The great emancipator

The election of Menachem Begin on May 17, 1977 changed the nation and empowered Sephardi voters.

menachem begin 88 (photo credit: )
menachem begin 88
(photo credit: )
Every Israeli politician is familiar with the tipping point in Israel's political calendar: May 17, 1977. That was the day the Labor Party lost its grip on the nation's muscle. Rife with corruption and plagued with scandals, its ministers had grown flabby and arrogant, and there were bitter leadership feuds. For decades Labor had but one idea of government - to preserve in tact its absolute grip on power. Every major public establishment was its padlocked fiefdom. The Labor Party constituted the natural ruling class of Israel and the body and soul of its socialist rule. Its leaders governed from duty, heritage, and habit - and, as they saw it, from right. Laborites married into each other's families, supported each other, appointed each other, and kept outsiders outside. Climbing a career ladder was largely a matter of party allegiance, and the right connections - protekzia in the vernacular. Labor was designed and built as a dreadnought, an all big-gun political battleship that would rule Israel forever. But Labor was caught off guard by a submarine named Likud and captained by a man called Menachem Begin. Running silent, running deep, rising incrementally ever higher from election to election - it surfaced with a spectacular showing in the electoral battle of May 17 1977. AT ELEVEN o'clock that evening, I sat cross-legged in front of the television listening to the station's chief anchorman, Haim Yavin, repeating for the umpteenth time that, according to the TV's own unofficial exit poll, Menachem Begin had roundly trounced Labor's Shimon Peres. The screen showed the big hall at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv where hundreds of loyalists were swirling about in paroxysms of incredulity and ecstasy, all bellowing in a single voice, "Be-gin! Be-gin! Be-gin!" The din was so ear-battering that the jostled TV reporter on the floor gave up trying to describe what the clamor was about. Transfixed by the political theater filling the screen, I watched prime minister-elect Begin eventually enter the hall, his bespectacled, bony, and animated features lit by a dazzling smile as he moved into the shoe-stomping and raucous throng crushing in upon him on every side. And as he moved, the crammed assembly chorused his name ever louder: "Be-gin! Be-gin! Be-gin!" Anxious guards, stewards, aides, and policemen pushed and elbowed the adoring crowd, cutting a channel in the crush to let the victor through. He, inching his way toward the stage, waved with both hands high, and when he finally mounted the platform the entire jamboree exploded into the thumping, hand-clapping patriotic chant, "Am Yisrael hai" [The people of Israel lives]. His figure was all aglow in camera flashes, and he led the throng along, clapping his hands and bending his knees up and down to the rhythm of the beat like a Hassidic rabbi, rhapsodized. At this point the TV commentator bellowed to his viewers that Menachem Begin was 63, and he had been in the land 35 years. The singing and the shouting settled into a deep hush when the champion raised his palms for silence. And there he stood, isolated in the stillness, a slender, semi-bald, bespectacled, middle-sized, frail-looking figure in a dark suit, his eyes bright, and his face pale from a recent heart attack. With deep reverence, he drew from his pocket a black yarmulke and recited the famous shehecheyanu blessing, thanking the Almighty for enabling him to reach and celebrate this day. A resounding "Amen!" roared around the hall with such energy it caused the microphone to shriek in feed back. NOW BEGIN recited a Psalm of gratitude and, after that, his conciliatory victory address. As the applause swelled again, he turned toward his wife, Aliza, a petite woman in a homely gray suit, with springy gray hair and thick glasses, who all this while had been standing modestly at his shoulder. He embraced her with his eyes and in a voice husky with emotion told her of his eternal love and his everlasting debt towards her for the way she had stood by him through thick and thin, in unbounded devotion and sacrifice for 40 years. "I remember you, the kindness of your youth," he serenaded her, quoting the Prophet Jeremiah. "I remember you the love of your betrothal, when you followed me into the wilderness, into a land that was not sown." And then, paraphrasing, "I remember you when you followed me into a land that was strewn on every side with deadly minefields, and yet you followed me." These publicly expressed personal feelings stood in such sharp contrast to the famed emotional austerity of the outgoing prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, they caused the assembly to roar their esteem without restraint. Indeed, the clapping and the whistles went on for so long many, presumably, missed Begin's invocation of the memory of his "master and teacher," Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the charismatic nationalist intellectual and ideologue, founder of the Revisionist Zionist Movement, in whose footsteps he devoutly walked. ENDING WITH the