Jabotinsky, Netanyahu, and the American debates

When I arose at 0330 this morning to watch the American presidential debates, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of leadership – what makes a good leader and why it’s rare to find one who is also a good politician. So I was pleased to run into this very interesting article by Elliott Jager about a man who was a great leader of the Jewish people, although he was not successful as a politician and unfortunately died far too soon.

The man, of course, was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whom generations of left-leaning politicians dismissed as a fascist and an extremist, and whom many still think of as a footnote in Zionist history that is best kept at the bottom of the page.

But Jager points out that Jabotinsky’s positions were more nuanced than many think today. As a classical liberal, he was absolutely committed to the protection of individual rights (something that the Left likes to talk about a great deal while doing the precise opposite).

This includes the rights of Arabs in the Jewish state. Jabotinsky clearly saw the distinction between civil rights, such as those enumerated in the American Bill of Rights, and national or collective rights, the most obvious example of which is the Law of Return for Jews alone. Those who insist that the Jewishness of the state is essentially undemocratic elide this distinction. Jabotinsky’s demand for a state with national rights for the Jewish people was uncompromising, but he would never have accepted discrimination against minorities within the state.

Jabotinsky would not have agreed to limitations on where any citizen could live, but he would also have rejected Arab demands to change the flag and the national anthem, which are clearly national issues. And while he lived a secular life and was opposed to any kind of religious coercion, he nevertheless respected Judaism. Jager notes that the food at his Betar youth movement camps was kosher and “Shabbat was respected.”

One of the themes that Jabotinsky returned to throughout his life was the centrality of Jewish self-sufficiency and self-defense, and the importance of military power in the survival of a state. I suspect that he would be as uncomfortable with Israel’s degree of dependence on the US as I am. Jager quotes him saying,

For centuries, the nations of the world had been used to hearing that Jews were defeated here, and Jews were protected there ‒ you either defeated or protected us ‒ and it is difficult to decide what was more humiliating: the defeats or being protected. It is time to show the world a Jewish rifle with a Jewish bayonet.

Jabotinsky died at 59 in 1940, but he was the ideological father of Begin’s Herut party, the secular Right in Israeli politics. As everyone knows, Begin lost out in the struggle with the socialists of David Ben-Gurion, and – as happens when an ideological group gains power – the personalities and ideas of the out-group are denigrated and even written out of history. Ben-Gurion didn’t even permit Jabotinsky’s remains to be interred in Israel, and he wasn’t reburied here until the next PM, Levi Eshkol, ordered it in 1964. Even though the Labor monopoly ended in 1977, Jabotinsky still, in my opinion, doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the fathers of the Jewish state.

Jager suggests that today’s Right is more religious and “populist” (whatever that means) than Jabotinsky would have liked. “One would be hard pressed to find anything more than trace elements of his legacy in Netanyahu government policies or in the views of rank-and-file Likud members,” he writes. And,

In contrast, today’s more religious and populist Right has been pursuing legislation that would hamstring Israel’s admittedly hyper-activist Supreme Court so as to bend it to popular will. On civil liberties too, the Right has no interest in limiting the power of the state-established ultra-Orthodox (and non-Zionist) rabbinate. Netanyahu, though personally not observant, has allowed Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza to be administered as if it were an ultra-Orthodox shtiebel.

I would argue that the Supreme Court needs to be reined in not to make it agree with the “popular will,” but rather because it has elevated its concept of “democracy” – which blurs the distinction between national and civil rights – above Zionism. Jabotinsky would explain this distinction to the honorable justices, as well as the absolutely essential Jewish component in the concept “Jewish and democratic state.” Indeed, Netanyahu, in pushing for a Jewish State Basic Law that would explicate the meaning of “Jewish State” in Israel’s effective constitution, is faithfully following Jabotinsky.

As far as the Haredi influence over the government and its takeover of the Rabbinate, this is indeed a problem. It was a problem for Labor governments also, and is an artifact of Israel’s coalition system in which the Haredi parties often hold the balance of power. I don’t think it represents Netanyahu’s divergence from Jabotinsky’s principles as much as practical politics. There’s no doubt that Jabotinsky would oppose it, but unlike Jabotinsky, who led a movement, Netanyahu needs to make and keep a coalition.

On the other hand, the growing influence of Judaism in popular culture, the army and politics is not at all a bad thing, and as long as it is not coercive, I doubt that Jabotinsky would object. He certainly understood the need for a spiritual component to Zionism, if not a traditional “religious” one.

Jabotinsky also stressed the importance for a leader to display hadar, a difficult word to translate, but it connotes dignity, gravitas, self-respect, and maybe honesty too. My own opinion is that Netanyahu, despite his faults, is a pretty good heir to the Jabotinsky tradition, and I think he is aware of the history and the responsibility that this places on his shoulders.

I watched the debate. There were no big surprises. Donald was Donald and Hillary put on a polished, empty performance. Two “leaders” without a sense of history, without responsibility to anyone but themselves. Without hadar.

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