Menachem Begin
Menachem Begin, 1981. Photo by GPO
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When it comes to understanding any great speech, you first have to be familiar with the context. In this case, it was the eve of Israel's 1981 election. Days of rotten tomatoes, smoke bombs and insults. Days of passion. In retrospect, this was our last real election campaign. Ideology was still ideology, drama was drama, a speech was a speech, a fight was a fight - and it wasn't over a parking space. It was still about our essence.

Today we are left with the differences between a troika of look-alikes: Kadima, Labor and Likud, and the ideological gap between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which cannot be detected by any microscope. We are left with the deserted city square, with the boring election broadcasts on television, the words from equally hollow advertisers, and leaders who declaim bland messages endlessly.

In the summer of 1981, though, Israel was in an uproar as it would never be again. There was Menachem Begin on the one hand, and Shimon Peres on the other, both already with decades of experience in the field. The former was an incumbent prime minister, with peace with Egypt and the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq to his credit. The latter was one of David Ben-Gurion's "boys" who was no longer a boy, with the building of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, Israel Aerospace Industries and the Entebbe rescue to his credit.

I was working alongside Peres at the time. In an old white Oldsmobile we crisscrossed the country from meeting to meeting, from party branch to party branch, imbibing large quantities of local politics. The surveys were promising. The "field," as it's called in the profession, spoke differently, however. As the days and the meetings went on, the field was increasingly turbulent, increasingly hate-filled. The first direct hit of a tomato on my white shirt, as I stood next to the boss at the post-Pesach Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem's Sachar Park, was followed by a wild rescue via police van, with a mounted police escort, in an insane and horrifying drive backward, with Peres ashen-faced in the back seat. Each successive day brought more news: embarrassment in Petah Tikva, disgrace in Kiryat Shmona. The "Second" and "Third" Israel hated Peres.

And then, a few days before the June 30 D-Day, something happened: At an election rally for the Alignment (forerunner of Labor ), in Tel Aviv's Malkhei Yisrael Square (now Rabin Square ), entertainer Dudu Topaz said that all the "tchakh-tchakhim" (a racial slur against Mizrahim, Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent ) were in the Likud. Peres, who had already experienced a thing or two in his life - including comments about himself that appeared in the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's autobiography "Service Notebook" - immediately understood the dimensions of the disaster.

The next day, Begin, the last of our great public speakers, appeared in the same square where Topaz had spoken.

I'm now watching Menachem Begin at the square, on YouTube. There isn't a trick he didn't use. I'm watching his threatening finger, his uplifted hands, his systematic pauses between one word and the next, his thundering voice and trembling body, his intonations and connotations, his insinuations and demagoguery - all at their best, without professional image makers and strategy consultants. "The members of our Mizrahi communities were heroic fighters," he said - and the square trembled; "one heart, one nation, f-i-g-h-t-e-r-s" - and the square threatened to explode. As did Begin. No written word can reflect that atmosphere. At that moment we already knew: Labor was defeated and the battle was over.

And of course there was also the shtick of distorting names and terms. Begin didn't know Topaz, so he had to peek at his papers, deliberately insulting and humiliating him, in order to recall his name. And then came the coup: He said the name Topaz, with an accent on the wrong syllable. Dudu To-paz. Nor was he familiar with the term tchakh-tchakh. Another glance at the papers prepared in advance, and he mispronounced the word, with a Polish accent.

Natan Dunevich wrote a penetrating article against ignorance the following day in Haaretz: "The really terrible thing about the unfortunate affair of the nonsense uttered by entertainer Topaz is that neither Menachem Begin nor Shimon Peres had never heard the expression tchakh-tchakhim." Prof. Amos Funkenstein replied that there was nothing wrong with that, and hastened to correct Begin's mistakes in Latin of all things, a language in whose knowledge Begin took pride.

Topaz was an Alignment emcee, he didn't say a word about the Mizrahi community explicitly, but he was definitely referring to them. Those were the days of the kibbutz members from the elite commando unit and the Ashkenazim from the air force squadron, all of them with Peres. The elites of both the Likud and the Alignment were of course equally Ashkenazi, but Begin (the Pole ) was the Leader with a capital "L," who knew how to exploit the speech by Topaz (also a Pole, born "Goldenberg" ) and the justified feelings of deprivation among members of the Mizrahi community - for his own purposes with political cynicism and Ashkenazi arrogance.

Borne on the wings of hatred for Ashkenazim and Mapainikim (members of the Alignment ), just as today other politicians are borne on the wings of hatred for Arabs, he knew what to say, and primarily how and when.

That speech not only determined the results of the election; it also let the so-called "ethnic genie" out of its bottle. Author Yizhar Smilansky (who wrote under the pen name "S. Yizhar" ) wrote afterward in Haaretz: "The real battlefront is the deployment of the non-Ashkenazim against the Ashkenazim. The upcoming elections are fanning the flames on dying coals."

The genie was of course quickly returned to its bottle - long live political correctness - and it's there to this very day, in spite of all the profound repression and sweeping denials. It slips out only occasionally and is immediately returned to where it came from.