The Hebrew word for appalling, “meza’azeya,” is brilliant example of onomatopoeia – a word whose sound captures its meaning. Meza’azeya conveys the disgrace of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, jailed for corruption. It is appalling that this prince of Israel, this Jewish leader, peddled his position.
It is shocking that a man still important enough to have around the clock security is now in 24-hour lockup. It is disgusting that he still protests his innocence, seeing himself as a martyr, combining the “everybody does it” defense with the self-important, grabby,“magiya li” I-deserve-it-all defense.
Seeing that no Israeli is above the law, and that Israeli democracy cherishes the rule of law, offers minimal solace. Those principles are so embedded in Israel’s governmental bedrock that rejoicing is like congratulating a person for breathing.
As a proud Zionist, I find Olmert’s fall particularly galling. Consider the modesty of the two founders and ideological opposites David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. To exorcise Olmert’s sloppiness, within the next year we should all visit Ben-Gurion’s modest hut in Sde Boker, and examine the simple furniture displayed from Begin’s living room in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. We need leaders embodying our people’s highest values, not selling themselves to the highest bidder.
Olmert’s pedigree heightens the tragedy, and stirs fears of a generation’s degeneration. His father Mordechai served in the Knesset, as a Begin ally and a devotee of the great Liberal Democratic Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Olmert grew up in the Betar movement, imbibing Jabotinsky’s notion of “Hadar,” inner glory, emphasizing the princely way we should behave.
“Every word of yours must be a ‘word of honor,’ and the latter is mightier than steel,” Jabotinsky preached in his letter to Betar cadets that Olmert probably memorized when young. “A time must eventually arrive, when a Jew desiring to express his highest appreciation of human honesty, courtesy and esteem will not say, as now: ‘He is a real gentleman!’ but ‘He is a real Betari!” (Sadly, today, Betar is most associated with soccer hooliganism).
Just hours after Olmert dishonored his family’s Jabotinskyite ideals, the Begin Center in Jerusalem championed those values, emphasizing their relevance today.
Yediot Aharanot columnist and head of the Institute for Zionist Strategies Dr. Yoaz Hendel launched his latest book, in Hebrew: In a Land That Was Not Sown: An Israeli Journal, before an overflow audience, including President Reuven Rivlin.
Rivlin, the anti-Olmert embodying Jabotinskyism, emphasized the true Israeli Right’s liberal values. Yes, that is no typo. A classic liberal, Rivlin perpetuates the Jabotinsky-Begin message cherishing a strong, multi-dimensional liberal democracy, which respects minority rights, the right to dissent, freedom of speech, not just majority rule. Quoting Jabotinsky’s phrase, “in the beginning, God created the individual,” Rivlin resisted falling into today’s lazy polarities. He emphasized that just as the Israeli Right can be liberal, and our Jewish state can be democratic, a healthy society needs robust individualism and proud nationalism in balance, brimming with tension. Hyper-nationalism squelching individualism becomes fascism; hyper-individualism undermining nationalism becomes nihilism (see Olmert, Ehud, above).
In a classy follow-up, the Begin Center’s director, Herzl Makov, mocked the hysterical and premature lamentations over the death of Israeli democracy.
“Maybe Israeli democracy is not in such a crisis,” he quipped, detailing its vitality, including how one prominent leftist appeared in a rightist journal to cry about Israeli democracy. Makov recalled the joke about the Soviet Jewish immigrants who years ago kept crying about the terrible conditions in Israel. When asked “why don’t you return to Russia,” they replied, “because there, we’re not allowed to cry.”
The evening’s star, 40-year-old Yoaz Hendel, reading from his book, celebrated Israel’s remarkable equilibrium amid all its contrasting impulses.
“Zionism is a story of balance,” he argues (with my translation): “History harmonizes with the present; the pioneers with the bourgeoisie; the Jewish with the democratic; the blooming desert with the high-tech miracle; the existential war with some Arabs amid coexistence with others; the ideological with the pragmatic; messianic longings with political weaseling.” He admits, “My Israel is not perfect,” but “there is no other country that speaks as much about values,” including in the impressively ethical Israeli army, where Hendel and his buddies have served honorably.
A realist, Hendel understands that the Arab threat will loom unless the Arabs democratize. Nevertheless, while facing the ugly messes encircling it, Israel must continue its modern, post-1948 Zionist mission to “create an exemplary society, mainstream the marginal, and be an Am Segulah.” The concluding phrase, in a nice touch, originated with Moses but was beloved by David Ben-Gurion, who once vainly looked for “an adequate translation” for the phrase, only to render it wordily as “The Jews must be a unique nation in that they should embody the higher virtues.” This notion, Ben-Gurion taught, entailed an “extra burden, an added responsibility to perform with a virtue born of conscience.”
Tragically, Olmert – and too many others, both his new cellmates and others who should join them – forgot those lessons, dismissing them as mere words.
Others in the Knesset and elsewhere, though not corrupt, have forgotten the Jabotinsky-Begin teaching that democracy is more than the majority ramming its ideas down others’ throats. Fortunately, then and now, we have voices, Left and Right, committed to keeping Israel as a values nation, a model Jewish democratic nation, even while fighting about what exactly that means. The more we debate these questions constructively, civilly, the more noble we will be, the more Hadar, glory we will bring to our Am Segulah, our virtuous nation, fulfilling the Big Tent Zionist vision that spans from Jabotinsky and Begin to Ben-Gurion.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.