TV Exposé of Late IDF General Casts Shadow Over Future of His Public Legacy

Israel spent millions of shekels to commemorate Rehavam Ze’evi, a controversial far-right former general and cabinet minister, despite many dubious facets of his career.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to the Knesset during a 2011 session in memory of Rehavam Ze’evi.
Michal Fattal

The state has spent millions to commemorate Rehavam Ze’evi, a controversial far-right former general and cabinet minister who was assassinated by Palestinians in 2001, despite the many dubious facets of his career. A TV expose aired on Thursday night now casts doubt on the future of this commemorative project.

In 2010 the members of a nongovernmental organization set up to commemorate Ze’evi’s name and legacy, headed by his son, Palmah, met to discuss a screenplay about Ze’evi’s life. In the protocol, those present are cited telling the production crew to emphasize his “political uniqueness” and show how he “walked against the current, always seeing the homeland’s good before his eyes.” They said “the intention is to show today that Ze’evi was right and the injustice caused to the man who saw the truth and didn’t hesitate to make it known.”

The report on Channel 2’s “Uvda” (“Fact”) portrayed Ze’evi as a sexual predator, associate of organized crime figures, violent antagonist of journalists and even as a cold-blooded killer. The expose claimed Ze’evi was a serial sex offender who assaulted several women and threatened his critics with the help of criminals.

Several Knesset members have said they would act to revoke the law allocating state funds to memorialize Ze’evi, but it is doubtful that this will be enough. In the 15 years since Ze’evi’s death, boardwalks, streets, a highway, a park, a bird observatory, a square and even a military camp — the Home Front Command headquarters — have been named after him.

Many questions come to mind: What will happen to the public council created to commemorate Ze’evi? Should he continue to be memorialized, and if so in what way? How should the problematic aspects of his “legacy” be addressed?

A 15-minute film glorifying Ze’evi’s legacy can be viewed on the Prime Minister’s Office’s website. The figures speaking in praise of him include politicians Ehud Barak, Shlomo Lahat and Shimon Peres (“he was ascetic, but there was also something mischievous and captivating about him”) as well as entertainers Haim Topol and Yehoram Gaon (“'Gandhi' was one of those unique people, his image grows more powerful with every passing day," referring to Ze’evi’s nickname). The voiceover says Ze’evi “loves Israel as one loves a woman.”

The NGO that produced the film was set up in 2002 to “commemorate his memory and legacy, spread and bequeath the ideas of loving the Israeli nation and Land of Israel, the ideas of faith and Jewish legacy, helping others, devotion and charity.” It has produced memorials, issued scholarships to students who write papers about Ze’evi, held conferences about him and organized nationwide tours for teenagers and soldiers.

A bridge over the Ayalon Highway named after Rehavam 'Gandhi' Ze'evi.
Moti Kimche

The NGO is financed by the Prime Minister’s Office. In 2002 it received just 12,000 shekels (roughly $3,000), in 2003 the sum rose to 300,000 shekels ($80,000) and a year later its budget reached 1.85 million shekels ($500,000). In the years since the annual budget has ranged from 450,000 shekels ($119,000) to 1 million shekels ($265,000).

In 2005 the Knesset passed a law “to commemorate Rehavam Ze’evi and bequeath the next generations with his acts and legacy.” This added Ze’evi — a major general, cabinet minister and Knesset member — to a short list that until then comprised only Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky — of figures whose memorialization was anchored in law despite not being prime ministers or presidents. The law also called for setting up a public council to enforce the commemoration.

This honor, which more senior leaders did not receive, reflects the discrimination in commemorating the state’s leaders, which the state comptroller wrote about in 2013. “It is wrong to condition heads of state’s commemoration on the ability of those who cherish their memory to bring about specific legislation and thus get resources,” the comptroller wrote.

By comparison, Israel’s second prime minister and foreign minister Moshe Sharett didn’t get a law or a council to see to his commemoration. His sons, Yaakov and Haim, both about 90, are fighting against time to publish his works and every year must struggle anew for funds from the Prime Minister’s Office to do so.

The late MK Yossi Sarid was one of the main opponents to the law to commemorate Ze’evi. “It’s improper and will make the Israel Book Law blush with shame,” Sarid said at the time. “Israel will become the first state in the world to have the transfer doctrine in its education system. Those who cherish his memory should gather to do so, but not at our expense, not at the expense of our children and their education, or the expense of our beloved country’s reputation.”

Sarid warned in an opinion piece in Haaretz against commemorating a man who was close to underworld figures. “This is the man who washed criminals’ hands and their escort girls’ breasts. Friend, you are missed, although many fill the empty gap you left, following you in the way of transfer, war mongering and crime,” Sarid wrote.

The public council to commemorate Ze’evi has a page listing his quotes on its website. “Goodbye and procreate,” one quote says, with the explanation that this is how Ze’evi bequeathed his will to the Jordan Valley people, telling them they must multiply as much as possible to strengthen the region.