For Better or Worse, Begin’s Legacy Is Embedded in Israel's Economy

At some point we realized that those of us who pursued colorless careers in the army or at some bank - the ones we made fun of when we were 25 - did much better financially than those of us in the new economy. They have pensions worth millions and a safety net, and we don’t.

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I was in seventh grade when Menachem Begin became prime minister; when he resigned and isolated himself in his home I was a soldier serving in Lebanon. My adolescence thus coincided with the period he was in power, making me and others my age “Begin’s children.” It was during his era that our political, social and economic awareness took shape.

Begin was a revolutionary who changed Israel beyond recognition, more than any other leader before him or since. He left no stone unturned: He made both peace and war, expanded the settlements and granted benefits to the ultra-Orthodox, bequeathed us the Holocaust and changed the economic system. The state we live in today is in great measure the creation of the father of the Likud, and none of his successors, even those from the opposing camp, contested his legacy or changed any of it.

The Alignment ‏(Labor‏) government that preceded Begin was for us symbolized by the “Mehikon,” that device that blocked color television broadcasts, and the ugly sport shoes made by Hamegaper, which we were forced to buy because of the high taxes on imported sneakers. That was how the Alignment imposed equality − when no one has anything, the gaps are small. The heroes of my youth were those of the army and the Mossad, and not people accumulating wealth, who were the subject of scorn.

All this changed in Begin’s time; we were liberated from the Mehikon and we could wear Adidas, Levis and get a driver’s license at 17. As the restrictive regulations of the Alignment era were dropped, a higher standard of living started to look like a desirable and worthy goal.

When we were in the army, the inflationary policies of the Likud governments devastated the economic power of the Histadrut labor federation and the kibbutzim, so when we entered the workforce, we were signed to personal contracts, a concept totally unknown to the previous generation.

My parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents all worked in the public sector or in Histadrut enterprises, or they were kibbutz members. All of them had tenure at work, and their advancement and welfare was dependent on the workers’ committee ‏(or the kibbutz assembly‏), which my parents’ stories portrayed as aggressive and unfair.

Thus, the intergenerational move to the private sector looked like a victory over “the system”; in this new world, your salary was based on your abilities and diligence, not on how effectively you flattered the union boss. People who worked hard started making more money at a younger age than their parents ever made at the height of their careers. Our parents’ questions about tenure and job security sounded like echoes of a bygone era. What did they know? we said to ourselves.

Fast forward to our forties, to the midlife of Begin’s children. Suddenly we’ve discovered that we didn’t beat the system at all; it’s the system that beat us. A handful of my contemporaries did make it as entrepreneurs; someone who was with me in kindergarten was even ranked high on TheMarker’s list of the wealthiest Israelis.

But most of us ended up as wage-earners or small business owners. And at some point we realized that those of us who pursued colorless careers in the army or at some bank − the ones we made fun of when we were 25 − did much better financially than those of us in the new economy. They have pensions worth millions and a safety net, and we don’t.

Begin removed the safety net and forced each of us to take responsibility for our own welfare and financial future. That doesn’t suit everyone, and paradoxically ended up favoring those workers who survived the revolution in the old economic structures, people who work for monopolies and banks, the security forces and the police. This disillusionment explains the shift of some of my colleagues from a blind faith in capitalism to a search for a new model of socialism. We don’t miss the Mehikon, nor do we want anyone like Alon Hassan, the Ashdod Port’s union boss, on our heads, but we understand that “every man for himself” is a game of survival that only a few play well.

The result is essentially confusion: Lacking an alternative model that goes beyond complaining, and given that the political system is mostly committed to maintaining the status quo, it’s hard to imagine anything overturning the economic approach that’s taken root here over the past 36 years.

So it looks like I, and those of my generation, will also be Begin’s retirees.

Menachem Begin in Washington in 1977.Credit: AP

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