You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Revisionist in Power

An old Labor Zionist renews her disenchantment with Menachem Begin.

Recently a number of commentators, friendly and otherwise, have been urging American Jews to express their dissatisfaction with the policies of the Begin government. Ideological and political debate flourishes in democratic Israel, so why is the “Jewish establishment” in the United States less vocal, in fact supinely acquiescent? I. F. Stone, though hardly lacking forums for expressing his views, disingenuously mourns the failure of American rabbis to invite him to expound his familiar pro-Arab stance to their congregations. Counsel to speak up comes from those whose concern for Israel is credible as well as from those whose motives are suspect. 

Old Labor Zionists like myself cannot pretend to enthusiasm for either the domestic or the foreign policies of Begin. At the same time I am repelled by the cynical pro-Arab tilt of the Carter administration and the readiness of Israel’s active foes to shed crocodile tears over her intransigence. I find the hosannahs that greeted Sadat as a messenger of peace excessive, especially since the frequent repeated public offers by Israeli leaders to travel to Cairo or Damascus for face-to-face negotiations evoked no such genuflections. Admittedly, Sadat’s dramatic gesture, the right of Israel to exist, was from the Arab point of view substantive. But Israel could hardly be overwhelmed with gratitude for this sole, if significant, contribution to the peacemaking process. What mattered were the terms of this existence and in this regard Sadat presented the total roster of Arab demands. When the smoke cleared, a polite, adamant Sadat had encountered a soulful, rigid Begin; on some points Begin actually proved unexpectedly flexible. Sadat rapidly grew less polite at the failure of instant capitulation. 

All this acts as a powerful inhibition on those who disagree with Begin yet do not wish to signify agreement with the similarly intractable Sadat. Furthermore there is the danger that any Zionist opposition to the present government will be exploited by the anti-Israel cabal to undermine Israel’s position with the American administration. Despite this dilemma, I venture some observations. 

In the past the Zionist and Jewish consensus in support of Israel rested, first, on deeply felt belief in the absolute justice of Israel’s cause; and, secondly, on confidence in the relative justice and good sense of Israel’s proposed solutions for the Arab-Israel conflict, even though the Arabs vehemently rejected the compromises offered by the moderate Labor government. Now this consensus is being shaken regarding one issue—Begin’s obdurate stand on the future of the West Bank. Anyone present at the recent Zionist Congress in Jerusalem would have discovered that delegates from all parts of the world were far from giving blanket approval to Begin’s settlement policies. Diaspora Jews were as vocal as Israeli citizens in challenging the government position. Almost half the Zionists present—including a large representation of Americans drawn from such various Zionist parties in the United States as Hadassah and Arzah (reform rabbis) as well as Labor and Mapam—supported a demand for a settlement policy that would preserve “the Jewish and democratic character” of the state and take the peace negotiations into account. This meant that a large sector of organized American Jewry went publicly on record against the incorporation of the West Bank with its million Arabs into the Jewish state, and in favor of territorial compromises for the sake of peace.

It should be noted that the months since Labor’s defeat in the Israeli elections have proven instructive. At first even some liberal Zionists, normally opposed to the Rightist Likud, tended to view the change of governments as therapeutic. Disenchanted with Labor’s long tenure and recent demerits, many hailed change itself as a positive achievement. Begin’s social and political views were well-known, but comfort was sought in contradictory truisms: a strong leader can afford to be yielding; while pseudo-doves flutter helplessly, an unequivocal hawk will make adversaries talk turkey; a fresh broom sweeps clean; give a man a chance. In a climate skeptical of all professions of faith, public opinion found it hard to take Begin at his word or to respect him for what he was: an individual with simple, stubborn beliefs and a fanatical readiness for their execution. Integrity was mistaken for opportunism—so creating a situation baffling to the real-politikers. The brief warmth created by Sadat’s visit also impelled a suspension of disbelief; perhaps the unlikely Begin would net the peace that had eluded Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.

By now the warm mist has dissipated enough for American Zionists to report what they see. Whether Sadat will accept any proposal short of total withdrawal is questionable. But if there is to be any hope for peace, then Begin’s fixation on the sacred historic right of the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the West Bank, should be removed. Paradoxically, Begin is much readier for territorial concessions in other areas. All previous Israeli peace plans stressed the need for security zones in unpopulated or barely populated border regions. 

