The Knesset held a special session on Wednesday night to commemorate Ze’ev Jabotinsky—the intellectual father of the Israeli Right. And in paying respects, Israel’s leaders read their own characters into the early Zionist luminary, only months after recasting themselves in the role of Theodor Herzl in a similar session.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented Jabotinsky as the sole figure capable of identifying the existential threats to the Jewish people and taking decisive action against them. “Jabotinsky was one of the few who did not repress the severity of the danger,” noted the prime minister. For refusing to shut his eyes in the face of the rising danger of European anti-Semitism, Jabotinsky was decried as an alarmist and a warmonger; but he stood his ground, and was right to do so. Likewise, the world faces another freedom-threatening “earthquake” today, in the form of radical Islam, both Sunni and Shiite. And it is Prime Minister Netanyahu who obsessively warns against this threat, taking the necessary steps to protect the Jews despite the harsh names thrown his way.
Netanyahu progressed to argue that modern Israel vindicates Jabotinsky’s hallmark “Iron Wall” thesis. The Arabs, Jabotinsky argued, would never voluntarily accept a sovereign Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Zionists, therefore, should focus on building a permanent polity that nobody could hope to dislodge, winning the Arabs’ grudging acquiescence. Nowadays, Israel is “an advanced, prosperous and strong country, that refuses to bow its head before its enemies,” Netanyahu boasted, arguing that this was what is drawing Arab states into probing ties with Israel. “The weak does not survive in our region… [while] the strong survives and forges alliances,” he said. Having been prime minister for a decade, the prime minister hinted that he could take no small share of credit for the realization of Jabotinsky’s vision.
Scathingly, Netanyahu argued that although Jabotinsky had been proven right in the passage of time, he was denounced in his time as a fascist by the political Left: Ben-Gurion even dubbed him “Hitler.” Then, as now, people warned that “we must defend democracy, and stop the fascism rearing its head.” Then, as now, such accusations were totally baseless. And then, as now, those smears were made by enemies of individual liberty and free choice, just as today Netanyahu is paradoxically accused of trying to crush the free press by liberalizing the media market. “This is not pluralism [and] this is not liberalism, but something else—and it’s not fascism—it’s more akin to Bolshevism,” he charged indignantly.
When Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog took to the podium, he announced that Israel needed “many more Jabotinskys,” and embarked on a tirade accusing today’s Likud of betraying Jabotinsky’s values—and by implication presenting himself as the leader true to those values. “If he were here today, he’d have torn you to pieces,” he said, listing recent supposedly anti-democratic legislation—such as the Expulsion Law—that Jabotinsky would have allegedly despised. Herzog then observed that Jabotinsky “shared similar role in the Zionist movement” to his own as leader of the opposition “a decade or so before the state’s establishment,” and relished the irony that his Zionist Union supposedly had “more in common with Jabotinsky’s democratic philosophy than the Likud party and its leader.” By presenting himself as the heir of the spiritual leader of the Right, Herzog implied that Likud had moved so far to the far-Right that even the Israeli Left was closer to classical Right-wing politics.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, meanwhile, paid tribute to Jabotinsky’s “complex” worldview in making the case for proudly nationalistic liberalism. He chose not to trumpet any single Jabotinskian value, but to marvel on the conjunction of ideals that in today’s political climate might seem improbable. After all, the Right-wingers most closely identified with the Greater Israel platform are hardly known as card-carrying liberals. Edelstein saluted Jabotinsky’s uncompromising belief in the right of the Jewish people over the whole Land of Israel, alongside his convictions in support of individual liberty, and insisted that the two can go hand-in-hand. “It is possible, and it is right,” he said, “to be both a proud Zionist and rights-promoting liberal…to believe that the Land of Israel is ours in its entirety, without being hostile towards the Other.” In short, Edelstein presented himself as the embodiment of Jabotinsky’s nuanced worldview, who sits uneasily with the forced dichotomies of modern Israeli politics.
In a world where you can “tell me whom you voted for, and I’ll tell you what your opinion is on every subject,” Edelstein appealed railed against “childish labels that encourage a discourse of hate, separation and terrible divisiveness.” He lamented the degeneration of public discourse into “simplistic, superficial [and] ‘Twittery’” tones, in which citizens have lost the ability to listen to each other. On the day that member of Knesset Oren Hazan welcomed grotesquely far-Right rapper “The Shadow” into the Likud, Edelstein staked his ground as the standard-bearer for the party’s liberal wing.
Indeed, Jabotinsky is frequently held up as an example of “pure” right-wing politics, with diversions from his path depicted by Israeli Right-wingers as ideological transgressions, or even heresies. When Moshe Ya’alon resigned recently as defense minister, he warned that “dangerous extremists” had taken over Israel and the Likud. Cautioning that Israel was turning away from its tolerant and inclusive values, he intoned that this was “not the Likud movement that I joined, the Likud of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and [former Prime Minister] Menachem Begin.” But as is clear from this year’s Jabotinsky Day speeches, what it means to be the authentic successor to Jabotinsky remains a matter of fierce contestation.
Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.
For more on Jabotinsky’s continued relevance to Israeli politics today, read Why Jabotinsky Still Matters by Rick Richman, published in the June 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine.
[Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90]