Today I was talking to a neighbor who told me that he’s in the middle of a book about IDF Chief Rabbi HaRav Shlomo Goren. One of the things that surprised him was the good relationship between HaRAv Goren and Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, even though Ben-Gurion is known as being rather anti-religious. Whenever HaRav Goren needed something, Ben-Gurion agreed. My neighbor found that surprising.
As many of you know (because some of you have even met me there), I attend a weekly Torah class in Jerusalem. The rabbi who gives the class once told us that he met a man who knew someone who had asked David Ben Gurion why he allowed a religious education system to be created in the new state at all. Ben Gurion responded that he figured that within a generation, all attachment to traditional Judaism would die out anyway, so why fight with them. On this, as on many other matters, Ben Gurion was clearly wrong.
Ben-Gurion certainly wasn’t nice to the Revisionists, Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, those who had fought for Israel’s independence with the Etzel and Lechi. He had even sent the Palmach to shoot at the Jews on the Altalena, a horrendous act for sure.
Could Ben-Gurion’s agreement to defer/exempt Haredim, studying full-time in yeshivot from the IDF have been to get the political support and loyalty of the Haredi leadership? Ben-Gurion would do anything to make sure that Menachem Begin’s Herut Party would stay out of power.
We know that “history is written by the victors,” and until recently much of Israel’s history was written by the Left. Begin, Jabotinsky and others were treated as marginal, extremist figures, sometimes even vilified by the socialist establishment.
Israel underwent a political revolution in 1977 with the election of its first right-wing government, led by Menachem Begin, although vestiges of the old leftist establishment hung on in the arts, academia and media. Maybe for that reason the historical record is still unfair to Begin — whom some believe to have been the greatest of Israel’s Prime Ministers — and to Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, a remarkably prescient thinker and philosopher of Zionism.
Jabotinsky thought that Israel is not only physically located in the Middle East, but must live in the Middle East in order to survive. He understood the importance of ideology, of holding on to one’s convictions, of symbols and of honor — quite the opposite of some of today’s ‘pragmatic’ politicians.
Instead of Excessive Apologyby Zev Jabotinsky, 1911
Translated from Russian by Boris Shusteff
We constantly and very loudly apologize… Instead of turning our backs to the accusers, as there is nothing to apologize for, and nobody to apologize to, we swear again and again that it is not our fault… Isn’t it long overdue to respond to all these and all future accusations, reproaches, suspicions, slanders and denunciations by simply folding our arms and loudly, clearly, coldly and calmly answer with the only argument that is understandable and accessible to this public: ‘Go to Hell!’?
Who are we, to make excuses to them; who are they to interrogate us? What is the purpose of this mock trial over the entire people where the sentence is known in advance? Our habit of constantly and zealously answering to any rabble has already done us a lot of harm and will do much more. … The situation that has been created as a result, tragically confirms a well known saying: “Qui s’excuse s’accuse.” ["one that apologizes for oneself accuses oneself" -- ed.]
We ourselves have acquainted our neighbors with the thought that for every embezzling Jew it is possible to drag the entire ancient people to answer, a people that was already legislating at the time when the neighbors had not even invented a bast shoe. Every accusation causes among us such a commotion that people unwittingly think, ‘why are they so afraid of everything?’ Apparently their conscience is not clear.’
Exactly because we are ready at every minute to stand at attention, there develops among the people an inescapable view about us, as of some specific thievish tribe. We think that our constant readiness to undergo a search without hesitation and to turn out our pockets, will eventually convince mankind of our nobility; look what gentlemen we are–we do not have anything to hide! This is a terrible mistake. The real gentlemen are the people that will not allow anyone for any reason to search their apartment, their pockets or their soul. Only a person under surveillance is ready for a search at every moment…. This is the only one inevitable conclusion from our maniac reaction to every reproach–to accept responsibility as a people for every action of a Jew, and to make excuses in front of everybody including hell knows who. I consider this system to be false to its very root. We are hated not because we are blamed for everything, but we are blamed for everything because we are not loved…
In debates with their Haredi peers, national-religious youths will often be heard to demand why the Haredim do not respect national-religious rabbis. “What about our great Torah scholars!”
But why should the Haredim respect national-religious rabbis if those rabbis’ own community does not?
A letter released this week by deputy mayors belonging to the Jewish Home in the most public way possible—it was published on all the usual sites, including Haredi ones—asks the parties’ rabbis not to interfere with political decisions made by the party’s negotiating team or by the party’s Knesset members, even on the topic of yeshiva students’ military service.
