Jabotinsky's Likud Was Anything but a Liberal Bastion

While Ze’ev Jabotinsky has in recent years been lionized as the picture of a faultless liberal standout, there is no justification for describing Likud as a movement that was once liberal and has deteriorated into fascism.

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Ze’ev Jabotinsky
Ze’ev Jabotinsky.Credit: GPO
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

A huge crowd accompanied the coffins of Ze’ev and Hanna Jabotinsky when their exhumed remains arrived in Israel from New York in July 1964. Upon their arrival at the airport, Yaakov Meridor, the former commander of Etzel (the pre-statehood Jewish militia affiliated with Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement) and Yosef Pa’amoni, the director of the Jabotinsky Institute, placed the gilded sword of their leader upon his coffin.

At the end of the funeral cortege, the coffins reached Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The daily Maariv reported that the head of the Herut movement, Menachem Begin, picked up the sword and declared, in a shaky voice: “I hereby assign the sword that is sanctified to Israel, that of the first soldier of Judea, to an honor guard dedicated to the freedom of Jerusalem throughout the generations.” He then handed the sword to Paamoni, in the presence of an honor guard composed of members of the Jabotinsky Order of Israel, all of them wearing black berets.

This scene is not drawn from “Games of Thrones,” but from the funeral of a Zionist leader. It is the stuff of many comparable episodes found in the Betar political culture. Even now, the organizational structure of the Jabotinsky Order of Israel– the organization charged with perpetuating the memory and legacy of its ideological forebear – shares certain aspects to a monarchic order of knights. The Order’s slogan is: “In light and in darkness, remember the crown” (in Hebrew it rhymes). Members of the Order are called “companions” and it is organized in six “fortresses.” Each of these regional branches has a head of fortress, deputy, adjutant, rector, paymaster and head of section, as well as the fortress guard. Names of the fortresses: Moriah, First to Judea, Kotel-Modi’in, Altalena, Nevertheless and Sons of Light.

Members of the Order are sworn in, and promise personally to fulfill the principles of the doctrine, and primarily “to subordinate the good of the individual to the good of the nation and of the state.”

A widespread personality cult was built around Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, for which there was no parallel in the Zionist movement. His image was inscribed on metal badges and medals, and numerous members of Betar, the Revisionist youth movement, had a plaster statue of him in their living rooms. Some even venerated his wife, Johanna.

Etzel members who had been condemned to death by British Mandatory officials would call out, as the noose was tightened around their necks, “Long live Jabotinsky.” Militarism, discipline and hierarchy were a basic foundation of the Betar ideology. Per Jabotinsky, the redemption of the Jewish people would come when they learned to act as a single machine. He also attributed significance to the racial traits of the Jews, and praised external beauty, which he saw as a sign of the political character of the individual.

Illustration showing The Shadow, the far-right extremist rapper who recently joined Likud.Credit: Amos Biderman

It is altogether fitting to speak of all this at the present time, when the Jabotinsky heritage is repeatedly cited as a flawless example of liberalism. The enlistment of politicians and bullies like Oren Hazan and “The Shadow” (right-wing rap singer Yoav Eliasi) into the Likud party is depicted as a nadir in the annals of a grand liberal movement.

And yes, there were liberal underpinnings to the Jabotinsky doctrine, but it would be an exaggeration to portray him as a Zionist version of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. If and when veteran members of Herut teach Yoav Eliasi the basics of the leader’s teachings, he will find in them more than a few principles connected to blood, land and race.

As early as the 1930s, the leadership of Mapai (the left-of-center predecessor of the Labor Party) was already describing Betar as a “patently fascistic organization.” Yet the Mapai attitude did not stem from any concerns about human or civil rights; the criticism was primarily rooted in the fact that the Jabotinsky movement grew out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie, and it was expressed, according to one low-level Mapai leader, as “blind hatred of the organized worker.”

Menachem Begin before an image of David Ben-Gurion.Credit: Joseph Roth/GPO

It should be said that Mapai was no stalwart of liberalism, either. David Ben-Gurion visited the Soviet Union in 1923, and drew inspiration from the Leninist form of organization and use of power. He described Lenin admiringly as “an iron-willed man who would not spare human life or the blood of the innocent on behalf of the revolution.” In the wake of that visit, Ben-Gurion built his political party into a power-centric revolutionary organization that was not squeamish about using whatever means possible to realize its objectives.

Knights vs. Leninist cell

At the 17th Zionist Congress, held in 1931, Jabotinsky was very close to taking over the Zionist Executive. The Revisionists were largely correct in sensing that governance of the Yishuv (as the Jewish community in Palestine was known prior to statehood) had been snatched out of their hands by the left. Some observers contend that Israeli politics and culture would have looked altogether different if Jabotinsky, the refined intellectual with the broad horizons, had shaped the image of society.

Benjamin Netanyahu taking part in a ceremony commemorating 20 years since the passing of Menachem Begin. Credit: Mark Israel Salem

It is very possible that the Israeli style would be different: As opposed to Mapai members, who glorified sloppiness, shabby clothes and awful food – the members of Betar excelled at polished and over-adorned “majesty.” But it is hard to believe that the Revisionists, with their tendency toward messianic nationalistic hysteria as well, would have founded a much more enlightened regime than that of Mapai. Perhaps the opposite is true. Instead of Mapai membership cards, we would be subject to the entrenched hierarchy of the Order and the personality cult around the leader.

Seniority bestows a halo. The politico Shimon Peres is considered an intellectual solely due to his being a senior citizen with a Polish accent. Likewise, Jabotinsky and Begin are placed on pedestals and lauded as exemplary democrats. But there is no justification for describing the Likud as a movement that was once liberal and then deteriorated into fascism.

To a certain degree, the shift was in the reverse direction. In the ‘50s, Herut did indeed possess some terrifying attributes that suggested the fascist parties of Europe. Begin would travel about the land with an escort of dozens of motorcycle drivers, and his rhetoric was replete with expressions like “It is blood that is holy, and war has taught us what is sanctified.” And in ensuing decades, the inflationary exploitation of Hitler and the Holocaust continued. Recurrent comparisons to the 1938 Munich Agreement were brandished whenever a new – and hesitant – peace initiative was launched. In this matter, too, there is nothing new under the sun.

As a rule, the political culture in Israel never had a golden age in the distant past. Although it would be untrue to describe Mapai as having been a Bolshevik party, to the same degree that Herut was not a fascist movement, neither of these leading exemplars of Israeli political culture was particularly enlightened, in contemporary terms. It was a struggle between an order of knights and a Leninist cell.

In terms of liberal values, the most golden era that Israel has ever known occurred not very long ago – the 1990s. Over the course of several years, Israel exhibited signs of releasing itself from militarism, nationalism and collectivism, in the moments before it was inundated by a new and turbid wave of racism, messianism and authoritianism. From the current political perspective, the ‘90s were perhaps even more alien and inconceivable than the ‘30s: It was the period when Aviv Geffen could sing to his tens of thousands of fans words like, “And only I am getting drunk / And am not enlisting,” while at the same time appearing each week on popular television variety shows.

Except that the ‘90s were also the period of the rushed process of privatization of the welfare state in Israel; the period when Channel 2, the first commercial channel, took off; the period when the Gaza Strip and West Bank were cut off from Israeli territory by means of the regime of checkpoints; and the period that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the rise to power of Benjamin Netanyahu. In the final analysis, then, perhaps liberalism is overrated.

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