A great statesman, and why Israel doesn’t have one

Which is the 57th highest ranked university in the world? Of course, we can all rattle off the top 35, but then it begins to get harder, doesn’t it? Well, the 57th top university is in fact the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Alumni (that’s Latin for “graduates”) include Meir Shamgar, Sayed Kashua and Ada Yonath.
Now you’re asking exactly what I asked too: How on earth do they rank a university? Is it by the quality of the sausage rolls served in the canteen? Or the fashionableness of the tassles on the caps of the post-graduates?
[Apparently it’s based on how often their staff and alumni get articles published, and how many Nobel prizes they can snap up, if you really wanted to know.]
The Hebrew University held its ground-breaking ceremony way back in 1921. All the glitterati were there, all in their long coats, funny hats, round glasses, and inappropriate dress for the baking hot Middle East. Being in the inter-war period when Britain ran Palestine (as it was then) top Brits were invited too. Among these was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, who had come out especially from London. He was an impeccably dressed, well-spoken young man, son of a British duke and an American socialite. His visit to the country made a very great impression on him. He was convinced that some modern miracle was in play, as the “children of the prophets,” as he called them, made the deserts bloom and the modern state of Israel come into being.
Maybe he took something of the frontier spirit back with him to Britain. The young Secretary of State for the Colonies went on to further his political career, and, after switching parties, he became a cabinet minister and eventually Prime Minister. You may have heard of him. His name was Winston Churchill.
Inspired by him, some Israelis recently established the Churchill Society of Israel. Yes, only 91 years after his visit to the country, a society has been set up in Winston’s honour. Bear in mind that this is a country where 91 minutes after a visit from a Israeli cabinet minister, not even a folding chair would be set up in his honour. So that’s some achievement. But then again, Winston was some man.

The society, so it says on the packet, is to “foster leadership, vision and courage in Israeli society through the promotion of Winston Churchill’s thoughts, words, and deeds.” Apparently the tenets of Churchill’s life–freedom, democracy, responsibility and Western civilization–are shared by society in Israel, though they could do with a gentle nudge now and again, which is where the society hopes to come into play.

But before they go swanning round the county teaching Israeli children how important it is to smoke cigars, throw themselves into wars fought half away across the globe, and try to get themselves captured for the sake of good copy, maybe we could draw some other significant lessons from Churchill’s life.

Pay up or I’ll…

When Churchill first became a member of parliament in 1900, politicians’ pay was zero. That’s it, nothing. Bubkes. Bear in mind that Britain was arguably the richest nation in the world, and at the time, teachers in Britain were earning about £150 a year.

Let’s compare that to our members of Knesset. A fresh, inexperienced politician in Israel today receives a monthly salary of NIS36,000, that’s over four times the average wage, which may be why they cannot begin to comprehend what crosses the minds of the ordinary taxpayer.

A little aside for a rainy day…

Churchill was prime minister twice, retiring in 1955, after four years in his second stint. He was 81 by this time. So what pension did he get, the man widely regarded as the country’s finest statesman? Again, nothing. In fact to support him in his final years, his friends clubbed together, bought his home and let him live there (rent free, how jolly decent of them) until his death.

Now compare that to the fat pensions we pay our politicians, including former cabinet minister and disgraced former president, Moshe Katsav. Why don’t you send him a letter complaining? (Address: Maasiyahu Prison, Ramla, Israel).

Defeated, but not down  

Israel does not have a constituency-based electoral system, and so politicians need only bribe, sorry, network within their own party to ensure a “safe” position on the party list. They then sit back and let the party stand or fall. There is no concept of personal accountability.

Now look at Churchill’s example of personal responsibility and tenacity. As a youth, he failed to get accepted into Harrow school, twice. When he first stood for parliament in 1899, he lost. When he finally won, and still a sitting politician, his own local party deselected him (in other words, his own party told him they’d chosen a different candidate for that constituency at the next election).

He found another constituency, Dundee, but again, in 1922, he failed to be chosen as his party’s candidate.

He stood for parliament in Leicester. He failed.

He never gave up. Eventually he climbed up through all the political ranks until finally making it to Prime Minister. But in 1945, after the Second World War, he lost the election.

It is an incredible story of a man’s career. And yet in Israel a politician is never required to stand for an election based on the individual. It is the political party that carries the can. Knesset lacks outstanding parliamentarians and statesmen, maybe because they are not required to undergo personal scrutiny or constituency-based elections.

In the words of Winston Churchill (referring to the oddity of ending a sentence with a preposition), this is something up with which I shall not put.


About the Author
B. de Bono (not his real pseudonym) is a critic, philosopher, altruist, wordsmith, pedant, cynic, piano-player and optimist. But none of that pays the mortgage. So he's also a civil engineer, an editor and translator. Originally from London, England, he now lives in Israel and loves to point out how even more wonderful the country could be if only, perchance, they would put a few things right.