli” is merely a string of characteristics that make us feel good about ourselves.
Lapid is suave and sexy, and he knows how to change diapers. He is secular but connected to his Jewish roots and especially to biblical sources. He’s sympathetic to the poor but staunchly capitalistic. He’s in favor of compromise with the Palestinians, but he’s sympathetic to the settlers. He’s Western but loves hummus.
Above all, he’s exclusionary enough—strongly anti-Haredi and slightly anti-Arab—to draw virtual lines between an ill-defined “us” and a threatening “them,” so we can feel a sense of happy, uncomplicated, financially comfortable solidarity.
And, he keeps telling us, he’s really nice.
But Israel doesn’t need nice leaders. We’ve had enough nice politicians who want to be in government but have little interest in governing, who want to be leaders but have little inclination to take the risks that leadership demands. We need courageous leaders who can make decisions and engage this society, together with the diaspora, in the real existential dilemmas that threaten to destroy us from within.
We need a leader who will take a stand on the issues that, if not resolved, will consume us: Peace or occupation? Neoliberal capitalism or social democracy? Can we find the balance between collective responsibility and individual freedom, so that we can care for our country without forgetting to care about the people who live here?
How do we balance Judaism and democracy? Can we? What is the role of Judaism, however defined, in our national identity and in our nation-state? How should we treat the stranger among us?
And, above all, how do we, the third Jewish commonwealth, handle sovereignty and real power?
Resolving these questions will be painful. But if we continue to avoid them by electing leaders who pander to our fears, we will never move forward. We will slip backwards into an existential, political, social and legal malaise that will destroy our society.
The Talmud teaches us that in the time leading up to the Messiah, Elijah will definitively answer all our questions. But the Messiah is not coming so soon, and apparently he’s not going to phone, either.
We don’t need to wait for him. We are capable, if we put our own minds and hearts to it, of finding our own answers.
Eetta Prince-Gibson is a freelance journalist in Jerusalem and the former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report.