Big Man Bibi

03/03/2015 10:32 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The prospect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress has generated a great deal of political heat. People in the Obama administration have been outraged that a foreign leader is coming to America two weeks before his own hotly contested bid for reelection to critique American foreign policy toward Iran. This action not only ignores diplomatic protocol but undermines President Obama.

Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made no secret of his appreciation for the Republicans in Congress, politicians who routinely insult President Obama. Led by Speaker of the House John Boehner, the House Republicans unilaterally orchestrated the prime minister's invitation to address the U.S. Congress. As many commentators have pointed out, such an invitation--and the prime minister's acceptance of it--is a provocation designed to undercut delicate ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S., negotiations that are creeping toward resolution. In the absence of such an agreement, it is equally clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu and many of his Republican friends in the U.S. Congress think that military action is the best way to resolve the issue of Iranian nuclear capacities.

The political firestorm that Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit has provoked has not deterred Bibi. He is resolute in his belief that Iran, which he has called a suicide state, intends to build and use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state. When he discusses these issues he wears a very special cloak that envelopes him in a new messianic identity: the Protector of the Jews.

The Protector will not be stopped.

The Protector says he knows what's best for Jews like me. He knows what's best for the world. It doesn't matter to him that Meir Dagan, the former director of the Mossad, has stated that Bibi has exaggerated the dangers of Iran's nuclear program. Memos leaked from Israeli intelligence sources suggest that nuclear production activities in Iran are not consistent with a program of weapons development.

The Protector will not be stopped.

It doesn't matter to Bibi that the director of the American Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, a leading voice in the American Jewish community, urged him to cancel his trip.

Abraham Foxman ... a leading voice in the Jewish community, told The Jewish Daily Forward that the controversy over Netanyahu's speech is unhelpful. He added that Netanyahu should stay home.

"One needs to restart, and it needs a mature adult statement that this was not what we intended," Foxman said in an interview published Friday. "It has been hijacked by politics. Now is a time to recalibrate...."

The Protector will not be stopped.

It doesn't matter to him that a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published on March 1 reported that roughly half of U.S. registered voters disapprove of John Boehner's decision to invite Netanyahu to speak without asking President Barack Obama.

In the face of such powerful opposition, how can we account for Bibi's stubborn determination? Why is he so resolute? Why all the bluster and bombast?

Anthropologists have a deceptively simple answer: Bibi is behaving like a Melanesian Big Man. In New Guinea societies men who seek prestige in the social arena--usually the men's ceremonial house--used bluster and bombast to gain personal advantage and prestige. In his classic work Naven, Gregory Bateson, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, described this exaggerated and bombastic behavior among New Guinea's Iatmul people:

An important man on entering the ceremonial house is conscious that the public eye is upon him and he responds to this stimulus with some sort of over-emphasis. He will enter with a gesture and call attention to his presence with some remark. Sometimes he will tend toward a harsh swagger and over-consciousness of pride....

Bateson goes on to say that among other factors, a man acquires prestige "by playing up to the public eye; the more standing he has, the more conspicuous will be his behaviour. The greatest and most influential men will resort freely to either harsh vituperation or to buffoonery when they are in the centre of the stage, and reserve their dignity for occasions when they are in the background."

Like Bibi Netanyahu, the Melanesian Big Man would never publicly admit to his mistakes, would never appear to be weak and would never change his mind. A Big Man would never cancel a speech in the ceremonial house, which is not unlike the U.S. Congress, an institution that is filled with the exaggerated behaviors of blustery and bombastic Big Men.

Should a Big Man be entrusted with power? Should he be entrusted with the responsibilities of war and peace, of life or death? My Songhay friends from the Republic of Niger, many of whom are masters of practical wisdom, are very conscious of the personal challenges and obligations of possessing power. They would call someone like Bibi Netanyahu a bonberiko (literally, the owner of a big head). If you observe a bonberiko, you quickly realize that despite the large size of his head, there is little of substance inside. When you entrust someone with power, they would say, you want a person who is calm and even-tempered, a person who thinks long and hard before making a decision, a person who speaks with careful deliberation, a person who understands the complex mesh of social relations, a person more like Barack Obama than Bibi Netanyahu.