Rise of a Right-wing Phoenix

Given the meager documentation of the Zionist right, this book on the establishment of the Herut movement should be regarded as an initial, basic endeavor

Academic research that focuses on the Zionist right and its history is very sparse, and its meager character is underscored by a comparison to the wealth of scholarly work devoted to the Zionist left. The number of doctoral dissertations that deal with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement well exceeds the number devoted to the right-wing Zionist counterpart, Betar; and even though Palmach, the left-wing elite commando unit was much smaller than the right-wing militia, Irgun Zvai Leumi, it has enjoyed much more research attention.

The conventional explanation for this scholarly emphasis is that the left ruled the State of Israel for many years, cultivated semi-affiliated research institutions and discriminated against right-wing research bodies. But this is a simplistic account: A large measure of research has been devoted to the radical left, which the ruling Mapai regime did not support. Mapai leaders, who held power in Israel up to 1977, did not encourage affiliated research institutions to study the extreme Zionist left. For years, most research about Zionist movements and politics has been carried out in the nation's universities - bodies whose research budgets do not depend upon the whims of politicians. And, generally, in case anyone has forgotten, most scholarly research still focuses on the left, even though the 1977 political turnabout, by which the Zionist right took power, occurred a generation ago.

So it appears that the reasons for this scholarly gap between the left and right are more deeply rooted, and stem partly from the differing status of historiography in the collective minds of the respective Zionist movements. From the start, the left, both in worldwide politics and in Zionism, documented its activities, preserved its documents and ensured that the records seeped into the consciousness of followers. The Hashomer Hatzair archive at Givat Haviva has more historical documents than the Jabotinsky Institute, which is the repository of documents relating to the history of Betar, the Revisionist movement, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (or Etzel, according to its Hebrew acronym) pre-state militia, and the Herut movement. Once we add other institutions formally or informally associated with the left (the Yad Tabenkin archive, Beit Berl, the Ben-Gurion Research Center, and more), we find a huge research gap separating the left from the right. Also with respect to underground cells, which had strong incentive to ensure that their secret materials would not fall into the hands of a hostile regime (both in the case of Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere in the world), the left took pains to conceal and preserve documents. The right, which characteristically prefers romantic myth to history, was not punctilious about the preservation of documents.

Against this backdrop of meager documentation of the Zionist right, Dr. Yechiam Weitz's book, which deals with the establishment of the Herut movement, ought to be regarded as an initial, basic endeavor. The late Yonathan Shapiro preceded Weitz, but his study featured a sociological analysis, and a few academic articles here and there were devoted to Herut's beginning - yet the basic story of the creation of the structure upon which today's dominant Likud party is founded remained obscure.

Shrewd maneuver

Only a few delegates to Likud Party conventions who rise at their conclusion to sing the Betar anthem really know its lyrics. These veterans locate the origins of Likud way back in the 1920s, when Ze'ev Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist party. Menachem Begin, who crowned "my rabbi and teacher, Ze'ev Jabotinksy" as the father of the movement's various incarnations, represented a link which connects the Revisionist movement to today's Likud.

Yet Weitz's book severs this legend of right-wing Zionist continuity. He proves clearly that the Herut movement arose as an entirely new party, founded on new ideological platforms; its establishment was a shrewd political maneuver designed to disjoin Herut from the old Revisionist party and its heritage. The adoption of the late Jabotinsky as Herut's leader was an arbitrary stroke, just as the retroactive description of Jabotinsky, a zealous Anglophile, as the "father of the rebellion" against the British, was manipulative.

Most of Weitz's book deals with the tension that erupted after the state was founded between Betar, the last incarnation of the Revisionist movement, and Etzel commanders, particularly Begin. Once they left the underground, the Etzel commanders decided not to join the long-standing, right-wing Zionist party, but rather to create their own. The ideological impetus prodding this decision was the Revisionist party's failure to support Etzel during its underground days. The political-electoral motive was a belief that the Revisionists would be unable to shed a reputation as a small, clannish movement headed by non-charismatic functionaries. Etzel veterans, who believed that they themselves had expelled the "foreign conquerors," the British, were convinced that citizens of the new state would reward them with votes. They were encouraged by the discovery that their commander Begin was a gifted orator blessed with an uncanny ability to create dramatic situations in which he basked in media coverage. In a euphoric mood, which took hold as they left the underground, some leaders of the new Herut party actually believed that they had a chance of defeating David Ben-Gurion in national elections, and of heading the country's first government.

Weitz, a member of the University of Haifa's Land of Israel studies department, traces the roots of the Etzel's departure from the Revisionist party to the late 1930s, when tensions surfaced between Jabotinsky and young radicals who grew up within his political movement. Tension between army fighters and the politicians, which is endemic to any liberation movement (as in the case of the PLO), escalated after Jabotinsky's death in 1940.

