Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Quoting the Wrong Quotations

I first met Menachem Begin personally in a synagogue in Queens in 1968. He was on an Israel Bonds tour and I and other Betar youth movement members provided an honor guard for the event. Of course, I had earlier "met" Begin through the books he wrote, which I had read. I had also been present, during my year of training in Israel in 1966-1967, at outdoor rallies and indoor meetings where he had spoken. Later, as a result of my work in the political field, I even took dictation from Mr. Begin in the summer of 1982 at coalition talks when he was prime minister.Thus, it was with interest and curiosity that I listened to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presenting his disengagement program to the nation. In his statement before the Knesset last week, he recalled words Begin spoke over two decades ago during the first debate on his autonomy plan. He also quoted two lines from a song penned by Begin's mentor, Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Obviously, he was seeking to underpin his drastic turn-about from traditional nationalist camp policies by attaching himself to luminaries of the past.There can be a problem in drawing historical parallels based on the relevance of what was once said, and it is obvious that Sharon was not that successful in attempting to mobilize this postmortem support. Let me start with Jabotinsky.Sharon noted that Jabotinsky possessed a vision for partnership and peace among the peoples of this land. In an article published in his last collection, The Jewish War Front, he even proposed the possibility of an Arab president for the future state of Israel. In the plenum, Sharon read two lines from a song written in 1934 that became a popular song of the Betar movement.Its fourth stanza reads: "There he will benefit from bountiful plenty and joy, the son of the Arab, the son of Nazareth and my son." The song's title, Sharon neglected to inform his listeners, is "The Left Bank of the Jordan" and the "there" in the line quoted is quite a different geographical reality from Sharon's disengagement. Jabotinsky's "there" was the entire area of the mandate granted to Great Britain by the League of Nations in 1922.To Jabotinsky's great regret, the mandate was whittled down considerably and all of Trans-Jordan, east of the Jordan River, was awarded to a Saudi Arabian refugee named Abdallah, a scion of the Hashemite family. Forced by his personal commitment to institutional discipline, Jabotinsky, as a member of the Zionist Executive, did not vote to reject the loss of homeland territory. But he later resigned in protest and his Revisionist party championed the concept of the integrity of the homeland.So, while Sharon sought to don a mantle that Jabotinsky once wore, in truth, his quotation was, to put it kindly, a slight misrepresentation. And now, to what Menachem Begin said.On December 28, 1977, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin presented his plan for Palestinian autonomy. Sharon quoted the following excerpt, where Begin refers to criticism directed against him from Chanan Porat of Gush Emunim:"I once said, during an argument with people from Gush Emunim, that I love them today, and will continue to like them tomorrow. I told them: 'You are wonderful pioneers, builders of the land... However, you have one weakness - you have developed among yourselves a messianic complex.... I call on you today, my good friends from Gush Emunim, to perform your tasks with no less modesty than your predecessors, on other days and nights. We do not require anyone to supervise the kashrut of our commitment to the Land of Israel!"It is easy to understand why Sharon selected these lines at this moment, faced as he is with his decision to expel some 8,000 people from their homes. Begin's legalistic approach, we know, led him to distinguish between Sinai and the former Mandate area. Sinai, Begin insisted, was not Eretz-Yisrael. Sharon, however, is dealing with Gaza and a portion of northern Samaria. This is another matter entirely.In fact, a few paragraphs on in his speech, we read Begin saying: "When it was demanded of us [in Washington] that we agree to the establishment of a so-called 'Palestinian' state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, we replied that in no way would we accept such an entity, which represents a mortal danger to the state of Israel."Moreover, in Begin's last public address, on August 14, 1983, he said: "As far as Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district are concerned, we have a perfect right to live and stay there;" a clear indication that his vision of the people of Israel in the land of Israel was quite different from that of Mr. Sharon.Words are important. People remember them. They remind us. Care, too, we now know, must be taken to guard them and to recall them in their context and circumstances. To do otherwise is to distort, something public debate should not tolerate.

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