Opinion |

The Leader Banging the Drum of Incitement

The right was always more successful at forging links with the people, mainly through incitement; it's a trait shared by prime ministers from Menachem Begin through to Netanyahu

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

During the 1961 election campaign, I went to hear Menachem Begin speak at the amphitheater where we usually went every summer to see movies such as “Sissi” and “Tarzan.” Begin was something else, almost taboo. He spoke to the Mizrahi Jews from the housing projects, telling these Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin they were the “rejects” of (Labor Party forerunner) Mapai. He used the specific term for substandard oranges – a familiar term in our town, which was surrounded by orange groves (the rejects were removed from the conveyor belts in the packing houses).

Sixteen years passed until Begin assumed power, based on wounds inflicted by the “pioneers” on Mizrahi Jews. His pathetic attempts at resembling David Ben-Gurion amounted to turning pompous speeches into groaning recitatives addressed at “the people of Israel.” The right is always more successful at forging links with the people, mainly through incitement. Now, the cantorial style has been replaced by a military staccato.

The leaders of the Jewish people required inflated rhetoric and empty words to turn the masses of communities into “the people of Israel.” Up until 150 years ago, this people only had a center-less religion built around separate communities – including Ashkenazi and “Portuguese” Jews in Hamburg; Hasidic courts throughout Eastern Europe; and communities with opposing traditions in Yemen. Even in Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem, numerous Jewish communities lived side by side, but definitely not with each other.

The founders of this nation, knowing how artificial the Israeli entity was, often based the nascent national experience on demagoguery, which was always used to mobilize political power while building a nation with all its “disagreements.” True, war serves as more powerful glue. What Palestinian terror achieved, after the 1994 Hebron massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein, was more effective than a thousand inciters. In those days, the right hauled out the weapon used by Begin – the town square rabble-rouser who had orchestrated a stoning of the Knesset. Leaders screamed from the balcony in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, not resting until a prime minister was assassinated, under the auspices of religious-Zionist rabbis.

Yes, the Zionist left also tried incitement in the 1990s. Ehud Barak was borne by waves of incitement against the ultra-Orthodox. Meretz preceded him, also expressing fierce hatred of the Shas party. But Shinui Party Chairman Tommy Lapid taught Meretz how it really works. In incitement, only the ultra-nationalists win. When Lapid Jr. (Yair, head of Yesh Atid) arrived, he utilized the same incitement against the ultra-Orthodox to make it into the Knesset. After that, he returned to the good old targets of incitement: the Arabs (with dismissive references to Arab Knesset members such as Haneen Zoabi) and anti-occupation groups like Breaking the Silence.

It is worth noting that as long as the pioneering spirit ruled here, calling for the recruitment of people to actually “do something” for the nation’s revival, incitement was of dubious value – partly because of the socialist ethos that shunned appealing to emotions. Since the collapse of that pioneering Israel, Israelis live as masses of individuals, retreating to a family-oriented life (and making quite a lot of children in the process), searching for their “Israeli identity” on root trips or by huddling around Channel 2 TV. This is like clay in the hands of the right. Zionist yeshivot are full of nationalistic rabbinical venom, while on YouTube Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beats the drums about “Arabs heading to the polling stations in droves.”

Ever since the last election, with the demise of his beloved Iranian hobbyhorse, Netanyahu has been busy consolidating his rule through incitement. It’s unclear what is endangering his rule, and there is no political explanation for his behavior, but every rival becomes an enemy, and Netanyahu keeps on drumming. The crushed left is an excellent target, a palpable punching bag. So are Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. It’s funny seeing Netanyahu condemning Haaretz and its columnist Yossi Klein in the morning, then seeing him at a funeral in the evening on an old Channel One TV documentary.

Don’t worry. Take a bus and see the despairing multitudes looking out the windows, or waiting in line at a health clinic, staring at TV screens or reading the free newspapers. People aren’t fighting one another. People don’t really care what the politicians are yelling about. It won’t end in bloodshed. A new war may even instill life into them. Most of them.

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