The history of Jabotinsky's movement is a case study in radical dynamics. In the 1920s, Jabotinsky defied Chaim Weizmann, then leader of the Zionist movement, accusing him of pandering to public opinion, budgetary worries and calculations of prestige. Jabotinsky broke away and established a new movement designed as a youthful, innovative alternative. Years later Begin defied Jabotinsky for precisely the same reasons, and established a new movement designed as a youthful, innovative alternative. During the 1960s, Shmuel Tamir hurled the same arguments at Begin, and established his own youthful, innovative alternative. So it continued on and on, and during each schism, combatants concurred that "only Jabotinsky, head of Betar lives." Jabotinsky's portrait is to be found at the gathering of any new faction spawned by right-wing Zionism.

Unsolved riddles

Political mobilization prior to the first Knesset elections was characterized by the unification of ideological clusters. The left-wing Mapam party was a merger of three parties, as was the United Religious Front and the Progressive parties. Weitz emphasizes that Herut was the only party to emerge as the result of a schism, not a merger. His study focuses on internal disputes between Herut members and the Revisionists. Little space is devoted to external disputes, particularly those between Begin and Ben-Gurion.

In Weitz's portraiture, Begin adopts democratic principles, while not foregoing militant phraseology. The Herut leader derides the provisional government by calling it "Judenrat," and he brands Ben-Gurion "Cain," a fratricidal monster. In Herut, Weitz emphasizes, there was a "gap between incendiary, demagogic rhetoric and ... respect for law, and the accepted rules of the game in parliamentary democracy."

The political storm created by the sinking of the Altalena arms ship is mentioned only in passing. A nonexpert reader will find it difficult to grasp how bringing an arms ship to the coast without government approval squares with adherence to the "accepted rules of the game in parliamentary democracy." The extent to which Begin's ascent as commander of Etzel raised the specter of civil war is blurred in this study. Did tension between Etzel and the Haganah not escalate as civil war due to Begin's stature and statesmanship, as historiography associated with his movement asserts - or was it because Begin feared that such a war would lead to "the downfall of Etzel, and a catastrophe to the people," as he himself noted?

In hindsight, we know Ben-Gurion, a devoted reader of history books and biographies, believed the final stage in a nation's liberation involves a violent struggle between internal militias. Ben-Gurion prepared for such a struggle in advance, and Begin was well placed to grasp what the results of such a civil war would be.

As expected, the hero of this study is Menachem Begin. Weitz draws a precise portrait of a strong leader who manages to subdue internal opposition, spearheaded by Hillel Kook. But the author does not try to examine how Begin was able to fashion himself as such a strong leader prior to Herut's emergence as a political party. The key to deciphering this riddle involves Begin's push for dominance in Etzel, which today is associated with him alone.

Few people know that Begin was the sixth in the chain of Etzel commanders. For Weitz, it is sufficient to say that the Revisionist party appointed Begin Etzel commander in December 1943. At this stage, Etzel was a relatively well-established force, which had already produced its own heroes and commanders who proved their valor in combat. Begin himself never fought in combat. Moreover, a compromising stain blemished his past experience with the Revisionists.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Begin fled to Vilna, which was then under Soviet rule. Begin was a ranking Betar figure in Poland; his departure was viewed as a retreat, and during the months of Begin's residence in Vilna, Etzel partisans spoke about the captain who abandoned ship.

During this same period, leaders of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, who also originally fled Poland, decided to return to their followers. One who returned to Poland was Mordechai Anielewicz, who later helped spearhead the Warsaw uprising. Some Etzel and Betar leaders in Mandatory Palestine demanded that Begin also return to his cadets in Poland; Begin ignored them. What happened during the next three years - and why did the Etzel men ask Begin, who was never one of the fighters and who had been branded a coward and a deserter, to command them? This intriguing question still awaits an answer.

About six months before the first Knesset elections, the mass immigration wave began and the number of newcomers who rode its crest was equivalent to about 20 Knesset seats. Given the lack of public opinion polls, it appeared that anything was possible. On the eve of elections, there were estimates that Herut would win somewhere between 25 seats and a larger figure, a plurality sufficient to enable Begin to form the first government. The result was extremely disappointing; Herut took just 14 Knesset seats. The Revisionist party, which ran as an independent slate, disappeared. Weitz ends his study at this point.

Begin endured a long series of painful electoral setbacks before sweeping into power in his landmark 1977 triumph. Loyal to systematic, careful academic traditions, Weitz has built the foundations of the big story, which remains to be told - Herut's transformation from a radical opposition party, to a party identified with the establishment, a la Mapai.