promise to fulfill Jabotinsky's legacy, he bowed low and the whole assembly rose to chant the anthem. Whereupon, shielded once more by his cordon of security personnel and officials, Menachem Begin beamingly waved his way off the platform, shaking every palm he could reach, and kissing the knuckles of every woman who thrust her hand at him. Soon, the television camera shifted to the floodlit street outside which had been closed off to traffic. Loudspeakers blared patriotic music, and devotees milled around singing and dancing under blue and white paper bunting. Men and women of every sort and age were there, from teenagers to those bent-over, most of them olive-skinned. They originated from places like Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Kurdistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and India. Commentators would later explain it was they, these immigrants, who had catapulted Menachem Begin into power after almost 30 years in the political wilderness. They were mainly the impoverished and God-fearing Sephardic Jews who, having felt left out and passed by, and fed up of slum life and handouts, had flexed their muscles, put their energy behind Begin, and settled their score with the paternalistic and elitist European Labor old-timers of whom Shimon Peres was the epitome. "Why did you vote for Begin?" asked a TV man who was surrounded by a group of swarthy enthusiasts. "What makes him so different from Peres? Both are from Poland. Is not Begin as Ashkenazi as Peres?" "Ashke-NAZI!" somebody yelled off-camera. "Shtok!" [Shut up!] hollered a man with the sloped shoulders of a boxer, dressed in a waiter's jacket. "You want to know why we voted Begin? We voted Begin because he's not a godless socialist like Peres and his lot. Begin never lined his pockets. He's humble and honest. Begin speaks like a Jew, the way a Jew should speak. He's not ashamed to say 'God.' He speaks with a Jewish heart. That's why Labor always ridiculed him, and treated him the way they always treated us - like scum." "Are you saying that Peres and his crowd are not really Jews?" asked the interviewer provocatively. The man spat. There was contempt in his eyes. "They may be Jews, but they behave like goyim. Have you ever seen one of them inside a synagogue? What's a Jew without a beit knesset? Where's their self-respect, their pride?" "Ya, habibi," cut in someone else, sporting a thick crown of greased black hair, and also wearing a waiter's jacket. "Those Labor bigwigs duped us. They brought us here telling us this was the Geula, the Redemption. Cheap labor, that's what they brought us here for. In Casablanca my father was an honored member of the community. He was the patriarch of our family. He had kavod - respect." "KAVOD!!" the crowd chorused in corroboration. "Everybody gave him kavod because he ran his own spice shop in the Casbah. Now what does he do? He breaks his back on a building site. Who's going to give him kavod now? In Morocco only Arabs work on building sites. His kavod has been stolen." Heads nodded in substantiation. "What's your name?" asked the interviewer. "Marcel." "So tell us Marcel, what did you do in Casablanca?" "I was a bookkeeper. That's an occupation of kavod. Now I'm a waiter. In Morocco only Arabs are waiters. My kavod has been trampled upon. Menachem Begin has given me back my kavod." He said this in such a triumphant tone that his companions burst forth into a rousing sing-song, chanting at the tops of their voices, "Begin, melech Yisrael" [Begin King of Israel.] SO YES, what was for them a field day was to the shocked, defeated Laborites, an angst day. Like Rachel, they mourned for their children and would not be comforted. They drew up petitions, held meetings, organized protests, made speeches, wrote articles, convened conferences, and made provision for a new socialism that never ever arose. He, Begin, the Jew from Warsaw, without sycophancy, or pretense, or obsequiousness, opened his Likud Party's gates to the Eastern Jews, won their hearts, and earned their trust. After decades of being preached to somebody, at last, was listening to them. Thus it was that these outcasts of the socialist establishment dumped the heirs of the nation's founders, slipped the national anchor from its familiar moorings, and pushed off on an untutored course into uncharted waters, with Menachem Begin at the helm. Under his watch the high walls of arrogance, sectarianism, and paternalism which had irrevocably separated Jew from Jew since Israel's inception were torn down. He, the great emancipator, had an almost mystical appeal 30 years ago. In contrast to the scandal-ridden Labor, he pulled in voters of every hue, not least because his integrity shone through with such transparency that even his opponents had to acknowledge his modest, almost monastic life-style and strict personal honesty. This is what made the man. Let every Knesset member lacking in integrity, intellect, honor, and training for the job, falling back of necessity on favorites, sycophants, whim, mulishness, spin, and other devices of the unprincipled occupant in the corridors of power remember the lesson of the election of 1977. The writer was on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.