Would a Haredi ever release such a letter?
The settlement movement, it is important to remember, was not the work of professionals and businessmen. It was the work of national-religious rabbis holding discussions at the home of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook through the wee hours of the morning. Hanan Porat and Yehuda Hazani are no longer with us, but we still have rabbis: Moshe Levinger—we’ll return to him—Yaakov Levin, Yaakov Novick, Yohanan Fried, Yoel Bin Nun, Menachem Felix. We still have great Torah scholars: Benny Katzover, Yehuda Etzion, Mati Dan, David Be’eri (of Ir David), Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever (of Amana). All of them participated in creating the settlement enterprise from their book stands at their respective yeshivot. That is what gave rise to the settlement revolution. The revolution in national-religious education, for that matter, was likewise the work of wise and devout rabbis, including Hayim Drukman, Dov Lior, Eliezer Melamed, and others.
And now they come and tell us that when it comes to truly important questions of morality and policy, decisions are to be made without the rabbis. Period.
How are they going to distinguish between what is permissible in politics and what is forbidden? How are they going to strike a balance between what is desirable and what is presently available? No problem. That’s the job of the new halakhic decision-makers: the “professionals.”
True, they never imbibed the Torah as did those rabbis, who for their entire lives have dedicated themselves to the Torah (in the vernacular: they put their heart and soul into it day and night. No movies. No Shlomo Artzi concerts). But apparently it makes no difference. Apparently the Torah does not rub off on its students. Apparently it is not in any way reflected in how they live their lives …
It’s all very strange to me. The Haredim, who regard the State of Israel as an entirely secular phenomenon lacking any and all sanctity, consult their rabbis about such matters. Yet the national-religious community—the community that burst forth into the world of national practicalities and leadership with the message that the State of Israel is the beginning of the redemption, that our country is God’s throne, that the politics of Israel is the politics of holiness—sends the rabbis home, the better to leave decisions to politicians and interested parties.
In a recent emergency meeting of Haredi rabbis in Bnei Brak, I saw precisely the opposite. The Knesset members stood at the rear with modesty and obvious veneration. They maybe even have been posing a little. But one way or another, it was moving. Respect for the Torah. A RECENT conversation with a young national-religious activist made clear to me that this is a deep-seated phenomenon among the younger generation. He sees the change as a positive development. “The rabbis don’t understand politics. Let them leave it to professionals.”
It’s not that he doesn’t respect the rabbis. He just leaves them out of the equation. In a debate with a Haredi he would go straight for the line about “our great Torah scholars,” but deep down he doesn’t in fact believe that Torah study improves a person.
Like him, I am not a Torah scholar. So why do I see things so differently? Is it just a matter of age?
Many of today’s young religious people have grown up in a culture that is more in touch with the media and secular literature than with rabbis, and may even be hostile to the latter. In an effort not to be different from the other guys on reserve duty, they run away from their rabbis. Is it realistic to demand they respect rabbis when their role models are businessmen and their commanders in the army? I received my initial education about respecting rabbis from my late father, an Auschwitz survivor. Once he took me to see the rebbe of Gur. Abba stood opposite the rebbe wearing a belt that one of the Hassidim had given him (“You go in to see the rebbe wearing a gartel”)—and burst into tears. The rebbe asked why he was crying. And my father answered: “Excitement.” I was nine years old, but I remember it as if it had happened yesterday.
The Israeli election set for January 22 and the coverage thereof is very strange in several respects. It is a contest in which his opponents seek to beat centrist Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, of the Likud party, in a remarkably inept manner and in which international understanding of the issues is at the low level we’ve become used to seeing.
Here’s a simple way to understand the situation. The right-wing parties and the left-wing parties are each likely to get roughly the same number of seats that they received in the 1999 election. The difference is that in 1999 the rightist parties divided their vote among three parties and today have largely united into one. The moderate left in 1999 gave their votes mainly to one party and now are dividing it among four.
In addition, viewing the actual electioneering by the left makes one appreciate just how fraudulent political consultants are. They claim that they are going to help the candidate win but have no idea of how to do so. And in Israel they borrow childishly from the latest fads in American politics without regard to the differences. Here are the themes pushed by the moderate left opposition:
–Bibi is for the rich. This slogan is unlikely to work in a country where lower income generally corresponds with more conservative voting. The idea is obviously stolen from Barack Obama’s campaign. But Obama was going for large African-American, Hispanic, and student blocs plus some middle class sectors that could be stirred up over hatred of the rich. This has no relevance for Israel.