To blur his tough image. Begin has tried to create the impression that his settlement policy was merely a continuation of that of the former government: he was straightforwardly enacting what the Labor government had deviously planned with a bit of dovish camouflage. This is hardly accurate. Moshe Dayan, who was Minister of Defense in Mrs. Meir’s government and surprisingly emerged as Begin’s foreign minister, has plainly stated the difference: “For ten years, between 1967 and 1977, the government of Israel was committed to territorial concessions in return for genuine peace and this implied redivision of the area. Now our view is that redivision is not the answer.” Here is certainly an authoritative assessment of a difference in ultimate goals, A resolution passed by the Labor Government on July 21,1974 underlines the distinction: “The peace will be founded on the existence of two independent states—Israel with united Jerusalem as its capital, and a Jordanian-Palestinian Arab state east of Israel, within borders to be determined between Israel and Jordan.” Granted the terminology is vague. An Arab state “east” of Israel allows considerable latitude for negotiation. But while excluding a PLO state, the wording concedes substantial withdrawal from the West Bank, possibly along the lines of the Allon Plan, which called for Israeli withdrawal from heavily populated areas while retaining military supervision of strategic points along the Jordan. At any rate this program is a far cry from the current insistence on Judea and Samaria as an unalienable part of the Jewish national heritage. 

The irritating sophistry of Begin’s dictum that Resolution 242 does not apply to the West Bank represents another sharp divergence from previous Israeli interpretations of this much debated resolution. Despite the deliberate omission of the crucial the—the resolution calls for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, not from the territories—the Labor government never pretended that its interpretation completely excluded the West Bank, But here again complications appear. Once Resolution 242 becomes an issue, its other features should be stressed—such as the assurance of “secure and recognized borders,” It also should be noted that the resolution calls for a “just settlement of the refugee problem,” with no mention of Palestinians or a Palestinian state. On these grounds it is rejected by the PLO. The phrasing of the resolution reminds us that as recently as 1967, when the Security Council adopted the resolution, its members failed to specify Palestinians, not out of regard for Israeli wishes but because there were no Palestinians to mention. The 1967 debate centered on the Arab refugee problem. There were 600,000 refugees (and their descendants) who had joined the exodus from Israel in the wake of the Arab attack on the new state in 1948. How the Arab states systematically prevented the absorption of the refugees so as to turn their plight into the “dynamite” with which to destroy Israel is an old story. Arab leaders originally opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East on the grounds that there was no such country as Palestine. In 1956 Ahmed Shukairy, subsequently head of the PLO, declared to the UN Security Council, “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria.” But then, in a further refinement of their strategy, these same leaders transformed the refugee problem into one of a newly hatched Palestinian nationalism. The strategic nature of this move in an era of emergent nationalisms in no way detracts from the present military reality of the passions so fomented, but it does suggest that Israel’s refusal to countenance a PLO state on its borders does not arise from an unimaginative disregard of the national longings of a disinherited people. 

Still another aspect of the Begin settlement policy gives cause for concern. Spokesmen of the kibbutz movement have charged that because of Begin’s infatuation with Greater Israel, funds and manpower are being diverted for settlements in Judea and Samaria in preference to establishing new agricultural settlements within Israel in Galilee, the Negev or the Dead Sea region. In Galilee, for example, there has been a dramatic increase in Arab population due to a high birth rate, and simultaneous Jewish drift toward the towns. To preserve the original Zionist vision of a cooperative society built by Jewish labor, pioneering idealism should be expended on new kibbutzim in Galilee or the Negev. Yet Musa Harif, secretary of the largest kibbutz federation in the country, has charged that Minister of Agriculture Sharon discriminates against cooperative settlements inside the “Green Line” (the pre-1967 borders) in favor of those being established in the occupied territories. 

