Article
Culture
Middle East
Politics
7 min read

Netanyahu’s baffling ability to bounce back

Disliked and embattled, the Israeli premier’s purpose strengthens him.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

Between two generals wearing camouflage uniforms, a man in a black shirt listens.
Bibi ponders future plans.
Prime Minister's Office, Israeli Government.

Are the dreams of Bibi Netanyahu about to be crushed? As the Israeli prime minister’s coalition teeters, what is remarkable is that he has survived so long. Central to this survival is his purpose – a dream of a secure Israel. We need to unpack such leaders’ dreams and understand why they are so potent. 

Langston Hughes, in his poem ‘Harlem,’ asks what ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ Several possibilities are put forward: ‘Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? And an alternative: ‘Maybe it just sags like a heavy load?’ And finally ‘Or does it explode?’   

It’s possible that Hughes referred to Harlem race riots in the 1930s and 1940s, but no-one knows for sure. The question is what happens when a dream is put on hold – or worse, destroyed – in the face of struggle? 

Do we press on? Do we give up? What happens if we press on, and things do not work out? Or perhaps we press on, and things do work out. Hughes’ poem encourages us to ask these questions.  

Looking back, Hughes’ poem is interesting but obviously gloomy, without hope. A dream is deferred. It withers, and then vanishes. But what if a dream is – when encountering struggle – maintained, kept in tact? The dream, perhaps nearly lost, emerges in the end, stronger than it was before.  

Hughes’ poem is one of struggle and eruption. Not struggle and emergence. It is a despairing poem, one that denies the possibility of resurrection from the brink of death, even if the obstacles are significant.  

We all have dreams, perhaps about peace, career, family, community, love, or something else. Inevitably, these dreams are – as dreams always are, in order to test our faith - met with opposition.  

In these moments, we have two options: we can believe in what we see – the dream faltering, withering on the vine, ever so slowly. Or we can believe in the unseen, in which the dream re-emerges from whatever resistance it encounters. The former values the material, what we can actually see. The second values and trusts in what we cannot see. This brings us back to the point of faith.  

'I have lost count of how many political obituaries I have written about Netanyahu — and how many resurrection stories.’ 

Nicholas Goldberg

The ability to struggle and emerge, in which death or near-death is followed by resurrection, is a quality that is in short supply in modern political leadership. It is easily – and not surprisingly – overlooked in a culture prone to despair and hopelessness, in which we are met with a new crisis at every corner.  

But some leaders have a unique, if not baffling, quality: the ability to struggle and emerge stronger, somehow renewed. They resurrect themselves where this was thought impossible. And when they have this quality, they become unrelenting forces, whatever you might think of them.  

No leader better embodies this quality in the political West than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (or ‘Bibi’ for short). Netanyahu strengthens whenever he is on the ropes, perhaps because he is on the ropes.  

Although a profoundly disliked figure by many, Netanyahu’s ability to struggle and emerge merits serious study from any student of politics. It is worth asking where his ability to struggle and emerge, resurrecting oneself from the depths of despair – in seemingly impossible situations – comes from? 

Ishaan Tharoor puts it well in a recent Washington Post article: ‘Yet Netanyahu is expert at defying the odds.’ However, puzzlingly few articles are written on this topic – Netanyahu’s ability to come back from seemingly impossible circumstances.  

Columnist Nicholas Goldberg comes even closer to the essence of resurrection in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in 2020, in which he writes ‘Over the years, I have lost count of how many political obituaries I have written about Netanyahu — and how many resurrection stories.’ He later comments on Netanyahu’s single life mission focused on security.  

Both articles are more anti-Netanyahu than they are a reflection on the why and how of his countless resurrections. So it is worth asking: what is behind this quality?  

A mission is fundamental to resurrection, in which certain politicians find a way through whenever the world counts them out. 

While commentators focus on the ills of Netanyahu’s tenure as Israeli Prime Minister – indictments of corruption and possible future jail time, thwarting of a two-state solution in favour of the Abraham Accords, and the security failures that contributed to the October 7 disaster – they fail to consider deeper questions related to Tharoor’s description of Netanyahu as constantly ‘defying the odds.’  

Neglected in analyses on Netanyahu is the deep trauma of his brother Yonatan’s passing in the famous Operation Entebbe.  Neglected is the fact that he was wounded, sometimes severely, on many occasions while fighting for the Israeli special forces. And neglected is the influence of his father Benzion, a notable academic well-known for his writing on the historical oppression of the Jewish people (and on his own later rejection by the Israeli academic community).  

These are powerful, deep-seated experiences if not major traumas, which – as Israeli friends well-acquainted with Netanyahu wisely note – underpin his clear life mission of increasing Israeli security in a dangerous world.  

Goldberg puts this mission, even if uncharitably, as follows in his column: ‘Netanyahu has stood for one key proposition: that peace is not to be trusted; it is a pipe dream pushed by starry-eyed doves who fell hard for the likes of Yasser Arafat. According to Netanyahu, only battening down, fighting back hard, building walls and rejecting compromise protects the country.’  

Netanyahu provides us with a crucial lesson in political leadership: a clear and simple life mission provides the ability to claim victory from the jaws of defeat, even in the most seemingly intractable of circumstances. A mission is fundamental to resurrection, in which certain politicians find a way through whenever the world counts them out.   

A mission – simple because it is grounded in brokenness (the death of his brother) – provides Netanyahu (and other politicians that have this quality) with a strategic and tactical advantage that cannot be replicated by opponents without similar purpose. Such mission is not fleeting but enduring, Netanyahu resisting all temptations that might thwart his single-minded purpose.  

In the case of Israel, no other Israeli political leader has operated with the same sense of mission as has Netanyahu over the last two decades. For if this were the case, Netanyahu would not currently be in power.  

Our focus therefore should never be on dreams deferred, as per Hughes’ poem, but rather on the realisation of our dreams – underpinned by unique and consistent life missions.

Commentators, focusing on external circumstances – the current direction of the war, certain decisions made, the opinions of well-read ‘experts’ – neglect these deeper human questions at their peril, because the answer to the question of purpose helps people find ways through where none seem to exist. Purpose, not circumstance, allows a political leader to struggle and emerge in circumstances where most others falter.   

For wider context, we can here turn to the example of Jesus, whose resurrection follows his trials at Gethsemane. When Jesus prays in Gethsemane, it is not clear how he should act. Jesus does not know what God wants from him. But he knows that he must carry out the will of his Father. 

He asks ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but what you want’. Jesus is alone in his deliberation. He asks and waits, and in this waiting, the way forward is revealed. Here we see, in its most poignant form, struggle and emergence. Jesus is resurrected three days following his death, when even his disciples had counted him out. 

Our focus therefore should never be on dreams deferred, as per Hughes’ poem, but rather on the realisation of our dreams – underpinned by unique and consistent life missions. Discerning these missions is not easy. If anything, there is considerable pain involved in doing so.  

Yet, struggle that involves the possibility of failure of a dream, within a consistent and singular life mission, contains within it the seeds of success. The dream emerges intact from whatever short-term struggle it faces, if not strengthened.  

A way is found where none previously existed, when those focused merely on the seen long counted a person out. In the long run, mission enables victory: the realisation – not deferral – of dreams.  

  

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.