State of Chutzpah

Email Print


In every language
there are some words that cannot be properly translated into any
other. It seems that they express something intimately connected
with the speakers of that language and rooted in their history,
traditions and reality. Such words become international expressions,
appearing in other languages in their original form.

For example,
the German word "Schadenfreude." Or the English word "gentleman"
and the American word "business." Or the Russian word
"pogrom" (originally meaning devastation). Or the Japanese
word "kamikaze" (divine wind, the title given to suicide
bombers). Or the Mexican "maana" and the similar Arabic
"bukra" (both meaning tomorrow. The difference between
them? The joke says: Bukra is not so urgent.) And, lately, the Palestinian

The most prominent
Hebrew addition to this international lexicon is "chutzpah,"
a word that has no equivalent in any other language. Some English
words may come close (impertinence, cheek, insolence, impudence),
but none conveys the full meaning of this Hebrew-Yiddish expression.
It seems that it reflects something that is especially characteristic
of Jewish reality, which was transferred to the State of Israel,
which defines itself as a "Jewish State."

The President
of Israel is supposed to symbolize the common denominator of all
our citizens. Therefore it is proper for him to symbolize this trait,
too. And indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more quintessential
chutzpah than the behavior of His Excellency, President Moshe Katzav.
He is the supreme symbol of Israeli chutzpah. Katzav has been accused
of the sexual harassment of several women who worked for him in
the President’s office, as well as in his earlier public offices.
At least three of them accused him of rape. Such accusations are,
of course, far from a conviction. The investigation is still going
on. The President, like any other citizen, must be presumed innocent
until found guilty in court. It is quite possible that in the end
he will not even be indicted, or – if this happens – that
he will be acquitted, though perhaps only for lack of proof. But
that is not the point. The point is that the President of the state,
like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. It is sufficient that
there be reasonable grounds for suspecting the President –
such as a criminal investigation – for him to resign his office.
If he is later acquitted, so much the better. Let it be clear: I
have nothing against Moshe Katzav personally. On the contrary, I
have praised him on TV for his readiness, in spite of belonging
to the Likud, to listen to Arab citizens. I once brought to him
a delegation of leaders from the West Bank, and he treated them
with the utmost courtesy. But as a citizen of Israel I am ashamed.
The affair in which he is involved dishonors the office and, indirectly,
the entire state. "Citizen Number 1" has become the butt
of jokes. One thing can be said in his favor: in his chutzpah, too,
he symbolizes the state, or, at least, the ruling elite.

The king of
chutzpah, its very personification, is the Prime Minister, Ehud
Olmert. If he had a gram of shame, the minimum of decency, he would
have resigned the day after the cease-fire. There is no need for
an inquiry to decide the obvious: that he is guilty of a long line
of disasters that have caused the death of a thousand human beings,
including almost 200 Israelis – men, women, old people and
children. It can be debated of what exactly to accuse Olmert: the
starting of an unnecessary and hopeless war (as I believe), or "only"
the incompetent conduct of the campaign from start to finish. But
any one of these is enough for a decent person to go home and wait
there for the results of the inquiries. But Olmert does not even
dream of doing that. He continues as if nothing has happened. In
the US this is called "stonewalling." He stands there
naked like the emperor in the children’s story. All the promises
he made only a few months ago, during the election campaign, have
dissipated like smoke in the wind. He has no political plan left.
He has not even the ability to carry out any plan, if he had one.
He has no time to think about anything, except his political survival.
Winston Churchill once said about a former British Prime Minister:
"The right honorable gentleman sometimes stumbles on the truth,
but he always hurries on as if nothing has happened." Olmert,
similarly, hurries on his way. He objects to the investigation of
the war through the instruments prescribed by law. He tries to set
up a whitewash investigation by an unquestioningly loyal group chosen
by himself. He goes on using every opportunity to make another of
his banal, cliché-laden speeches, which do not contain a
single word of truth, or even of interest. That is chutzpah. Not
chutzpah in the harmless, jocular sense often signified by this
word, but a dangerous, rude and aggressive chutzpah. In practice,
the state remains without leadership. It is unable to take bold
decisions in a situation which demands them. His personal survival
overshadows everything else, from the problem of the prisoner exchange
to the daily killing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
It must be stated again and again: the state is not private property.
It is not some booty that belongs to whoever has succeeded in laying
his hands on it, accidentally or not. It is a national treasure
entrusted by the citizens to a particular politician, which must
be given back by him if he is proven unable or incompetent to exercise
his duties. Any other attitude is chutzpah.