Quite apart from the folly of jeopardizing fragile negotiations by the demonstrative establishment of new settlements during a sensitive period, this change in priorities poses a threat to the character of Israel. Because the Israeli Arabs are multiplying much faster than Israeli Jews, demographic projections envisage the possibility of Jews becoming a minority in vital parts of the small Jewish state. The settlement policy of the Likud party seems bent on increasing this risk. The precarious demographic balance should be rectified through emphasis on underpopulated areas within Israel, And there is an ethical consideration as well. The redemption of the Jewish homeland through the toil of Jewish workers has been a central tenet of Zionism since earliest pioneering days. Under present circumstances I doubt whether a large reservoir of Arab labor from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been an unmixed boon for Israel, whatever the economic advantages enjoyed by the Arab workers. A greater dependence on Arab labor lessens the participation of Jewish labor in all phases of national reconstruction. This is a treacherous argument. Reluctance to employ Arab labor will be damned as Jewish exclusiveness (I am not referring to Israeli Arabs); hiring non-Israeli Arabs, on the other hand, even at the same wage rates as Jewish labor, is strictured as colonial exploitation. If the West Bank were to become part of Israel, no equitable controls could be devised to prevent participation of its population in the Israeli work force or against the temptation of the Jewish sector to depend upon it. Such a development, like a demographic shift, would fundamentally compromise the moral assumptions of the Jewish state. 

That the Begin government challenges these assumptions is no accident of personality. Begin, a disciple of Jabotinski, founder of the rightist Zionist revisionists, has not wavered in his allegiance to the original doctrine, though he has become more circumspect in expressing it. Now that he’s in the saddle, both the policies Begin advocates and his modus operandi reflect, less flamboyantly than in the past, the fundamental revisionist credo. From the outset, revisionism was characterized by an enchantment with maximalist slogans, dramatic gestures and an amazing disregard for the realistic consequences of what they advocated. When Great Britain began whittling away at the substance of the mandate, revisionist response was to clamor for “a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan.” In 1930, the revisionist leadership soberly proposed a “pause” in settlement and in the raising of Zionist funds. The “pause”—which would have meant the voluntary demise of Zionism—presumably was supposed to force an intimidated Great Britain to capitulate. This naive faith in the magic properties of declamation and demonstrations was viewed by its proponents as political Zionism, in contrast to the less spectacular day-by-day work of purchasing and reclaiming tracts of barren land. The revisionist record is studded with such self-deluding proposals offered in fulfillment of what Jabotinski described as the greatest principle of political struggle: “Never take no for an answer.” 

But the differences between labor Zionism and revisionism never were merely tactical; they sprang from antithetical ideologies. Socialist pioneers came to Palestine inspired by the dream of creating a cooperative society through peaceful settlement. Revisionism fought the concept of a worker society and the “gradualism” of the settlers. Proclaiming themselves as nationalists opposed to “the class struggle while a state is being built” and to costly “utopian experiments,” revisionists set themselves the task of “breaking” organized labor. In a notorious 1932 article, Jabotinski magniloquently sanctioned strikebreaking. “I removed the stigma attached to the expression ‘strike-breaking’ in Palestine.” His followers did their utmost to destroy the developing labor movement, and their failure did not diminish their zeal. Yet kibbush ha-avodah—the determination that Jewish labor should build the Jewish homeland, so that no charge that Jewish independence had been achieved by proxy could ever be raised—was one of the sanctities of pioneer Palestine. Also, the settlers as socialists believed that the peaceful reclamation of uninhabited marsh and desert within the area designated as the Jewish homeland constituted an even firmer moral title than international agreements. They proved to be right, for the eventual partition resolution, though further reducing the scope of the already amputated Jewish state, by and large followed the area of actual Jewish settlement. But in the critical pre-state period, revisionists made no secret of their disdain for “practical” work. Of 231 agricultural settlements established by various Zionist groups before the state, only one was revisionist. While unmartial farmers plowed fields in Palestine, revisionist youth groups strutted in uniforms and military regalia in Poland. 

On the question of resistance, too, there was a wide cleavage between the authorities of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, and the revisionists. During Arab attacks on the settlements in the 1930s, the Haganah, the peoples army largely recruited from the kibbutzim, adopted the policy of havlagah (self restraint). This called for self-defense but not indiscriminatory reprisal, a policy adopted on moral grounds and in the stubborn hope of peaceful coexistence. Naturally the lrgun, the smaller underground of the revisionists, excoriated havlagah as pusillanimous. In the 1940s, during the struggle against the British, the ideological clash between the Haganah and the lrgun intensified. The Haganah opposed wanton terror. Its military encounters with the British specifically involved attempts to bring in “illegal” refugees from the Nazis, and to establish new settlements on land purchased by the Jewish national fund. Again the reasons for this course were ethical as well as tactical. 

