Goodbye Netanyahu, hello Bennett

Benjamin Netanyahu was forced from power after 12 years. His successor, Naftali Bennett, is a former aide.(Photo: BBC News)

So it has happened. Naftali Bennett has defeated his mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the UK media on the whole do not know how to react.

I watched the proceedings, thanks to my son-in-law's quick-wittedness on WhatsApp.

Only Netanyahu's speech had an English translation, so I thanked G-d Almighty that on sabbatical in Jerusalem from 1983-4, I managed to find the time to learn modern Hebrew. I did this by scouring Jerusalem for the very best Ulpan, run by a volunteer pensioner who had emigrated to Canada, hadn't liked it and had returned home to Jerusalem after nine years in what he called 'that very cold country – in every way!'.

But this Jerusalemite knew the English language inside out, and so was aware of what advanced Hebrew students (nearly all journalists with the English-language media stationed in Israel) needed to know. I was thrown in the deep end, being totally ignorant of modern Hebrew - Ivrit (although well-versed in Biblical Hebrew), and also not a journalist – just a second-time mum trying to cope with two kids and the heat, as well as to life in this amazing but definitely Middle Eastern country.

'Rivakah', he asked in Hebrew in front of the whole class, 'Why is there unemployment in Liverpool?' I had to guess the word 'unemployment' in Hebrew and got it right – doesn't exist in the Bible, you see, but its root 'batel' certainly does, meaning 'annulment'.

Being thrown in the deep end is what Israel is all about. And as I listened to yesterday's shouting and screaming that accompanied the speeches of Bennett and others, as well as the outgoing PM, Netanyahu, I felt that you had to be Jewish to understand.

Biblical metaphors and allusions abounded – would the general non-Jewish public understand, for instance, what Netanyahu meant by 'a shaatnez government'? Probably not – not even in translation is this very Jewish concept easily explicable.

Just like this week's Torah portion, taken from Numbers 19-22:1, which deals with the mysterious 'Red Heifer' law. In fact the entire section of this biblical portion is known as Chukat, or Chukat-HaTorah, 'the Torah decree', which none of us understands. And that is what it is all about – the ineffable mystery which has kept the children of Israel going for so many thousands of years.

And yet, despite the mysterious religion of Judaism which has proved such an enigma for the rest of the world, it would be difficult to find a more democratic set-up than the Israeli parliamentary system. So democratic is it that to those from Europe or north America, it appears at times to even border on the anarchic.

The various parties appear to be composed of a variety of vested interests based in religious, socialist, ethnic and economic parameters which, even when they sound like some of their western counterparts (the Labour Party for instance), don't always have that much in common with European or north American concepts of the same name.

The first time I watched a Knesset debate in 2006, I was reminded more of a Bet-Knesset (the synagogue) of a very rowdy type – probably Hasidic – with absolutely no decorum but one in which you knew that you were at home – and where there definitely was 'method in their madness.'

This week was more like a good mix of Hasidic and a very excitable English football match, with name-calling and quite a bit of refereeing, and players being sent off pitch, but somehow managing to remain intact. More importantly, everyone managed to get their main message across – in the end!

Mansour Abbas, of the Arab Ra'am party, for instance, spoke first in Arabic and then in Hebrew of what he called the importance of 'participatory citizenship.' In Hebrew the words have a special, very positive ring, especially to Jews who are increasingly being regarded as second class citizens in much of north America, the UK and Europe.

And Bennett quoted the beautiful prayer for the State of Israel, composed originally by Chief Rabbi Herzog (formerly Chief Rabbi of Ireland), whose grandson, Isaac (known affectionately as 'Bougie'), has just been appointed as the next President of Israel.

We met Bougie's parents, Chaim, who was also President, during our stay from 1983-4 and Aura, who told us how much she loved Liverpool and why. Music to our ears, of course.

