In last week’s column, I discussed the lessons Israel’s far right ought to learn from Menachem Begin. But the left is no less in need of Begin’s wisdom today – and once again, the Altalena incident shows why.
A brief recap: The Altalena was an arms ship belonging to the Irgun, Begin’s pre-state underground. It reached Israel in June 1948, a month after statehood was declared, and David Ben-Gurion, who headed the provisional government, ordered the arms transferred to the government unconditionally (Begin had been holding out for input on where they were sent). When Begin refused, Ben-Gurion – in a move subsequently credited with establishing the principle of the government’s monopoly over armed force – ordered the ship shelled. Survivors reported being shot at, even after they fled the burning ship and were helpless in the water. Sixteen were killed, and Irgunists begged Begin to authorize revenge attacks.
But Begin refused. However viciously Ben-Gurion’s government had acted, or might yet act, nothing, as he wrote in his memoir, The Revolt, could be as bad as a “fratricidal war” that would “destroy the Jewish state before it was properly born.”
After 2,000 years of exile, Begin understood that any Jewish state was better than none, and that civil war would be its death knell – a lesson, as I noted last week, amply proven by Jewish history, but that right-wing hooligans clearly haven’t learned: Their irresponsible attacks on Israel Defense Forces soldiers could easily spark an escalating cycle of fratricidal violence.
Yet it seems leftists haven’t learned it either, judging by how easily they advocate civil war – something you almost never hear rightists doing. For the more people talk of civil war as a reasonable option, the more likely it is to someday come to pass.
It’s bad enough coming from the radical leftists of Haaretz, who have been urging civil war against the settlers for years now. But it’s truly frightening when it spreads to the mainstream, moderate left – like former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), who last month said, unblushingly, that IDF soldiers should have opened fire on stone-throwing right-wing extremists. Or Jerusalem Post contributor Daniel Gordis, who equally unblushingly urged the government last month to deal with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox extremists the way Ben-Gurion dealt with the Altalena – in other words, to shoot them.
As I’ve written repeatedly, I’m all in favor of arresting, trying and jailing both right-wing and ultra-Orthodox extremists. But that’s a far cry from shooting them.
Indeed, most leftists would be appalled at the suggestion that soldiers shoot Palestinians engaged in non-life-threatening hooliganism; they would correctly insist on sticking to routine law enforcement techniques. Yet they unabashedly advocate the use of live fire to suppress Jewish hooliganism, even though most of the vandalism, arson and rioting to date, while outrageous, hasn’t been life-threatening. Are Jewish lives worth less to them than Palestinian lives? Has it not occurred to them that opening fire in such circumstances could easily drive the extremists to retaliate with far worse violence, since these hooligans don’t have a Begin to restrain them? Or have they simply not grasped Begin’s key insight: that civil war is always the worst option?
But that isn’t the only lesson the left needs to learn from Begin. Equally instructive was his behavior after the Altalena bloodbath: Instead of saying “if this is the kind of Jewish state we’re going to have, I want no part of it,” he sent Irgun troops into the thick of the fighting in the War of Independence and then spent three decades serving as the government’s loyal opposition, patiently using the tools of democratic politics to try to bring Israelis around to his views. This effort finally paid off only in 1977, with his election as prime minister.
But too many on the left aren’t willing to work patiently to get their views accepted. They present their fellow Israelis with an ultimatum: Accept our dictates as to how the Jewish state should look, or we’re all going to jump ship.
Gordis made this threat implicitly when he said that many Israelis prefer to “live in America because what’s unfolding in Israel is so thoroughly unappealing to them.” Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, another moderate leftist, has repeatedly made it explicitly. In June, for instance, he declared that the left’s willingness to fight in Israel’s defense depended on the government’s willingness to accept its policies on the peace process. In November, he went even farther, declaring that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t kill various bills opposed by the left, then left-wing scientists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs would all emigrate: “That elite will simply not be here. It will hand over the keys to the Putinists, the Shas party and the settlers, and leave them to enjoy one another's company.”
This brings us back to Begin’s insight that any Jewish state is better than none. First, this is because, even if Israel were as “illiberal,” “medieval” and “undemocratic” as its leftist critics claim (which I don’t for a moment accept), it would still fulfill functions that moderate leftists like Gordis and Shavit deem important. For instance, Israel still offers sanctuary should any Jewish community worldwide ever need it – a role no other state, even friendly America, can be counted on to play (if you doubt it, just look at how America closed its doors to Iraqis who helped it during the Iraq War).
Secondly, however, no country is immune to going through bad patches; look at the current woes in “enlightened” America and Europe. The question is how its citizens respond: by saying “my way or the highway,” or by engaging in long-term political efforts to make things better. The latter option is obviously preferable for any country, but it’s particularly vital for the Jewish state.
Because as long as the state exists, so does the possibility of reforming it, assuming opponents of its current policies are willing to invest the time and effort that Begin did. But if we abandon this Jewish state out of disgust with its flaws, we may well have to wait another 2,000 years to try again.
The writer is a journalist and commentator. She is currently a JINSA Visiting Fellow.