Longing for Leaders

When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt that said “I’m a Watergate bug.” Growing up in the 1970s in the wake of Vietnam and in the midst of Watergate didn’t give me a lot of faith in the government or its leaders. Even if I did not understand everything that was going on, the mass media propagated the tone of mistrust, broadcasting it throughout American culture, even in subtle ways to the kids.

Another t-shirt I had read “I’m a slice of American Pie,” referring to the Don McLean song that became an icon. The very culture that allowed us to question authority and even prosecute our government’s leaders is part of what made me proud to be American. Yet, I yearned to have the kind of faith and patriotic respect for my nation’s leaders that my parents’ generation seemed to have had during World War Two.

In Israel, during those years, icons of the Jewish State were still on center stage. I was born too late to be a part of the Kennedy years, but I remember Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. While America offered me Vietnam and Watergate, Israel had the miraculous Six Day War and the inspiring rescue at Entebee.

Since I first came to Israel in high school in 1983, there has been a steady decline in the idyllic state of affairs here. The Lebanon War incited a great deal of domestic opposition with mass rallies protesting the action. Sabra and Shatila became shameful names in the Israeli lexicon. More recently, the disengagement from Gaza tore the country apart with few proud of the way our government assisted those whom it displaced. This past summer, we were further shocked at how poorly our government and the army supported our men and boys during what has been called “The Second Lebanon War,” leading them into battles without intelligence or supplies.

When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, many commentators compared the sociological repercussions in Israel to the effects the Kennedy assassination had on America. Not that Rabin was anywhere near as charismatic as JFK, but the shock across the nation that a Jewish Israeli could assassinate the Prime Minister catapulted Israel out of a naive illusion.

In the last few years, we have lost all faith in our leadership and government. The President is under investigation for sexual harassment and rape, his predecessor having had been forced to resign for financial misconduct. Numerous cabinet ministers and Knesset members have been the subjects of criminal investigations and most recently the Director of the Israeli Tax Authority has been arrested with the investigation reaching to the Civil Service Commission and the Prime Minister’s office.

At a time of very little faith in the Israeli government, as if to pour salt onto our wounds, we were reminded of the icons of yesteryear with the passing of the former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, a man who was a true public servant – the antithesis of our current leaders who seem to only be interested in self-gain.

“Teddy,” as everyone knew him, was a man of vision who saw himself as an advocate for all of his constituency – Arab and Jew, religious and secular, wealthy and poor. Knowing that the municipality of a poor city could not meet the needs of its residents, Kollek established the Jerusalem Foundation through which he raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund hundreds of projects for the betterment of all the city’s residents including the construction of public buildings for culture, leisure and sports activities, educational and coexistence programs, cultural, preservation and development projects.

As Jerusalem’s mayor for over a quarter of a century, Teddy did what he thought was best for the city and all of its residents in the long-term. Sometimes this meant taking unpopular positions. Unfortunately, the two mayors who followed Teddy, have not chosen to walk in his footsteps. While Ehud Olmert’s interest in Jerusalem was only as a stepping stone to national office, littering the city with various developers’ projects on the way, Teddy created a tremendous amount of green space in the city, sometimes opposing commercial development to preserve historic vistas. Our current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, is known to only pursue the interests of his peers, the ultra-Orthodox. While Teddy not only was known to support minorities, he took such bold steps as to allocate municipal land for Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout the city and attend their dedication ceremonies. The current mayor would not even attend an electoral debate sponsored by the Jerusalem Post held in one of Jerusalem’s Conservative Synagogues.

The world may be asking where are the Israeli leaders who can bring peace with the Palestinians. In Israel, I am asking where are there any Israeli leaders who can bring peace among ourselves.