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Zionist history: A short quiz

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.”

Confused yet?

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.”

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation and can be reached through his website.This article first appeared in Al Jazeera. 

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    1. XYZ

      I see that St. Neve, in order to educate us dumb Israelis to become better people, has this missive publicized in Al-Jazeera. Does he think most Israelis get their information by first turning to Al-Jazeera?

      Reply to Comment
    2. William Burns

      Way to not deal with the substance of the post, XYX!

      Reply to Comment
    3. I think it was Menachem Begin who pioneered the bizarre semantic confusion tactic of branding Labourites as ‘Nazis’ and ‘anti-Semites,’ though there may have been ultra-orthodox authors and propagandists who did it before him. This is an incredible can of worms, and few books by Israeli historians dealing with it have been translated; Idith Zertal gets into it a bit.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Paul

      Some few years ago I visited elderly (and very Zionist) relatives in Jerusalem. They planned a special day out for us – a visit to the Menachem Begin Heritage Center/Museum.

      My initial hesitation clearly upset them and so we went on a visit we would never have contemplated otherwise.

      I won’t say it changed my fundamental understanding of Zionism or even of the former Prime Minister. It is a highly selective presentation of history (just as the quiz uses selective quotes and doesn’t give us the whole picture of the man).

      However, it did broaden my knowledge of Begin and give me a wider understanding of his philosophy and some of his more positive actions.

      In consequence, I had no problem in answering the quiz correctly (and perhaps readers in Israel should challenge themselves by visiting the Centre).

      Historically, it was always the ‘socialist’ ‘leftist’ Zionists who advocated the most discrimination. It was Ben Gurion and others of the second aliyah, who campaigned for Jewish (Hebrew) Labour (forcing dismissal of Arab employees), and boycotted Arab traders and produce. The ‘right’ were quite happy to take advantage of cheap Arab labour, having a free market philosophy, which Begin supported.

      So although leftist historians correctly make much of the Revisionist ‘Iron wall’ philosophy inherited from Jabotinsky, it has, until modern times, usually been the ‘left’ Zionists who have led discrimination, separation and war, when the right have been more amenable in practice (if not in theory) to co-existence – within their overall project of a Greater Israel.

      If, however, you are a Palestinian these ‘left-right’ differences within Zionism must seem quite trivial.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Matt

      Menachem Begin? The evil, racist, ethnic cleansing terrorist? He said all that?!

      Maybe it’s the left that needs to change their views of history rather than the right.

      Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      Long before Begin came along, Ben-Gurion was referring to Jabotinsky (a former colleague of his) as “Vladimir Hitler”. Ben-Gurion also referred to Begin on the floor of the Knesset as a supporter of Hitler. Golda Meir ended up calling Ben-Gurion a fascist after he broke with MAPAI in 1965.
      Such name-calling was common in the early days (i.e. before 1977 when the Likud finally ousted MAPAI-Labor from power) on all sides of the political barricades. I am glad to see that, at least in that area, there has been an improvement in the level of political debate in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Michael W.

      It would be great if Prof. Gordon would provide sources for I would like to learn more about these statements.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Paul, you’re right about discrimination in the labour market, but I should say you are wrong to infer from that that Revisionism was less warlike. What you are implying is that the Labourites had an expulsion policy whereas the Revisionists had a helot policy. But the Revisionists were extremely territorially aggressive nonetheless. The Revisionists had a little song that went:
      “Two Banks has the Jordan –
      This is ours, and that is as well.”
      The ‘conquest of labour’ policy, anyway, was justified at the time by what not only leftist zionists but leftists generally understood to be the logic of a ‘national liberation movement’. The argument was that it was necessary for the Jewish people in Israel to develop peasant and working classes of their own, otherwise they would become typical colonialists, living off cheap ‘native labour’ and providing low-cost exports for the west, and they would never achieve economic autonomy. There were variants of this, from the Tolstoyan anarchism of A D Gordon to the nationalist marxism of Ber Borochov. Marxism at that time was not necessarily opposed to colonisation of undeveloped regions by left-wing colonists. Our concept of leftism today is much more hostile to such projects than that of the 1920s and 1930s was.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Noam W.

