“What did they bring my parents to Israel for?” asked one, referring to the country’s founding elite, and answered: “You didn’t have Arabs then, so you needed our parents to do your cleaning and be your servants and your laborers, and your policemen too. You brought our parents to be your Arabs … But you know what? We’ve brought [Menachem] Begin down on you and now you’re in for it; for a long, long time.”
A long time it has indeed ben, 40 years, in fact, as what began on the dramatic night of 17 May 1977 produced a new political hegemon and an epoch rife with social transition, national defiance, and cultural revolt.
Never in its seven eventful decades did Israeli politics produce a moment quite as intense and transformative as the night when Menachem Begin, the perennial leader of the opposition and loser of eight straight general elections, handed Labor its first-ever electoral defeat.
Coining a new term in Israeli political lingo, TV news anchor Haim Yavin announced the improbable landslide with a one-word headline – mahapach – a liturgical term that uses the same root which modern-Hebrew uses for revolution and coup.
Begin’s victory was neither a violent revolution nor an unlawful coup, yet it was so breathtaking that, like so many things in Israel, it begged its own new word, in this case the newly minted adjective which ever since that night Israelis have been using regularly to describe a peaceful but sharp shift of power.
The shift from Labor to Likud seemed initially like an accident, an aberration that would surely be corrected by the next election. It was in that atmosphere that Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, a former head of the Histadrut federation of labor unions, quipped that night on TV: “I refuse to accept the people’s verdict.”
The way he and many others in Labor’s sprawling establishment initially read the situation, their defeat reflected not deep seated social fury and cultural pain, but passing circumstances.
The circumstances, to be sure, were indeed harsh.
Prior to the election, Labor was beset by a slew of corruption scandals, including the arrest of Bank of Israel governor-designate Asher Yadlin for embezzlement; the suicide of housing minister Avraham Ofer after police launched against him a bribery investigation; and the resignation of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin following a revelation that his wife held illegally an American bank account.
While this was happening on the legal plain, the emotional plain was clouded by the Yom Kippur War. Though it had been more than three years since the intelligence fiasco with which that war began, piling evidence concerning Labor leaders’ morality was compounded by doubts concerning their merits.
Finally, on the political plain, Labor was challenged by a new centrist party, Dash (The Democratic Movement for Change), which brandished celebrated generals, academics, and businessmen who ultimately wrested nearly one third of Labor’s electorate.
Yet Likud won the following election, too, and even more impressively, siphoning in 1981 a further 11 percent of the electorate and 48 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, more than David Ben-Gurion had ever won.
By the time Oz arrived the following year in Beit Shemesh as he toured the country for what would become the bestseller In the Land of Israel – it was clear that Israel was indeed changing in ways that ran deeper than any corruption scandal, parliamentary headcount or military debacle.
THE EPOCH’S most sweeping transformation was the one those residents of Beit Shemesh craved – the emotional; the deliverance of those in the geographic periphery, economic doldrums, and political backseats whom the previous order humiliated, whether by leaving them below, behind, or outside.
Israel’s mostly secular and socialist founding elite marginalized, antagonized, and in some cases also boycotted parts of the immigrant society it had worked so hard to build.
The most bluntly marginalized were the pre-state Revisionist movement’s veterans who, led by Menachem Begin, rejected Labor’s diplomatic pragmatism, from the Partition Plan to the Reparations Agreement with Germany.
Recalling the Revisionists’ creation of a rival Zionist movement, and the two movements’ clashes during the struggle against British rule, Labor barred Revisionists from public office. Though there had been exceptions, like the Mossad’s enlistment of underground veterans such as former Stern Group leader Yitzhak Shamir, Begin’s circle was ostracized and lived with a deep sense of insult and injury.
Above that layer loomed the religious Zionists. Though they repeatedly joined Labor’s coalitions, and as such did hold executive offices in assorted ministries, agencies, and municipalities, they were only allowed to reach that close to government’s inner core.
Despite their loyalty, Labor’s religious partners were never given any of the five senior ministries – defense, foreign affairs, finance, education or justice – and observant leaders could hardly be found in the army, police, secret services and diplomatic corps. That too fomented a sense of alienation.
Beyond modern-Orthodoxy lurked ultra-Orthodoxy, which did not seek public offices in the Zionist state, but felt religiously estranged from the Labor establishment because ultra-Orthodox sages, unlike modern-Orthodoxy’s rabbis, perceived Ben-Gurion and his disciples as Judaism’s enemies.
Yet towering above all of Labor’s discontents, both in terms of size and wrath, were the Middle Eastern immigrations of the 1950s and 60s, people like the ones Oz heard out in Beit Shemesh.
“When I was a little kid, my kindergarten teacher was white [= Ashkenazi] and her assistant was black [= Middle Eastern],” said one voice in that café to the scribbling Oz. “In school,” he went on, “my teacher was Iraqi and the principle was Polish. On the construction site where I worked my supervisor was some redhead from [union-owned construction conglomerate] Solel Boneh. At the clinic the nurse is Egyptian and the doctor Ashkenazi. In the army we Moroccans are the corporals and the officers from the kibbutz. All my life I’ve been on the bottom and you’ve been on top.”