–Bibi will get you killed. This theme is accompanied by a picture of a mushroom cloud. But is the idea that he will get you nuked by attacking Iran or by not attacking Iran? It isn’t clear. And since Netanyahu has the best claim to preserve the country’s security that approach is likely to be counterproductive.
–Bibi doesn’t want your vote. This is the newest poster to appear though it isn’t clear who’s promoting it. That makes no sense at all.
–The choice of photographs. Former Prime Minister Tsipi Livni, the candidate of her own party—and one of the quartet seeking moderate/moderate left voters—has a photograph on her poster that looks as if it were selected by her worst enemy. In it she appears ugly, angry, and confused.
–Livni’s ad has several shots of Obama and one of her standing with new Secretary of State John Kerry. They seem to argue that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas really wants peace but Netanyahu blocked it. Perhaps this ad was designed by left-liberal American Jewish political consultants. It won’t go over well in Israel.
Shaul Mofaz, candidate of Kadima, Livni’s former party that is expected to collapse completely in the election, has a terrible photograph of himself with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That relates to Kadima’s founder but is unlikely to win any votes. Rather than projecting leadership, the other left-of-center party leaders seem to be seeking anonymity.
What’s astonishing is the obtuseness of the opposition, especially Labor. Netanyahu is going to win but the way to get the largest vote, becoming the official opposition and possibly his coalition partner, is to run on an energetic program of domestic improvements. The obvious opposition approach should be that it is the time to improve schools, the infrastructure, and reduce housing and food prices.
People are waiting to be told that their living standards can be improved without threatening their security. A winning theme would be to say Netanyahu has neglected these domestic issues. True, the economy has done very well but the price of relatively high employment, rapid growth, and low inflation has been high prices.
For breakfast just now I paid $3 for a croissant and $3 for a coffee in a country where income levels average half those in the United States. Young people can’t afford an apartment in a country where rentals are relatively rare and there is not a strong mortgage system or tax deductions for paying one.
That’s why there were social protests in 2011. While going into big debt and increasing subsidies—the trap into which most Western economies have fallen—would be a mistake there are certainly good shifts to be made. Instead, voters are being treated like idiots who will be won over by some silly slogan convincing them that either the prime minister is evil or will get them incinerated. That won’t win an election.
This is the second entry in an in depth series about the composition of the Likud’s list of candidates for the Knesset. Yesterday’s entry discussed the fact that the Israeli media were quick to condemn the Likud’s rightward shift, but in fact of the first 25 of the Likud’s list (the candidates who are likely to be in the Knesset), 20 are members of the current Likud Knesset faction, three were required to be new faces,and the two other new candidates, Moshe Feiglin and Tzachi HaNegbi, who are both familiar faces to the Likud, balance each other out ideologically. So the Likud faction in the upcoming Knesset and the last are pretty much the same.
The big shock, to the media at least, was the fact that Benny Begin, Mickey Eitan and Dan Meridor – whom Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Liberman once labeled the Likud’s ‘Feinschmeckers’ – did not achieve realistic spots. But can it be claimed the Likud won’t be the Likud without them?
Well for one thing, the Likud was the Likud without Meridor and Begin for about a decade. Both of them left the party, each for different reasons (Meridor was finance minister and left over a disagreement about the Shekel exchange rate in 1997 while Begin left to found the Herut party in protest of Netanyahu’s executing the Hevron withdrawal and continuing with the Oslo process).
It should also be noted that Begin didn’t do that poorly in the primaries, he ranked 22nd on the national part of the list, but was bumped back to number 38 on the list because of all the spots reserved for geographic districts and certain demographics. What was surprising about Begin was that he had been number five in 2008 and now dropped so many spaces.
But this was a different election than in 2008, where every Knesset Member feared for his political future, new candidates from Kadima and Moshe Feiglin, who was expected to win a spot in the top 20, were introduced into the mix.
That Begin did as well as he did is surprising given that he has been completely inactive politically. He has no aides. He does not do political events. He does not register Likud members. Nor has he been very active or vocal publicly for the last few years (though in fairness to him, he had health problems). In any political system, even a ‘Likud prince’ like Benny Begin needs to campaign and he didn’t.
Begin also came out against “Hok Hasdarah” saying he was against “bypassing” the High Court of Justice, adopting the Leftist position about the supremacy of the Supreme Court, despite the lack of a constitution and the principle of “parliamentary supremacy” (according to which parliament is the supreme lawmaking body).
