by Dror Eydar
In 1981, the elite tried to separate Israel of the "second tier" from the leader they had voted into office, Menachem Begin, claiming he was putting the future of the country in danger. Not much has changed.
From all sides, we are hearing the same protests of fine sensibilities: this election is the dirtiest one ever. Really, have you forgotten 1981? Back then, passions swelled to a threat of civil war. No one was debating ideology, the land of Israel, the economy, or security or education, then, either. For the Israeli in the street, the main question in that election very quickly became about the place of the “second Israel.” Four years earlier, a political upheaval had taken place, and for the first time in the history of the state the leadership of the rejected, rebellious camp took its place at the wheel of the Zionist ship. The Alignment (as the combined list of the Labor and Mapam parties was called) was convinced that it was all a historic mistake that would quickly be remedied. The rise of the Likud in 1977 was excused by the emergence of the Democratic Movement for Change, which took votes from the Alignment. As it crumbled, the Alignment thought about turning back the wheel and restoring the old political hegemony. The Alignment slogan in the campaign for the 10th Knesset was “Four more years of Begin?”
That is how the political debate turned into a socio-political one – in other words, an emotional argument about the right to lead. Likud and religious Zionist voters, who had finally tasted power after long years of standing in the doorway like beggars, felt that the standard arguments on politics, defense and security, and economics were just a cover-up for the main question: would they win the right to continue the change that had only started to take form in those four years?
Alignment voters didn’t understand the deep longing for legitimacy among Jews from Arab countries, the revisionists, the religious Zionists, and even the haredim – how they all longed to feel at home in their country. We know how the Left at the time dismissed the desire of the Right and the religious for respect. Respect was seen as a Middle Eastern concept that had no place in the value system of the west, of which Israel aspired to be part. This dismissiveness led to infuriating racist remarks that stirred up a number of communities, so much so that a lot of election rallies looked like battlefields.
I was a teenager at the time, and on one of the most highly fraught days of the campaign, I went into the kitchen and saw my late mother weeping. She was crying at how Shimon Peres had been humiliated at a rally in Beit Shemesh even though she had never voted for him and had good reason to object to him. How could they do that to someone who had given his entire life to this country, she said to me. It was a great life lesson.
But most of the public heard what Peres said at that rally and his words scored their hearts like molten iron. A lot of Likud voters were in the square, too. They saw the speakers as the people who had oppressed them for years. “Begin, Begin,” they shouted from below. Former IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur got angry and shouted at the astonished crowds, “Just like shouting and stamping didn’t help them [the Arabs], shouting won’t help you and we’ll screw you.” That one sentenced distilled the loathing and contempt in which the first Israel held the second rank. Gur’s spontaneous outburst expressed the attitude of an entire camp whose people saw themselves as the real owners of the state, who had been pushed out of the driver’s seat briefly and would soon take back the wheel.
What Gur said threw fuel on the fire, and when Peres got up to speak, the crowd wouldn’t let him. Peres did not see how deep the rift between his party and that particular sector ran. He was unmoved by the jeering and tried to educate the protesters “gently”: “We won’t be scared of you; not of your fascism nor your Khomeinism nor your Mizrahi motions [the middle finger]. Shame on you. Is this a cultured people, with combative Mizrahi motions? Shame on you. Don’t ruin the name of Beit Shemesh. Is this how the people, Begin’s people, will appear? Drunks. Don’t you shout. … You have no right to hate, you don’t know anything; hatred and fighting among brothers, hatred and lack of culture. Will Mizrahi gestures win you the election?”
When you look back at footage from those years, you see that neither Motta Gur nor Shimon Peres nor anyone else who was on the podium was moved by the protests. The impression is that for them, this was a passing nuisance. The whole election was a procedural formality, the price of admission to the democratic process, after which the genie would be put back in the bottle and the Zionist ship would be restored to its legitimate leadership. Back then, there was only one television station, and it was almost entirely devoted to promoting the Alignment. Radio, too. The same for the three big newspapers of the time. It was obvious to most journalists that Israel needed to “find itself again” or “regain its sanity” from the messianic visions of Begin and his friends, who were accused of fascism and paganism (that is how settlements in Judea and Samaria were referred to) and of dragging the election down into the swamps of dark impulses.
Herzl Hanukah, who flipped off Peres, was cast in Alignment campaign ads as a typical representative of the Likud under the slogan, “We must stop this madness.” This week, I was reminded of Hanukah when “Captain George,” a 63-year-old grandfather came under fire for being a “bot” and was called a “Kahanist and a racist,” even though he excitedly objected to these terms and claimed that his 14,000 tweets included a few he had written while upset after terrorist events but did not reflect his worldview. Here, too, the media devoted itself to foolishly equating the man to the entire Likud and its leader.
As far as that goes, the famous rally by the Left in what used to be Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square) three days before the 1981 election sums up the whole story into a poisoned nutshell. In front of about 200,000 people, the emcee – an up-and-coming entertainer named Dudu Topaz – praised the audience to loud applause: “The people standing here, they are the ones fighting the wars; the Likud riffraff serve as sentry guards if they even serve in the army.” Even today, Likud voters are treated like rabble or as subject to manipulation.
No. The election is not about the leaders’ personalities. Don’t believe the spin. Today, too, we are voting on the future of the Land of Israel and the settlements; the fight for the citizens’ right to determine their future through their elected officials and not through legal advisors and the Supreme Court; the continued growth of the free market and deregulation; the identity of Israel not only as a democracy but also as a Jewish state; defense and security issues; international relations; and more.
On Thursday, I came across a scary film that Peres’ granddaughter Mika Almog made for this election campaign. Almog attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with words similar to, even harsher than, her grandfather used, in an apocalyptic style that causes the viewer’s heart to race and makes them want to seek shelter. By demonizing Netanyahu, Almog vented her bitterness and expressed the feelings of a big part of the Israeli Left.
It’s as if nothing has changed in the past 38 years. The thinking that the Right does not have a well-thought-out worldview and ideology still prevails. As if the public doesn’t know how to learn from historical experience, from the failure of the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, from the failure of the centralized economy; as if it didn’t have enough brains to see the advantages of a free market; as if the people had been hoodwinked to see that Israel could have diplomatic success even without paying for it in the currency of parts of the homeland – and all that needs to happen is to disconnect the voters from their leader, like they tried to connect the “second Israel” from Begin in 1981, by presenting him as a danger to the future of Israel. What lesson have we learned since then?
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