No need to
waste words on the chutzpah of Amir Peretz. It speaks for itself.
He bears personal responsibility for all the blunders of the war,
from the unthinking decision to start it, up to the last military
decision. From the boastful beginning to the bitter end he showed
a shocking inadequacy. A decent person would have resigned the moment
the guns fell silent. His refusal is chutzpah. The chutzpah of Peretz
is almost bizarre. He achieved political power on the basis of his
explicit promise to carry out basic social reforms. Not only did
he ignore this promise, he did the very opposite. His effort to
continue now as if nothing has happened and even to present himself
as a social leader is pathetic.

But even these
three champions – Katzav, Olmert and Peretz – pale in
comparison with Dan Halutz. Together with likeminded people I demonstrated
opposite the Ministry of Defense when he was sworn in as Chief-of-Staff.
It was clear to us that such a person, who had behaved as he did
behave and who had said what he did say was not fit to lead the
Israeli army. But even we did not foresee in our wildest imagination
that in such a short time, and in such an extreme manner, he would
confirm our darkest forebodings. From a purely military point of
view, Halutz is the greatest failure in the annals of the Israeli
army. From a human point of view, he justified the prophecy that
he has a brilliant future in the court of The Hague. From a political
point of view, his understanding equals that of a primary school
pupil (if the pupil community will excuse me.) The boastfulness
of the Air force, the arrogance of an incompetent general, the brutality
of a person who is able to bring tragedy to hundreds of thousands
without batting an eyelid – all of these were exposed during
the war. As has been published, he told the government on the sixth
day of the war that from that moment on there was no possibility
of achieving anything more. Said so and did not demand to stop,
said so and went on with the killing and destroying, day after day,
night after night. On the eve of the cease-fire he sent his soldiers
into a militarily senseless, completely unnecessary offensive, in
which the lives of 33 of his soldiers were sacrificed. But Dan Halutz
does not resign. It doesn’t even enter his mind. This week, at a
meeting of former generals, accusations and even insults were slung
at him, and he did not budge. A decent person would have resigned
at once. It is clear that an officer who has failed in this manner,
who is so much distrusted by the army, cannot carry out the general
overhaul demanded now – the replacing of the entire general
Staff, and especially the replacing of all the commanders who were
in charge of the campaign. Can a person who refuses to bear the
responsibility for this entire bungled campaign demand that his
subordinates shoulder theirs? When chutzpah is the norm in the army
– what chance is there for its rehabilitation?

I know, there
are several arguments for keeping the champions of chutzpah in office.
There are no obvious alternatives. The bad may be replaced by worse.
Olmert’s resignation may lead to new elections, in which the more
extreme Right may win. His resignation may also lead to the inclusion
in the government of Avigdor Liberman, compared to whom the Frenchman
Le Pen and the Austrian Haider are bleeding-heart liberals. Who
can guess who and what might come after Halutz? All these arguments
are valid, but they must give way to one simple demand: Chutzpah
must not be allowed to reign. The acceptance of personal responsibility
by the directors of the government and the army is an essential
feature of a healthy society. It is a simple moral imperative, like
the categorical imperative of Kant, an imperative that does not
allow for any compromise. The Talmud warns against "chutzpah
towards heaven" (God). We must warn against chutzpah towards
civil society, the sovereign on earth.

12, 2006

Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. Since 1948 he has advocated
the setting up of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In 1974,
Uri Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with PLO leadership.
In 1982 he was the first Israeli ever to meet Yassir Arafat, after
crossing the lines in besieged Beirut. He served three terms in
the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), and is the founder of Gush Shalom
(Peace Bloc). Visit his

Email Print