This earned him a bad reputation among the Likud’s ideological membership, but that didn’t seal his fate. He could have received sufficient support elsewhere, but he didn’t campaign. And again, despite that, he still managed to score 21, 600 votes – more than twice what was needed to win in 2008 – and rank 22nd among the national candidates. The difference between him and Carmel Shama HaCohen, the last ‘national’ candidate to get a secure spot, was a mere 230 votes.
Nevertheless, the loss of Begin would be a blow to the Likud. Begin is a powerful and respected voice against Palestinian statehood, so if he were again offered to be a minister-without-portfolio that would be good for the Likud and the country.
But remember, it was that opposition to Palestinian statehood that led people to say in 2008 that his rejoining of the Likud had made the Likud too extreme. For example, here is an Arutz Sheva interview with Dan Meridor, where Meridor is asked if he would be able to work with Begin despite their sharp disagreement regarding Palestinian statehood. Meridor tries to smooth over those disagreements, but acknowledges that they exist.
It is therefore quite disingenuous now for pundits to claim that Likud without Begin is an extremist Likud, when they claimed that the Likud with Begin was an extremist Likud.
Like Begin, Meridor was not politically active. I met his chief of staff once. The meeting did not go well. He made insulting comments, stating that only an “abel” (apparently Arabic pejorative for mentally disabled) “doesn’t believe we’re giving them [the Palestinians] something [a state],” that was not long after my associate and I had politely informed him that we represented a more nationalist group. Going into the meeting, we knew Meridor’s politics, but we thought we might find common ground on other issues. The way Meridor’s Chief of Staff handled it was just bad politics. If that was an example of Meridor’s political strategy, it’s no surprise that he lost.
With all the media attention paid to the recent 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic massacre, another anniversary – this one related to something far more consequential in terms of Israel’s history – slipped by relatively unnoticed.
It was thirty years ago this past June that Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to deal the PLO a death blow and thirty years ago last month that Lebanese Christian militiamen slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. The two events, fairly or not, will forever be linked in the public mind. But even if Israeli troops had prevented their Lebanese allies from entering the camps, the Lebanon War would have become Israel’s Vietnam and – again, fairly or not – changed the way much of Israeli society viewed itself and the way much of the world viewed Israel.
Like Vietnam, the Lebanon war became increasingly unpopular in elite media circles. Both wars became rallying cries for forces eager not just to protest the conflict but to disparage the country, its leaders, its history. And both were initiated or inherited by politicians who had long been anathema to liberal journalists.
First and foremost there is the Nixon-Begin parallel and the question of perceived legitimacy. Mainstream American liberals had begun souring on the Vietnam war in 1965 and 1966, but it wasn’t until Democrats lost the 1968 presidential election and Richard Nixon took office a few months later that antiwar sentiment exploded in establishment circles.
Suddenly it was Nixon’s war, not John Kennedy’s or Lyndon Johnson’s, and Democrats were acting as though the 500,000 American troops already on the ground in Vietnam had appeared there at the instant of Nixon’s inauguration.
As difficult as it was for many of Nixon’s ideological foes to swallow the notion of Nixon as a legitimate commander in chief, so too did Menachem Begin’s political enemies view Begin as an unworthy interloper when in 1977 he broke the Labor Alignment’s long electoral hegemony in Israel.
That sense of illegitimacy remained largely under the surface during Begin’s first term in office, when the only two military operations of consequence were a limited incursion into Lebanon in 1978 and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
But when Begin, a year into his second term, signed off on the invasion of Lebanon, his opponents dropped even the pretense of civility. For many Israeli leftists, inside the media and out, the very thought of the reviled Begin presiding over the largest Israeli military operation since the Yom Kippur War was nothing short of intolerable. Israeli newspapers were filled with indignant letters from parents, many of whom openly identified themselves as Labor loyalists, cursing Begin because their sons were now at mortal risk in Lebanon.
A month or so into the fighting, with Israeli soldiers still engaged in battles in and around Beirut, Yitzhak Rabin and other Labor politicos could be seen on television newscasts around the world voicing open disparagement of the Begin government.
Another parallel between Vietnam and Lebanon involved the emergence or reinvigoration, in both the U.S. and Israel, of movements hostile to the prevailing social and political order. In the wake of Lebanon, left-wing Israeli academics (relying heavily on concepts and terminology popularized by their American counterparts 15 years earlier) began to formulate the negative interpretation of Israeli history that by the middle of the following decade would come to be called post-Zionism.
