The hoopla – and anxiety – building toward the Six Day War’s fiftieth anniversary has upstaged another Israeli milestone: the fortieth anniversary of the “Mahapach,” the reversal, Menachem Begin’s electoral upset on May 17, 1977, after 29 years in opposition.
While ending the Labor Party’s dominance since 1948, Begin’s rise revolutionized American Jewry’s relationship to Israel too. The Six Day War roller-coaster – May 1967’s traumatic fears followed by June’s postwar euphoria – transformed Israel into American Jews’ fantasy-land. Israel’s rightward shift a decade later made Israel seem strange again, even vaguely embarrassing.
In May 1967, Arab threats of another Holocaust unleashed unexpectedly deep American Jewish feelings about Israel.
The theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel would explain that American Jewry had taken the miracle of Israel for granted since 1948. “We saw the [Tel Aviv] Hilton and forgot Tel Hai,” he wrote, delighting in the achievements, neglecting the sacrifices.
After June 1967, American Jews discovered an equally astonishing love for the land of Israel, not just the state.
Jerusalem’s reunification had Jews celebrating the liberation of a city they had never visited and a Wall whose absence they barely noticed. The Israel American Jews embraced was the Israel of Jerusalem of Gold and Golda Meir; of evil – if impotent – Arab enemies and of heroic – but humane – Moshe Dayan-like sabra soldiers. It was an Israel that confronted the Jews’ worst fear, annihilation – and emerged alive, victorious, nearly three times larger.
But despite its power, this Israel had values too, singing wistful hymns of peace, not bellowing lusty victory whoops. This Israel was an American Jewish liberal fantasy.
It was tough enough to woo World War II veterans and survive Arab onslaughts, soft enough to charm their hippie kids with a socialism American Jews worshiped from afar but never wanted to endure.
A decade later, reactions to Begin’s rise were subdued.
American Jewish support surged for Begin after Time introduced him as Begin-rhymes-with-Fagin, Charles Dickens’ antisemitic character; after president Jimmy Carter’s prickly approach to Israel’s new premier; and after Begin the right-winger made peace with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.
Still, American Jews – particularly American Jewish liberals – lost their storybook Israel, their summer camp Israel, what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman would call “your grandfather’s Israel.”
Although courtly, urbane and eloquent, Begin had an Old Testament fury that dismissed New World illusions, making many squirm. He was an Old Jew, not a New Jew, not one of those sexy sabra-soldiers of ’67 and ‘73 who won wars, not arguments. His Israel was one of settlements, not kibbutzim, of Mizrahim not Ashkenazim, of capitalists not socialists, of Right not Left.
The shift operated on at least four levels. First, considering the periodic dust-ups between America and Israel before 1977 – culminating with the harsh Gerald Ford-Henry Kissinger “reassessment” of March 1975, freezing government contacts with Israelis to pressure them diplomatically – further clashes were inevitable. But the narratives were changing. Increasingly liberal and secular American Jews faced increasingly conservative and traditional Israelis. Therefore, tensions that might have been dismissed as blips amid exaggerated assumptions that Israel-the-liberal-utopia could do no wrong, now proved that Israel-the-newly-conservative-alien, knocked off its pedestal, could do no right.
Finally, I regret to note, the tensions transcended diplomacy and ideology. The overwhelmingly white, Ashkenazi upper middle class – or upper middle class wannabe – American Jewish community harbored class and ethnic disdain for Begin’s rougher, gruffer – and yes, poorer and darker – Israel. I remember American Jewish leaders, liberal professors I admired, sighing, shuddering, admitting, in those less politically correct times, that “those people” were not “our kind of Israeli.”
Israeli comedian Dudu Topaz expressed this prejudice, most infamously, during a June 1981 election rally. Topaz contrasted his “beautiful Israel” with Begin’s “tchachtchachim,” an epithet stereotyping Mizrahim, Jews from Arab lands, as hooligans. The next night, speaking from that same spot, Begin, proudly unhip, pronounced the word awkwardly, as if it were a disease one could catch through mere utterance. Begin had never heard the term before, explaining he only knew the unity of all Israel when fighting for freedom together.
Four decades later, on one level, the political, ideological and sociological rupture has grown. As in any relationship – especially among different groups – prejudices creep in. When American Jewish liberals yearn for “our grandfather’s Israel,” I cringe. Their grandfather’s Israel sent Mizrahim to third-rate development towns and gave Israeli Arabs second-class citizenship status. Today’s Israel – with all its faults – is much more enlightened and appealing. I hear the fractured fairy tale in their false nostalgia – and smell the bigotry.
Given these differences – consistent American Jewish support for Israel hovering around 70% is the true miracle.
There have been bonding moments too, including 9/11 when Americans and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, united against terrorist evil. There have been ongoing communal glue guns – like Masa and Taglit-Birthright Israel. By introducing young Israelis and American Jews to one another, these programs help members of both communities learn from each other and build living bridges.
As in any family, our relationship is deep enough to avoid divorcing every time we bicker. Loyalty doesn’t require uniformity, merely a capacity to respect difference.
We also need enough vision to see past the smaller deviations that divide us while appreciating the common needs, values and challenges that unite us.
Menachem Begin, the Polish Jew beloved by Mizrahim because he loved the Jewish People, had it – do we? The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.