      Begin lived his entire political life in a state of deep cognitive dissonance. I am no psychologist, but I think he was either phlegmatic, or a very delusional man.
      I am sure he did feel genuinely persecuted at certain stages of his political career. But he either thought that these rights mattered to him and not to anybody (i.e. Palestinians) in which case he was phlegmatic and self centered, or he actually thought you could have an occupation and still maintain these rights, in which case he was delusional.
      Or he didn’t believe any of it and was just a very convincing liar.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Paul


      When I was a member of a “Socialist Zionist” movement, as a teenager in the 1960s, I used to buy into all the arguments for ‘normalising’ and ‘redeeeming’ the Jewish nation.

      Now I view Zionism as objectively like a smart retailer offering different rangesand products for different customer segments. You believe in normalisation through working the land and an idelogy for sharing what little you have? Great, off you go and live in a kibbutz and secure underpopulated areas and the borders.

      The different strands of the ideology have waxed, waned and morphed to serve the constant central theme.

      I did qualify my statements on revisionism by saying ‘within their overall project of a Greater Israel’. Now it’s a different world, there are more Israelis and as many sources of cheap labour as you could want. Arabs serve little use to any part of Zionism except to allegedly demonstrate how democratic Israel is in part of its territory. So the ideology can be allowed to become increasingly hostile and racist because the demographics demand a reduction in the Arab population.

      A war with Iran (or any other) will present opportunities and excuses – which will have been planned for – to make life even less comfortable for Palestinians and lead to population movement.

      Of course, comment space does not allow a full argument to be put forward and there are many other factors.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Piotr Berman

      The first 5 statements were clearly made when Begin was in opposition. The last could be made at any time (I would not be surprised if Netanyahu said the same thing).

      The question why Israel needs administrative detention if it has kangaroo courts and other tools to basically do the same under a different name puzzles even Minister Aharonovich.

      Reply to Comment
    12. max

      Noam W: “Begin lived his entire political life …”
      You’re committed to prove the old claim that some people would never be bothered with facts?
      Yes, indeed, Begin’s ideology was based on the conviction that the Jewish People have the strongest historical and cultural connection to the land of Israel, and that the international legal system of the early 20th century accepted this and set the modern-days Jewish legal claim, while insisting that within this framework one must respect all other people, dignity and views.
      Yes, Israel would possibly be better off and the ‘right’ think more of the people behind the labels had Begin managed to better share his principles.
      As it stands, Israel finds itself with people rallying around either ‘human rights’ or ‘security’ (I leave aside the fanatics), while the ideal should be a balanced approach.

      Reply to Comment
    13. I really can’t see any rational basis for Revisionism; all I can see is fascist or marginally sub-fascist opportunism. In his 1927 novel “Samson”, which he wrote in Russian, Jabotinsky had a whole phalanx of bare-breasted Philistine girls giving fascist salutes:
      “One day, Samson was present at a festival at the temple in Gaza. Outside in the square a multitude of young men and girls were gathered for the festive dances. There were several thousand of them, one to each of the flagstones in the square. All were dressed alike in white garments: the young men in short, belted tunics, the girls in dresses with tucked hems that reached to the ground. The girls’ dresses fitted close over the hips, and had the usual long sleeves, but in front they were cut away leaving the breasts exposed… Suddenly, with a rapid, almost inconspicuous movement, the priest raised his baton, and all the white figures sank down on their left knee and threw their right arm towards heaven… The tens of thousands of onlookers gave utterance to a moaning sigh. Samson staggered; there was blood on his lips, so fiercely had he bitten them.”
      In the 1930 hebrew translation by Baruch Krupnik, the right-arm salute was silently changed to a left-arm salute.

      Reply to Comment
    14. As for accusing the Labourites of being “Nazis,” Lenni Brenner in “Zionism in the age of the dictators” quotes the Mar 1936 issue of L’Idea Sionistica, the magazine of the Revisionists’ Italian branch, describing the ceremonies attendant to the inauguration of the Betar squad’s new headquarters at Civitavecchia:
      ‘The order – “Attention!” A triple chant ordered by the squad’s commanding officer – “Viva L’Italia! Viva Il Re! Viva Il Duce!” resounded, followed by the benediction which rabbi Aldo Lattes invoked in Italian and in Hebrew for God, for the king and for Il Duce. Giovinezza [the Fascist Party’s anthem] was sung with much enthusiasm by the Betarim.’