The wars were also similar for the hostile international media coverage they inspired. The Europeans had been vicious to Israel since the late 1960s, but it took Lebanon to bring out the animosity that had been building for a number of years in the American media, as witness the syndicated columnist Nicholas von Hoffman’s statement that “atrocity by atrocity, Americans are coming to see the Israeli government as pounding the Star of David into a swastika”; or the Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett’s claim that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon “seems designed to make civilized man forget or depreciate the Holocaust”; or the print and television pundit Carl Rowan’s insistence that “Israel’s leaders are imitating Hitler.”
Three decades later, Israel’s metamorphosis in the eyes of the media – from valiant underdog to regional bully – stands out as the lasting legacy of the 1982 Lebanon war.
The popular image of the Jews who took part in battles for black civil rights is of liberal activists and idealistic college students. Yet several important early civil rights efforts in the United States and South Africa were undertaken by officers of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Jewish underground militia in British Mandatory Palestine.
Last week’s 70th anniversary of the passing of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism and the Irgun, is an occasion to reflect on Jabotinsky’s little-known legacy of anti-racism.
Jabotinsky was arguably was the most controversial Zionist leader of his era. He was dismissed as an alarmist when he predicted European Jews would be engulfed by anti-Semitism. Socialist Zionists bristled at his preference for free market economics over Marxism. Because he promoted weapons training, he was denounced as a militarist. And because he believed the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state, he was branded a racist.
Those familiar with Jabotinsky’s writings knew those labels did not do him justice. He envisioned a Jewish state that would have a large Arab minority alongside its Jewish majority. Arabs would have full civil, political, and cultural rights, including representation in parliament, and both Arabic and Hebrew would be official languages. Moreover, he argued that if there was a Jewish prime minister, there should be a deputy Arab prime minister (and vice versa).
Jabotinsky also had more than a passing interest in the question of American race relations. Following a wave of race riots that erupted in the U.S. after black boxer Jack Johnson defeated his white opponent in 1910, Jabotinsky wrote (in the Russian periodical Odesskie Novosti): “In the United States, the most free republic on earth, there are ten million citizens suffering a shocking lack of rights simply because of the color of their skin.… The political rights of the ‘free and equal’ black citizen are non-existent.”
Ten years later, on a visit to the U.S., Jabotinsky witnessed a Ku Klux Klan march in Texas. It reinforced his disgust at racism in America. In a letter to a friend at the time, he wrote that both Jews and blacks in the U.S. would soon find it necessary to physically defend themselves against their enemies. So perhaps it should be not be surprising that officers of the Irgun stood up for black civil rights.
In early 1940, Jabotinsky sent a number of young Irgun officers from Europe and Palestine to the United States to mobilize American support for the rescue of Jewish refugees and creation of a Jewish state. Led by Hillel Kook, using the pseudonym Peter Bergson, they organized rallies, sponsored newspaper ads, lobbied in Washington and, in 1946, staged a Broadway play to rouse support for Zionism.
The play, called “A Flag is Born,” served a surprising role in the fight against racial segregation. Starring a young Marlon Brando, “Flag” had a successful 10-week run at Manhattan’s Alvin Theater (today the Neil Simon Theater) and then hit the road. A planned performance at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. in early 1947 was relocated to Baltimore’s Maryland Theater because the play’s author, Ben Hecht, would not permit his works to be staged at theaters, such as the National, that barred blacks.
When Hecht discovered that the Maryland Theater restricted blacks to the balcony, Bergson’s group and the NAACP teamed up to protest: The NAACP threatened to picket and a Bergson official announced he would bring two black friends to sit with him at the play. The management gave in, allowing black patrons to sit wherever they chose. NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” and used it facilitate the desegregation of other Baltimore theaters.
“I am proud,” Hecht declared in a statement afterward, “that my play has been the instrument to break down one of the most un-American and undemocratic practices that has disgraced our country.”
Meanwhile, Jabotinsky’s followers took an interest in the fight against racism in South Africa as well. Former Irgun commander Menachem Begin, leader of the opposition Herut Party, paid his first visit to South Africa in the autumn of 1953. Hertzel Katz, an Israeli attorney who was a leader of the local branch of the Revisionist youth movement Betar, recalls that Begin’s hosts arranged for a rickshaw, the customary form of local transportation, to take him to a speaking engagement.