When Moshe Ya’alon resigned from the government, he first affirmed that “Israeli society is healthy, with a sane majority that strives for a Jewish, democratic and liberal state.”
Nevertheless, this honorable former Sayeret Matkal commando blasted “extremists and dangerous forces” in Israel – and his own Likud Party.
“This is not the Likud movement that I joined – the Likud of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin,” Ya’alon lamented.
In a world where history has become last week’s most forwarded YouTube cat video, in an Israel that reduces Zionist heroes to trivia questions on the high school matriculation exam, and with a proud party losing its “moral compass,” in Ya’alon’s words, we need to rediscover Jabotinsky and Begin. Only thus can we resurrect their important ideological and moral legacies for this critical time.
Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a fiery journalist, novelist, activist and poet, born in Odessa in 1880, who founded Revisionist Zionism. Menachem Begin was Jabotinsky’s ideological heir, born in Brest-Litovsk in 1913, the founder of the Likud Party and served as Likud’s first prime minister from 1977 to 1983. Often remembered as the Zionist right-winger, Jabotisnky is caricatured as authoritarian, anti-Arab, even totalitarian – with the ugly F-word, fascist, frequently added.
This attack misreads Jabotinsky’s liberal nationalism, which was democratic, freedom-oriented and individualistic, surprisingly respectful of Arab rights and Arab collective aspirations, while passionately nationalist.
Jabotinsky reconciled this seeming contradiction through two of his favorite metaphors – which were rather monarchical for a democrat – calling men “kings” and Jews “princes.” Echoing the sexism of his times, he taught: “The first consequence of ‘every man is a king’ is, obviously, universal equality: the essence of your or my royalty is that there cannot be anyone above you or me in dignity or status. The second consequence is individual liberty: a king is nobody’s subject.”
Jabotinsky believed that a people’s true character and culture flourished when they enjoyed sovereignty over their ancestral homeland. He envisioned the Jews’ reestablished kingdom as a modern liberal democracy, respecting individualism and minority rights.
In that spirit, Jabotinsky’s “prince” contrasts with Machiavelli’s more famous noble. Jabotinsky sought to unleash every Jew’s inner aristocrat, emphasizing the importance of being majestic, courtly, thoughtful, disciplined and moral. Central to this was “hadar,” roughly translated as glory or splendor. Jabotinsky wrote: “It combines various conceptions such as outward beauty, respect, self-esteem, politeness, faithfulness....our every step, gesture, word, action and thought must always be strictly executed from the hadar viewpoint.”
No human being is perfect, and no heir fully consistent. But when Jabotinsky died at the age of 59 in 1940, his movement found the ideal successor. Love him or hate him, Menachem Begin had hadar. Even when Israelis reveled in their sloppiness, he was always dressed in a jacket and tie, with a formal way of speaking.
Unlike today, when so many politicians siphon state funds to live in splendor, he gloried in his simplicity.
Today, visitors to the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem can see how he fulfilled his Jabotinskyite Zionist values, and, in one exhibit, how he lived a full life, despite humble living room furniture.
As an opposition leader for 29 frustrating years, and as prime minister, Begin remained a true Jabotinskyite, a committed liberal nationalist. In 1959, fighting the David Ben-Gurion regime’s perspective that rights are indulgences the state grants individuals, Begin insisted: “There are human rights that precede the human form of life called a state.” Even while advocating a tough military policy, he fought for equality. In 1962, trying to repeal the Emergency Regulations imposing martial rule on Israeli Arabs, he said: “In the Jewish State, there must be and will be equal rights for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, nation, or origin.” It took another four years for the Ben-Gurionites to agree.
As prime minister, Begin brought a princely nobility and democratic liberalism to the office. He launched his government in June 1977, proclaiming: “We must build a just Land of Israel, but we must also see to it that our nation is beautiful, honest and pure, imbued with respect for one another, law abiding and able to set a good example to others.” He added a warning relevant to today’s Likud: “The voters have put their trust in us, but we will not be arrogant.”
Begin continued supporting Israeli Arabs. He upheld the rule of law, even when he disagreed. When some cabinet members advocated ignoring a Supreme Court decision invalidating the settlement Begin advocated in Elon Moreh, he insisted that “the courts in Israel have made their decision and the government is obligated to honor and carry out whatever they decided.”
Begin believed that civilian rule trumped the military authority, and he would have been furious if a general ever made a sloppy Holocaust analogy on any day, let alone Holocaust Remembrance Day. Still, Begin’s Likud had hadar. Begin’s Likud championed equal rights.
Begin’ Likud did not abide an MK telling Arab MKs “We are doing you people a favor by even allowing you to be seated here.” Begin’s Likud respected free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly – even for opponents.
So Ya’alon is correct: the Likud must return to its liberal nationalist roots. The Likud must restore a sense of majesty and hadar. The Likud must remember Begin’s and Jabotinsky’s lessons – and the values they lived.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St.
Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is professor of history at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.