      Reply to Comment
    15. caden

      Begin cared about his fellow Jews, always. Neve Gordon cares about everybody but other Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Deborah

      Thanks for this post. Very interesting.

      Reply to Comment
    17. XYZ

      (1) Before Italy joined the Axis with Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s, everybody loved Mussolini. Lenin was a great admirer and said Mussolini’s shift from Socialism to Fascism was a great loss to the Marxist movement. Churhchill, in his memoirs after the war said had Mussolini stayed out of the war, he would have been considered Italy’s greatest leader.

      (2) The “M” of MERETZ stands for MAPAM, a Marxist-Zionist party that had a decades-long love affair with Stalin and the Soviet Union. As late as 1967, MAPAM kibbutzim had photos of Stalin prominently displayed. I guess mass-murderers are okay as long as they do it under a red flag….

      (3) Shimon Peres recently published his memories of Ben-Gurion. He stated that BG viewed Lenin as the ideal leader…cold, ruthless, willing to sacrifice an entire generation for utopia, deligitimizing and demonizing the political opposition.

      So if you want to look for totalitarian roots of Israeli political movements, you have to look at the Israeli Leff.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Yeah, XYZ, but any European party that had steered that close to fascism in the 1930s would have been radioactive ever since. There is in fact a very interesting back story about MAPAM and the Soviets and the Czech arms deal. It appears that Mordechai Oren of MAPAM, along with Shmuel Mikunis of MAKI, actually persuaded Stalin that the Palmach was planning to stage a pro-Soviet coup immediately after the declaration of independence, and this is why Stalin authorised the arms shipments, which were huge. The Palmach was emphatically pro-Soviet. Political officers in the Palmach during the war of independence were referred to by the Soviet term politruks, which gives you an idea. That’s why B-G disbanded the Palmach after the war. The arms were originally made for sale to Germany. They included:
      57 million rounds of 7.92 mm ammunition
      1.5 million rounds of 9 mm Parabellum ammunition
      1 million rounds of anti-tank ammunition
      24,500 Mauser P-18 rifles
      10,000 bayonets for the P-18 Mauser rifle
      5,015 ZB-34 light machine guns
      880 ZB-37 heavy machine guns
      250 9 mm Zbrojovka pistols
      12 16-ton tanks with ammunition
      10 9.5-ton tanks with ammunition
      25 Avia-Messerschmitt 109 (S-199) fighter planes
      24 Spitfire IX fighter planes (from Britain)
      4,184 2 kg bombs
      2,988 10 kg bombs
      146 20 kg bombs
      2,614 70 kg bombs.
      I have read several books on this but the truth is deeply buried. Oren’s memoirs at the Hashomer Hatzair archives (Yad Yaari, Givat Haviva) are still sealed to researchers.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Rehmat

      Begin was a terrorist wanted by the British mandate authorities. He, as prime minister, banned preaching of Christianity to Israeli Jews – punishable with five years in jail in 1978.

      As for Al-Jazeera is concerned – Gideon Ezra, former deputy head of Israeli General Security Service, said in 2006: “I wish all Arab media were like Al-Jazeera”.


      Reply to Comment
    20. Cortez

      “Yes, indeed, Begin’s ideology was based on the conviction that the Jewish People have the strongest historical and cultural connection to the land of Israel, and that the international legal system of the early 20th century accepted this and set the modern-days Jewish legal claim, while insisting that within this framework one must respect all other people, dignity and views.”
      So he was delusional and propagated myths. Wonderful.
      “As it stands, Israel finds itself with people rallying around either ‘human rights’ or ‘security’ (I leave aside the fanatics), while the ideal should be a balanced approach.”
      There is no need for a balanced approach here. You can have a state that is strong on human rights and security at the same time the UK learned that after years of dealing with the IRA in a highly counter-productive way. Unfortunately, I think it might be harder in Israel to reach that level of awareness and self-reflection because of deeply rooted myths about the origins of Palestinians and the perception that Palestinians are the other. Its sad because so much good can come from it that would benefit all in the Southern Levant.

      Reply to Comment
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