The recent branding of a community in the Golan as Ramat Trump, or Trump Heights, does not augur well for Israel. Naming this place after U.S. President Donald Trump – the only president to receive such an honour since Harry S. Truman, who, in the late 1940s, backed the establishment of Jewish state – is part of a public association with the president that may come back to bite Israel. It also says something about the character of current Israeli leadership.
When I spent an extended period of time in Israel in the early 1990s on a research grant, I settled into a small apartment in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Talbiya. One day, while waiting in line with a friend at the dry cleaners, I overheard the woman in front of us picking up her order.
“Michnasaym shel Shamir” (Shamir’s trousers), she said. She was collecting the dry cleaning for then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Given that she was dressed unremarkably, I figured she was part of the housekeeping staff. Just then, my friend whispered to me, “That’s g’veret Shamir.”
It’s difficult to imagine the first lady of any modern country lining up to collect her husband’s dry cleaning. It’s not simply a question of the security arrangements that are de rigueur today. There is a class divide separating people of power from ordinary folks who do their own chores. And, increasingly, the aura of celebrity and wealth attaches to political power.
But we were in Israel, and here was the prime minister’s wife running errands without fanfare. The message was clear: Israel’s leaders were of the people. They led modest lives.
Many important things followed from that. For most of its history, Israel has been unusually blessed with leaders who seemed driven more by a calling than by personal ambition. Although they often differed over the country’s direction, they were guided by a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of the state, above and beyond their own power and their careers. I even admired the leaders whose policies I took issue with, as I could see that they had personal integrity and ideals. This is part of what made Israel special, what inspired Israelis and what drew Diaspora Jews to identify so strongly with the country.
Although my encounter at the dry cleaner took place only 25 years ago or so, it feels like a long-ago era. Perhaps Israel’s evolution from a homey sort of leadership to something more connected to power and the elite was inevitable, with the passage of time from the foundational years and with the growing affluence of the country itself. The pomp and posh of state is not inherently bad – it signals stability, maturity and pride. We can see in it what Israel’s founders called “normalization” – the process of becoming a country.
But not all countries are alike, nor are all world leaders. While Israel rightly seeks powerful political alliances, the visible love-fest between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the current president of the United States signals all the wrong things about Israel’s values and its leadership.
Ramat Trump is a disturbing public symbol of the personal ties between the two men, and the coalescence of their rhetoric and leadership styles. For example, the prime minister has taken to adopting one of Trump’s trademark phrases, “fake news,” when the media reports anything unfavourable about him, no matter how solid the reporting. A gilded lifestyle, a flagrant disregard for the rules that govern others and a willingness to squeeze personal profit from the privileges of office characterize both these leaders.
This makes many Diaspora Jews squirm. It throws the American Democratic party into the arms of those wishing to loosen the ties between the two countries. One can only hope that – like the signs honouring donors in the movie Sallah Shabati – the sign in the Golan is temporary and replaceable.