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In Menachem Begin’s Rise, Lessons for the #Resistance to Trump

As the Israeli experience shows, denigrating a majority of voters while hysterically proclaiming the end of democracy is a recipe for political disaster

Liel Leibovitz
June 29, 2018
Photo: François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo: François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo: François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo: François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

No one saw him coming.

Certainly not the nation’s entrenched political class: To them, he was one part clown and one part petty tyrant. They mocked his hyperbolic way of speaking—to him, everything, from his supporters to his family, was very, very great, the best, the most—and warned that if he somehow got elected, it would be the end of democracy. But they didn’t really think he could win, so they continued to campaign at a leisurely pace and rely on the sycophantic media to present their candidate as inevitable.

He, on the other hand, campaigned furiously. Knowing that the press had it in for him, he set up a series of mass rallies all over the country. His fans came out in droves to see him. They were working class folks, and they felt that the elites had pushed them around for too long. In him, they found an unlikely messiah: He wasn’t of them, but he seemed to understand their frustrations and, most important, offer them some sort of nostalgic promise. He could make the nation great again.

Besides, the rallies were such good fun! He was funnier than anyone ever gave him credit for, and he mocked his political rivals mercilessly, commenting on their looks and ridiculing their weaknesses. Still, no one seemed too worried: There was no way, they thought, that Menachem Begin could really win the election.

But on May 17, 1977, he did, sending Israel’s upper crust into a tailspin. Anyone who wants to understand the current American political moment would do well to study Begin, who began his political life as a boogeyman and ended it as one of the greatest leaders in the nation’s history.

This is not to say that Begin and Donald Trump are interchangeable. Like every historical analogy, this one, too, has its limitations. Begin, unlike Trump, was an exceedingly polite man. When someone cracked a joke he found a tad too off-color, he would say, in his beautiful and archaic Hebrew, “this is not respectful and it is not the way we speak, not even in jest.” He was an educated and experienced leader, having spent three decades in the political wilderness, the long-suffering head of the perpetual opposition. And he was famous for his discomfort with earthly riches, keeping his small apartment in Tel Aviv and taking public transportation whenever possible. But he was also a populist whose rise convinced his opponents that the end of the world—or at least the end of their experiment with self-governance—was near, a mass hysteria well worth studying in America in 2018.

The despondency of the Israeli left began, as it did here, on election night. Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, a leader of the Labor Party that governed Israel from the state’s establishment in 1948 until Begin’s cataclysmic victory, told an interviewer shortly after the electoral upset was announced that he wasn’t willing to respect it, even if this was the will of the people.

He was one of the calm ones. In a column written a few years into Begin’s term as prime minister, Avraham Katz-Oz, another Labor politico, introduced what would soon become the left’s favorite term: fascism.

“There are, of course, these enlightened souls who say that such a thing could never happen here,” he wrote. “But by my estimate, it’s a clear and present danger.”

The dons of academia agreed. Professor Amnon Rubinstein, who received his doctorate from the London School of Economics, took to Haaretz saying that the apocalypse had already begun. “Is Israeli democracy in danger?” he asked. “In some respects the danger is already upon us. … The danger is that the anarchy and the violence will only get worse.” Without really bothering to specify why he considered a peaceful transition of power predicated on the clearly stated will of the majority of Israeli voters to be a deplorable state of anarchy, the professor warned that Israel now had to change its system of governance in a way that would keep future Begins out or face “a national catastrophe.”

Amusingly for those Israelis who knew a thing or two about their own history, many of these bien-pensants accused Begin of sins that he’d never committed but that their own leaders had. Nachum Passa, another Labor grandee, wrote a manifesto with the becalmed title “Watch Out! Fascism!,” in which he accused Begin and his supporters of “incitement and character assassination.” Never mind that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s—and Labor’s—founding father often referred to Begin’s mentor, Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler.” Never mind that a whole crop of intellectuals, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, published a letter in The New York Times in December 1948—as Israel was still fighting a bitter war against a slew of Arab armies trying to destroy it—accusing Begin’s Herut party of being “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Never mind that the left perpetually accused the right of being terribly violent, even when it was Ben-Gurion who had ordered—and Yitzhak Rabin who had executed—the attack on the Altalena, a ship carrying weapons and fighters for the Irgun, the pre-State underground fighting force led by Begin, killing 16. Violence, incitement, incivility—these were forever Begin’s faults, never those of his enlightened opponents.

Like Trump, Begin reveled in the political fight. Confronting his opponent, Shimon Peres, in Israel’s first televised debate, Begin was merciless, taunting his rival’s every statement and looking not at Peres but at the cameras, speaking straight to the millions watching him at home. Walking out of the studio and seeing the younger Peres remove his makeup, Begin stopped and said loud enough for Peres to hear, “Oh, look how pretty he is.”

The left took the bait. Instead of offering an alternative to Begin’s policies, they focused on his personality, and, increasingly, on the personalities of his supporters. In 1981, with Begin up for reelection, Labor recruited Dudu Topaz, then the country’s most popular stand-up comic, to warm up the crowd at its massive rally in Tel Aviv. “It’s a pleasure to see all these good people,” Topaz noted smugly on stage. “It’s good to see that there are no tchach-tchachim here to violently break up this rally.” The word was a loaded one that referred to young males of Mizrahi descent, darker-skinned Jews who hailed from Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East and who overwhelmingly voted for Begin. These Israelis, to Topaz, were cut from an inferior cloth, and he went on to denigrate them, arguing that they’re cowards who didn’t really serve in the army and liked Begin only because he was a chicken hawk like them. Begin responded by convening a rally of his own at the exact same spot a day later. He repeated Topaz’s racial slur, and then told his supporters of two Irgun warriors, Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, who killed themselves in their jail cell rather than be executed by the British police. “They fastened the grenade to their hearts,” Begin said emotionally, “and they pulled the pin. An Ashkenazi Jew? An Iraqi Jew? They were Jews! Brothers! Warriors!” Begin won reelection.

In his terms as prime minister, Begin was not above blunders, some of them, like the Lebanon war, catastrophic. But he also orchestrated the peace with Egypt, an unthinkable feat that had eluded his predecessors; made Israel’s economy stronger; built massive new housing projects for low-income Israelis; and bombed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Osirak. Not that the opposition stopped to give him much credit for any of these achievements: No sooner had Israel’s F-16s returned home from their momentous task than Peres and other Labor officials rushed to tell the foreign press that the bombing was a mistake and a needless provocation. Thankfully, not everyone agreed: Shortly after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm, U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney sent a gift to David Ivry, who had served as the commander of the Israeli Air Force at the time of the bombing. It was an aerial shot of the destroyed facility, with a note that read “For Gen. David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear programs in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”

Begin eventually resigned in 1983, and hardly left his apartment for the remaining nine years of his life. His opponents weren’t quite so retiring: In the 35 years since Begin’s departure from political life, they have continued to dismiss right-wing populists as Hitlers-in-waiting, and denigrate their supporters as unwashed, uneducated boobs. They have also continued to lose political power: A poll released earlier this year predicted that the Zionist Union, Labor’s new name, is slated to win only 12 seats in the upcoming elections, an all-time low. The #resistance to Trump should take note.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.