It was an accurate, if crude, description of the social indigestion that resulted from the rapid arrival of mostly penniless, traditional, and undereducated multitudes from Muslim countries in a country led by better off, better educated, and mostly European secular Jews.
Having invested in this disgruntled population for years Begin represented to many among them a fellow victim of the establishment, a proud Jew who shared their religious traditionalism and impressed them with his nationalist rhetoric. Now they and their descendants emerged as an electoral wellspring that Labor would be at a loss to repatriate, to this day.
Begin understood that to generate a long-term commitment it was not enough to recruit this constituency at the ballots. He therefore cultivated young members of the new immigrations as political leaders, and thus inspired this population’s broader social mobility.
At the same time, the Middle Eastern immigrations’ cultural heritage now won new respect and confidence, first in the school system’s curriculum and textbooks, then in pop, rock, film, theatre and literature.
Historians will wonder to what extent Begin’s victory should be credited with subsequent social trends, but the fact is that in the decades following his premiership half the IDF’s chiefs of general staff were of Middle Eastern backgrounds as were four defense ministers, three foreign ministers, four finance ministers, two of Israel Police's last three inspectors-general, and also two leaders of the Labor party.
This is besides roughly one third of lawmakers and an even higher share of mayors, as well as major businessmen like energy and real estate tycoon Yitzhak Teshuva, banker Tzadik Bino, insurance magnate Shlomo Eliyahu, and telecoms mogul Haim Saban, all of whom were born in Muslim lands and arrived here as children.
The days when prime-minister Levi Eshkol held Yiddish singalongs in his home and his successor Golda Meir went to Yiddish standups in Tel Aviv – were over. A new Zeitgeist was now afoot.
THE EPOCH’S social revolution unfolded in tandem with the political elevation of the religious parties.
Begin lost no time placing the previously peripheral politicians at the heart of the state’s affairs, giving modern-Orthodoxy the Education Ministry and ultra-Orthodoxy the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee and later also the sensitive position of coalition chairman.
While these measures were partly circumstantial, they reflected a strategy to gather around the nationalist right the observant public’s multiple walks – from Hassidim, anti-Hassidim and messianic Zionists to the Sephardi sages who would join this alliance later, with the establishment of Shas.
This was the structure that produced the epoch’s most famous, controversial and visible imprint – the 200 Jewish settlements with which Begin blanketed the West Bank, a project that modern-Orthodoxy drove, ultra-Orthodoxy allowed, secular nationalism applauded, and Likud’s working-class voters welcomed due to the cheaper housing it offered in towns like Ariel and Maale Edomim.
Added up, this rainbow coalition’s mixture of nationalist, theological and social causes dominated Israeli history since 1977. Likud’s occasional electoral setbacks during this period did not undo its epochal dominance. On the contrary; Shimon Peres’s premiership in the mid-1980s, besides having been a partnership with Likud, led Israel’s grand transition from socialism to capitalism, effectively implementing the economic side of Begin’s political platform.
Similarly, Labor’s electoral victories in 1992 and 1999 resulted in ambitious peace proposals only to be followed by the violence that made the swing vote hand Labor six consecutive electoral defeats.
Ehud Olmert’s defeat of Likud in 2006, besides having been led mainly by lifelong Likudniks like himself, was followed by fighting in Gaza and Lebanon that fueled three Likud victories and a broad consensus – now shared even by Labor leader Isaac Herzog – that peace with the Palestinians will not arrive in the foreseeable future.
At the same time, Likud’s delivery of the groundbreaking peace accord with Egypt in 1979 enhanced Begin’s role as the shaper of the era even in the improbable realm of peacemaking, where he had been perceived as a hopelessly rigid hardliner.
Even so, the right’s leaders still feel that crucial parts of the Israeli establishment remain beyond their control and outside their voters’ pale. These include the judiciary, the media, academia, and the artistic scene. That is the context in which Likud and its satellites launched the current effort to redo these parts of Israel’s public domain as well.
In the judiciary, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has just increased the number of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices; in the media, Netanyahu-donor Sheldon Adelson launched a tabloid with the express assignment of competing with the country’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot; public broadcasting is in the process of being split in two and becoming funded by the state rather than the customers; in academia, a general university was established in the West Bank town of Ariel; and in theater, film and music, Culture Minister Miri Regev has defunded assorted projects which she judged anti-patriotic.
This is where Likud’s first victory has arrived in 40 years. An entirely different question is where it is headed.
On the one hand, the makings of the crises now plaguing veteran establishments from the US to France Italy, and Spain are absent in Israel, which faces nothing like the immigration problem that has destabilized European politics, or the social-industrial crisis that has fed the rise of Donald Trump.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has not nurtured a successor, and in fact has fended off potential heirs like Moshe Yaalon, Moshe Kahlon, and Avigdor Lieberman, each of whom started off as a Netanyahu loyalist and ended up establishing a competing party of his own.
This is besides the corruption allegations piling around Netanyahu, the ones about which he repeatedly says “there will be nothing because there is nothing.” While that forecast may prove true, it curiously echoes what Labor leaders said in winter 1977, shortly before they heard in disbelief the Israeli Walter Cronkite’s terse announcement: mahapach.(Jerusalem Report 15 June)