Commentary Magazine


Why Isaac Herzog Is Channeling Menachem Begin–and the Mishnaic Sages Too

There is a famous Talmudic story about the Mishnaic sage Elazar ben Azariah, who was chosen by his peers to lead the rabbinate. He fulfilled all the criteria but he was only 18, and he looked it. The Talmud tells us God then made part of Elazar’s beard turn white, giving him the gravitas he needed to head the academy. Israel’s babyfaced Isaac Herzog, the young leader of a Labor Party on the cusp of winning Israel’s next national elections, is in need of such gravitas. But he’s not asking for a miracle; Photoshop will do. Herzog’s campaign has reportedly done something that might surprise consumers of our airbrushed pop culture: digitally altered his photo to make him look older–and, presumably, wiser.

As Tal Schneider and Noga Tarnopolsky note, “According to the business tabloid The Marker, Yitzhak Herzog’s enviable baby face has caused a few rumpled foreheads, and the Labor campaign has actually used a Photoshop-like service to add the wrinkles of age and gravitas to its candidate’s unblemished face.” And indeed if you follow the link to The Marker you can see the difference.

The page is in Hebrew but it’s self-explanatory (and easily translatable). The Marker actually set up a useful tool in which they’ve layered one official campaign picture of each of the major candidates over a regular photo, and allowed the user to drag an icon over each photo to reveal the one underneath, for easy comparison. Everybody’s “official” picture looks as close to flawless as the camera can believably make them–except for Herzog. His digitally enhanced photo shows his wrinkles significantly more prominently, especially around his eyes. And his hair looks grayer.

The polls provide some explanation. While the Labor-led Zionist Union polls a few seats better than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, when respondents are asked who they’d prefer as prime minister, Netanyahu wins by a significant margin (though the gap has closed somewhat). Herzog is trying to look more experienced, more distinguished, and more battle tested.

And aside from the understandable logic of it, there’s precedent too. Ronald Reagan’s great line in his debate with Walter Mondale that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” may have been something of a joke, but in Israel such youth and inexperience can indeed be a liability.

Israel probably first learned this in earnest in its momentous Knesset election in 1977, when a Likud-led bloc was finally able to defeat the left-Labor coalition for the first time.

The Likud side was led at that time by Menachem Begin. The leftist Alignment was led by Yitzhak Rabin until a scandal over an illegal bank account spurred his resignation from the post. He was replaced by Shimon Peres. Begin was in his mid-60s and always looked at least his age. Peres was a decade younger. A few months before the election, Begin suffered a heart attack, was hospitalized, and lost weight. He was weaker than usual. To make matters worse, he had agreed to a televised debate before Peres had taken over leadership of the left coalition. The debate was scheduled for just days before the vote.

In his biography of Begin (released in English in 2012) Avi Shilon describes how the Likud tried to learn from Nixon’s debate with JFK:

Alex Ansky coached Begin for many hours in an effort to improve his physical appearance. In order to make him look more tanned, he wore, for the first time in his life, a pale blue shirt. “It was hard to get him one like that, as all his shirts were white,” Aliza said. The debate, hosted by journalist Yishayahu (Shaike) Ben Porat, lasted over forty minutes. … The two candidates were very excited, but Begin was clearly more so. When the debate first started, Begin’s gaze constantly searched for the cameras. Furthermore, despite his blue shirt, he looked pale and weak and sweated just as profusely as Nixon had done in his debate.

That’s when the two candidates learned an important lesson about the Israeli public:

What Americans perceived as a disadvantage was taken by the Israeli viewers as an advantage. The sweaty and excited Begin triggered sympathy. His appearance—which was ill-suited to the medium—actually made him seem to be a responsible and mature Jew who did not sleep at night because of his concerns for Israel. When the debate ended and the cameras were turned off, Begin could no longer resist some humor and remarked while Peres was removing his makeup, “Oh, look how beautiful he is.” His associates burst into laughter.

Begin was a powerful speaker–peerless when he was at his best. And he looked like the underground soldier, hounded by his enemies and marginalized by the Jewish establishment, that he had been for so long. He had been fighting all his life for the Jewish state, and it showed.

With his victory, he once again changed the course of Israeli history. But he also proved something great about his fellow Jews: democracy to them was not a beauty pageant. Herzog, the son of the late Chaim Herzog, an IDF general and former president of Israel (at the tail end of Begin’s premiership, in fact), knows this too. And he would like the Israeli electorate not to hold his (relative) youth and inexperience against him.

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