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Homesick in Israel: When Bibi Left Balfour

Bibi left Balfour, but Bibism should leave too if Israel is to thrive, and turn into a real home.

by Uriel Abulof, with Shirley Le Penne

THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. -- Jean Jacques Rousseau, On the Origin of the Inequality of Mankind (1754)

I landed in Israel on July 10. After a year and a half away, I’m back in Jerusalem, home. On the same day, Benjamin Netanyahu (aka Bibi), Israel’s longest serving prime minister, left his. Correlation is not causation, but my jet-lagged mind wed both, breeding this little piece.

Home is a place of belonging, which turns in upon itself once it becomes part of our belongings. Home is not just where we dwell, whether a house or a palace. Home is where we’re always welcome – heartened as we come, helped as we want to become. It’s where we feel right, where we can exhale fear and inhale hope. For some, home is where we came from; for others, it’s what we created later on.

Frederick McCubbin, Home Again, 1884
Frederick McCubbin, Home Again, 1884

Aching for home, we want to secure it by turning it into property, asserting power over place. To perpetuate this power, making our home permanent, we follow Rousseau’s “first man”: enclose a piece of land, proclaim “This is mine,” and find people simple enough to believe us. We often succeed – and thus fail. You can never belong to what, and whom, you own, for how can that which you possess truly – that is, freely and profoundly – welcome you? When belonging turns into belongings, there is, quite literally, “no place like home.” Property becomes prison, another brick in the wall of alienation; what you own, owns you.

Is this the story of Israel, and its recently ousted premier?

The promise of Home for the Jewish people was Zionism’s foundational moment. In the twilight of World War I, Arthur Balfour, the United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary, sent his famous Declaration to Lord Rothschild, pledging the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, leading – after thirty years – to the establishment of the Jewish State: Israel.

A century later saw the meaning of “Balfour” shifted, for many Israelis, from a “national home” to the official residency of the prime minister, located, since 1974, at corner of Balfour Street in Jerusalem. In the Israeli public imagination, Bibi and Balfour became one and the same – a testament to the former’s mass appeal and his lingering effect on Israeli society, tearing it apart into two camps, each dispatching demonstrators to face the walled fortress to demand Bibi go, or stay.

 Black Flags movement against curroption and Netanyahu, 20 March 2021
Anti-corruption protest, 20 March 2021

And now he’s gone, after leading Israel for fifteen years, first in 1996-1999, and then from March 2009, propagating what we may readily dub Bibism: pursuing power through bad-faith and post-truth politics, cynically dubbing all opposition as treason. Bibism was there before the rise of other contemporary populists. Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdoğan, Putin, Trump – all had Bibi to learn from.

It took four rounds of elections in two years for Bibi’s former political partners to finally realize – one by one – that their former master’s “no choice” motto is a lie, that there is in fact a choice, and that it begins in un-choosing him.

Bibi’s attachment to Balfour is notorious, an eminent part of his, and its, mythology. Trying to express sympathies to settlers of an illegal outpost in the West Bank, Bibi drew on his own harsh experience of leaving Balfour for the very first time, no less than six weeks after a new government was sworn it: “I understand what’s it like to lose Home.

After the election in 1999, with no warning, I and my family were kicked out of Balfour, just like that with all our things we were kicked out to the street. We had to go to the Sheraton Plaza Hotel. It was a terrible feeling.” It is hard not to shed a tear, and harder still this time around. Under a month after losing the premiership to Naftali Bennett, Bibi had to evacuate Balfour.

Residence of the Israeli PM, Balfour Street, Jerusalem
Residence of the Israeli PM, Balfour Street, Jerusalem

But whether Bibism too leaves partly depends on what we make of Home, personal and national. Tellingly, while Bibi turned Balfour into a bastion of power, he never expressed much affection for it. Quite the contrary, Netanyahu’s family repeatedly complained about the appalling state of their residency, incurring on the state unprecedented house expenses. The Netanyahus’ appetite for the house seemed matched only by their alienation from it.

Bibi leaves Balfour, July 10, Midnight
Bibi leaves Balfour, July 10, Midnight

For Rousseau, the “first man” and his believers instigated the “many horrors and misfortunes” of civilization, for that owner was nothing but an “impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

Spending my first day in Israel after such a long time, I wonder if we, Israeli Jews, were not partly drawn to Bibi because we too are still homesick, longing for home that we never quite managed to build. We want to see Israel as our own private, perpetual estate, a “national home” that is a powerhouse befitting the chosen people, who nonetheless see its many defects, and love to leave it (Israelis lead in the ratio of citizens traveling abroad). Perhaps if we also face the defects in us, not least our cynicism and hunger for power, we can begin to hope for a true homecoming.

Tom Roberts, Going Home, 1889
Tom Roberts, Going Home, 1889

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