The metamorphosis of the romantic enthusiasts of havlagah into a formidable Israeli army is one of the ironies of history, resulting from the invasion of Israel by the Arab states. On the other hand, after the creation of the state, the revisionist Herut as a party in opposition became more temperate. But since Begin has come to power, it is obvious that the original intoxication with maximalist rhetoric remains. So does the ideological antagonism to organized labor and the kibbutzim. So does the readiness to indulge in provocative acts—such as General Sharon’s new outposts in the Sinai, just approved by Begin and his cabinet. 

In Israel, opposition to Begin, at first muted, is becoming louder. Labor spokesmen, long disciplined by the responsibility of power, uneasy in the unaccustomed role of loyal opposition, showed themselves less forthright and challenging than anticipated, though Allon and Eban voiced criticism. Now the reluctance is ending. In a debate in the Knesset on Begin’s policy, Shimon Peres focused on the sticking point: “Without a readiness to compromise on Judea and Samaria there will be no peace,” Opposition is likely to intensify. Recent demonstrations by army veterans, rallying to the slogan, “peace is more important than Greater Israel,” testify to this. 

At the same time a caveat is in order. Sentiment in Israel is for reasonable compromise, not suicidal retreat. Few would favor total withdrawal to the vulnerable 1967 borders which invited Arab aggression in the past. The same applies for those American Zionists who distrust Begin’s course. Any attempt by the Carter administration to sacrifice Israel to oil and petrobillions would swiftly rally the “establishment” around the government of Israel. 

This means that distinctions must be drawn between border settlements in Sinai and the Golan Heights, and those on the populated West Bank, It is hard to oppose settlements in the Rafia sector—a strip along the Mediterranean in the Sinai—developed by the Labor government as a buffer zone on the classic invasion route along which Egyptian armies have periodically marched to attack Israel. The fortified ridge of the Golan Heights also presents an acute security problem. Until its capture in 1967, this series of military bunkers was used by the Syrians exclusively for the shelling of kibbutzim directly below. The kibbutzim understandably decline again to be sitting ducks for Syrian artillery. After the town of Kuneitra was returned to Syria, the problem became one of sparsely inhabited territory whose primary function was to facilitate Syrian harassment of cooperative settlements in Galilee. Meaningful peace negotiations can no more ignore the experience of 1948,1967 and 1973 than they can ignore the existence of an Arab population on the West Bank. No mechanical formula asserting the righteousness of total withdrawal makes sense either politically or morally. Begin can bolster his romantic assertion of divine right to Judea and Samaria with cold secular documentation of a legal claim on the grounds that the West Bank was originally designated as part of the Jewish homeland by the terms of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate. But such claims  turn hollow in the light of present demographic realities. So do Arab demands for sovereignty over every grain of Sinai sand and every Golan stone. History more recent than the era of Biblical glory imposes its lessons on Arab as well as Jew. 

Zionists who oppose Begin do so for both pragmatic and high-minded reasons. Concern for the rectitude as well as viability of Israel is integral to Zionism. Nevertheless, the world’s insistence on judging the Jewish state by criteria applied to no other country adds a disturbing rather than flattering complication. Millions of refugees, sheltered in no UNRA housing among sympathetic brethren, still wander over Asia and Africa, Soviet Russia, spearhead of the anti-Israel coalition, displays no qualms about its swallowing of large slices of conquered Eastern Europe. Fratricidal and tribal wars rend the Third World. Yet if a visitor from Mars were to wander into the United Nations or scan the world press, he would learn little about Cambodia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Biafra or Czechoslovakia—to mention a few relevant spots. On the basis of the exhortations and vituperation of which Israel is the object, he might well conclude that a mighty empire, Israel, seemed to be the source of most earthly ills. How else could he account for a terrorist international of Japanese, Cubans and Germans, armed by Communists, financed by oil potentates and dedicated to the eradication of this “cancer of humanity”? Is it paranoia to interpret this concentration on the tiny Jewish state and its three million Jews as the massive rallying of anti-Semitism in modern guise? At any rate, when the terms of a viable peace are finally hammered out, Israel should be spared the dubious compliment of alone being required to serve as the world’s conscience.

Marie Syrkin was editor of the Herzl Press and has written extensively on Zionism