By Neve Gordon
Take this test to find out how much you know about the gradual shift in Israeli political thought over the decades.
Not long after Israel celebrated its 64th Independence Day on April 26, a friend prepared a quiz of sorts. She read out loud political quotes to about ten guests who were having dinner at my house, and asked us to identify the politician who had uttered each statement. Truth be told, none of my guests did very well on the quiz, but I thought that readers acquainted with Zionist history might do better and would be able to identify the source of each of the following statements. There is only one rule to this game: all search engines, including Google, are off limits.
• “Does a bad law become a good one just because Jews apply it? I say that this law is bad from its very foundation and does not become good because it is practiced by Jews … We oppose administrative detention in principle. There is no place for such detention.”
• “We do not accept the semi-official view … wherein the state grants rights and is entitled to rescind them. We believe that there are human rights that precede the human form of life called a state.”
• “We have learned that an elected parliamentary majority can be an instrument in the hands of a group of rulers and act as camouflage for their tyranny. Therefore, the nation must, if it chooses freedom, determine its rights also with regard to the House of Representatives in order that the majority thereof, that serves the regime more than it oversees it, should not negate these rights.”
• “We would propose that the Knesset enact a law of its own free will, limiting its authority and stipulating that it will not tolerate any legislation that limits oral or written freedom of expression or association, or other basic civil and human rights to be enumerated before the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee.”
• “The day will come when a government elected by our people will fulfill the first promise made to the people on the establishment of the state, namely: To elect a founding assembly whose chief function – in any country on earth – is to provide the people with a constitution and issue legislative guarantees of civil liberties and national liberty… For the nation will then be free – above all, free of fear, free of hunger, free of the fear of starvation. That day will come. I can sense that it is coming soon.”
• “Some say that it is impossible for us to provide full equal rights to Arab citizens of the state because they do not fulfill full equal obligations. But this is a strange claim. True, we decided not to obligate Arab residents, as distinguished from the Druze, to perform military service. But we decided this of our own free will, and I believe that the moral reason for it is valid. Should war break out, we would not want one Arab citizen to face the harsh human test that our own people had experienced for generations.”
If you are having trouble identifying the author, you are not alone. After hearing the quotes, I, too, wondered why they were so difficult to decipher. But, following a few misguided guesses, I recognized the source of the difficulty. The quiz was counterintuitive, and not only because all of the statements were uttered by a single politician.
No doubt, time has done its work and what was once pronounced by the undisputed leader of the Israeli right, now sounds more like declarations coming out of the liberal and far left – such as Knesset Members from Meretz and Hadash. Even the head of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, does not oppose administrative detention, and does not dare to claim that “there are human rights that precede the human form of life called a state”, probably for fear of losing potential voters.
My friend’s quiz managed to expose just how far right Israeli politics, as well as the public discourse informing it, have shifted over the years; so much so that, within the current political climate, declarations once uttered by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who passed away 20 years ago, can now only be reiterated by leftists.
I have no doubt that if Menachem Begin, commander of the infamous Irgun militia from 1943-1948, were alive today and would utter these very same statements in the Knesset, his own party members from the Likud – as well as the Israeli majority – would condemn him. Today, citizens who hold such positions are simply called “traitors.”