I knew PM Bennett's parents quite well. Jim and Myrna, originally from San Francisco (which Naftali mentioned in his inaugural speech) were part of a small cohort of 'Anglos' in Haifa, when I lived there from 2006-8.

Jim was the most amazing estate agent, who took great pride in finding the best for his clients and behaving with supreme grace when people turned down his suggestions for something more suitable. He was also inordinately proud of his children and used to talk about their achievements a fair bit.

We always thought that Naftali would do well and that if he was anything like his father, he would go far. Every time he opens his mouth, the new Israeli PM reminds me of his Mum and Dad and their Californian roots.

And then there is also the amazing happenstance that the new Prime Minister attends the synagogue in the central Israeli town of Raanana whose rabbi spent some time here in Greater Manchester and invited me to be scholar in residence during the festival of Shavuot 2018 (the weekend of that royal wedding, which unfortunately I had to miss). There, I spoke about conversion and what we owe every single convert to our despised and completely misunderstood religion (when you come to think about it, no doubt Judaim is despised because it is misunderstood).

Just now, the widow of the former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen, contacted me by WhatsApp from Jerusalem, glowing with joy.This doyenne of the Israeli story - having arrived from New York in 1949 - asked me in regal tones to tell readers that Bennett is capable and the country is in good hands.

We joked about times with Naftali's parents and the savoir faire for which they were well known in Haifa.

'Thrilled' is probably the adjective which springs to mind.

Wouldn't it be lovely (as the song goes) if everyone could share in our joy and happiness. Israel has given the world what it wanted – a new government in which every part of society works together. How long it will last is another question.

But no-one can accuse the State of Israel and its nearly 10 million citizens of being backwards in coming forwards. Israel has recently been praised by the CEO of Pfizer for having shown the world how to deal with a plague – and now it has ousted the man who sorted out Israel's economy, made peace with four neighbouring Arab countries, developed hi tech and kept the country going through thick and thin for 25 years (or 'half a Jubilee' as he described it in his farewell speech).

Yes, this man had been in charge for longer than 20 per cent of the State's history (imagine William the Conqueror lasting for 200 years – doesn't bear thinking about, does it?) and saved her from the brink of destruction on numerous occasions.

But the people felt that 'enough is enough', and we will see what happens from here.

As the great Rabbi Professor Abraham Heschel and friend of Martin Luther King once said 'our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.' I'm off to the Lake District for a number of days – the last time I was there, I took Shear Yashuv's wife with me.

'Is it as beautiful as the Catskills?', she asked at the time. (Don't you just love New Yorkers!!). I had to confess that very unfortunately I didn't know the Catskills. At the end of the trip, the American wife of the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and daughter of one of the greatest New York rabbis of all time, declared that 'the Lake District is much more beautiful than the Catskills. It is truly one of the wonders of the world.'

After 13 years, I'm sure that the Lake District has changed and am really looking forward to making its acquaintance once again, masks and all. Nevertheless, however 'radically amazing' the trip turns out to be, and I am sure that it will, nothing to me is as 'radically amazing' as the beauty of Israeli society, its readiness to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, and its willingness to make drastic changes when necessary.

As it states in this week's Torah reading, Moses smote the rock with his staff (whether in anger, or simply in order to enable the water to flow for the thirsty people). Therefore, he was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. No politician lasts forever. Neither Netanyahu or Bennett are Moses – and neither would claim to. But 'there is a tide in the affairs of men' and change inevitably happens.

Let us hope and pray that this is not only the beginning of a new chapter in the history of our people, but also the continuation of all that was good in the previous chapter. So that, as it states in our beloved Torah, specifically in Micah 4:"And in the end of days it shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord's home will be established on the top of the mountains, and will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will flow to it. And many nations will go and say: 'Come, let's go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the home of the G-d of Jacob. And let Him teach us about His ways, so that we end up walking His paths. For out of Zion will go forth this Teaching, together with the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.''

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.