The Ideal Leader: Machiavellian vs. Davidian Politics
BY RABBI DORON PEREZ
Israel is about to experience something almost unheard of in the history of democracy – a fifth election in less than four years!
For many years, the Israeli electorate has been politically split down the middle, unable to form a government with a stable ruling majority. The prospects for this latest election look no different, with polls once again predicting deadlock and division.
This troubling reality has eroded our national sense of unity. The ongoing elections not only cost billions of shekels and make sustainable governance impossible, but also have a corrosive effect on our societal cohesion. When parties are in constant “election mode”, they are forever focused on the shortcomings of others, constantly sharpening differences and undermining and delegitimizing political opponents. This counterproductive behavior leads to a continuous culture of criticism and condemnation. At times, the condemnations are so acerbic that they result in deep intolerance for the views of others and mutual hatred.
Destroying political rivals
How do disagreements deteriorate into delegitimization and even hatred?
When I am absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong, when my political opponents are part of “the dark side”, it is only natural to view them as an existential threat to our society. And once our political opponents are classified as “existential threats”, it becomes easier to justify distasteful tactics and behavior to combat those perceived threats. When battling “existential threats”, the ends justify the means!
This past year, the mistreatment of political opponents reached new heights. Some Knesset members now routinely shun one another, refusing to acknowledge or greet other members, and even encourage their followers to harass political opponents in shul and heckle them and their families. Some Knesset members frequently engage in the cancel culture so prevalent in our time, eschewing basic principles of civility and common decency.
On top of all this, lying, manipulation and deception have become ubiquitous in the political milieu. Politicians are amongst the least trustworthy people in all of Western society, routinely telling the public what they want to hear and what will serve their personal interests instead of standing for what they really believe. Israeli politicians repeatedly make convincing campaign promises to potential voters, only to immediately do the opposite of what they promised following the election. Others deceive their coalition partners by exploiting tiny loopholes in order to avoid fulfilling their promises. Sadly, deceiving and double-crossing voters and coalition partners alike has become commonplace.
The unscrupulous behavior of today’s political leaders has a cogent philosophical basis. It is rooted in an uncouth, un-Jewish mode of political interaction, in which lying and deception are virtues, undermining political opponents is desirable and political ends always trump moral means. It is the political philosophy known as Machiavellianism.
A 16th century statesman and diplomat, Machiavelli served his native Florence for 14 years. But when the Medici family seized power, he not only lost his position, but was tortured and banished from the city. In forced retirement, he wrote works of history and drama, but his lasting notoriety is due to his most famous work, The Prince.
In this watershed work, which ultimately established him as the “father of political science”, Machiavelli drew upon his personal experiences and political studies to argue that politics has always been conducted with deception, treachery, and criminality. Machiavelli maintained that successful politicians should not abide by normal standards of morality and ethics. For successful politicians, the desired end always justifies the means, no matter how brutal or unethical. Rulers who hope to maintain their hold on power must know no moral limits. They must lie and deceive as needed, and should torment, torture and murder political enemies with impunity if they wish to secure and sustain their leadership. Most famously, he notes that for a ruler, “it is much safer to be feared than loved”.
In the decades after it was published, The Prince gained a fiendish reputation. By the end of the century, Shakespeare was using the term “Machiavel” to denote amoral opportunists, leading directly to our popular use of “Machiavellian” as a synonym for scheming villainy. Throughout the book, Machiavelli appears entirely unconcerned with morality, except insofar as it is helpful or harmful to maintaining power.
But not everyone has condemned The Prince. Some consider it to be a straightforward description of the evil means used by tyrannical and power-hungry rulers, while others see it as unsavory yet pragmatic realism with Machiavelli wishing to shatter popular delusions about what power really entails for those who wish to wield it. Either way, Machiavelli’s political philosophy of realpolitik connotes deceit and deviousness, tyranny and treachery, where any means justify a political end.
Diametrically opposed to Machiavellian politics is the political leadership of King David – what we shall call “Davidian politics”. During David’s 40-year rule, he modeled a form of leadership so transformative that he has become known to posterity as דָּוִד הַמֶּלֶךְ, King David, ‘the’ king par excellence. So extraordinary was his leadership that the longed-for, future leader of Israel, the Messiah himself, must be a direct descendant of David.
David’s respect for his political adversaries is remarkable, and could not be more different from Machiavelli’s ideal prince. While David was a warrior who fiercely fought the enemies of Israel, he was extraordinarily forgiving and consistently tolerant towards his political adversaries, a compassionate attitude his own senior military brass and tribal leadership struggled to understand.
On several occasions, King Saul attempted to kill his loyal servant David, yet David twice refrained from harming him, even though his own life was in danger and he had every right to kill King Saul in self-defense. David also showed remarkable forbearance and forgiveness to Avner ben Ner and Amasa ben Yeter, chiefs of staff of the armies that fought against David on behalf of Saul’s kingdom and Avshalom’s rebel forces respectively. When Yoav surreptitiously murdered these men, David rebuked Yoav for his actions and publicly mourned them. When the Amalakite youth and brothers Ba’ana and Reichav joyously informed David that they had killed his political enemies – King Saul and Ish-boshet – David had them killed for daring to harm an elected king of Israel.
The national unifier
What drove King David to show such unusual mercy to his political adversaries?
David understood that the main role of the king of Israel is to unite the people. David knew that killing Saul or taking vengeance against political enemies could lead to an irrevocable split amongst the already divided tribes of Israel. He desperately sought to overcome painful internal divisions between his tribe of Judah and the other tribes of Israel who appointed Saul and Ish-boshet as their kings. His lifelong goal was to heal the fractures of national society and forge a unified commonwealth.
Maimonides explains that the role of Jewish kings and political leaders is לְקַבֵּץ אֻמָּתֵנוּ וְיַנְהִיגֵנוּ, “to unite our nation and to lead it” (Sefer HaMitzvot #173). In this passage, Maimonides is describing a time in which all the tribes of Israel are dwelling in the Land of Israel, and so the Hebrew word לְקַבֵּץ does not mean “to gather the exiles” but rather “to gather together and unite the tribes of Israel”.
The king of Israel plays a critical role in the mitzvah of Hakhel – the momentous unity gathering of the nation that took place every seven years in Jerusalem. On the first day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, immediately following a Shemitta year (such as this year!), the king would preside and read from the Torah before the entire nation. Rav Soloveitchik explains that the implication of this mitzvah is clear: the king’s role is to unify the nation!1
The book of Shmuel, which in many ways is the book of David, stands out as the blueprint for Jewish political leadership. It was David who bent over backwards to ignore prior insults, grievances and wars and to forgive others for the sake of unity, overcoming the tribalism that had plagued the people of Israel for generations. And so it was David who laid the foundations for the Temple in Jerusalem, where Hashem’s presence could only reside among a people united as one.
In both Israel and around the world, we are today in desperate need of the Davidian mode of Jewish leadership. May Hashem grant us such leaders who will unite our people and rebuild the Temple, speedily in our days!
1 Sefer Birkat Yitzchak by Rabbi Menachem Genack, Parashat Shoftim; with thanks to Rabbi Josh Kahn for making me aware of this source.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.