When Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister in 1977, one of his first acts was to visit the grave of Ze’ev Jabotinsky to inform his mentor and teacher that, at long last, after thirty years of uninterrupted rule by the Labor Zionists, the Jabotinsky-ites were in power.
Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin is not the first President of the State from the Likud, but he is the first genuine representative of the Jabotinsky tradition to hold that position.
His decision to address the memorial ceremony for the 49 Israeli Arabs killed by Israeli border police in Kfar Kassem in 1956, calling it a “terrible crime” committed by the state against its Arab citizens, will only surprise those who simplistically look at him as a “right-wing” politician. Rivlin’s history as an MK was certainly marked by a steadfast opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but no less passionately, he dedicated his considerable political weight to speaking out in favor of the rights of Israel’s minorities. He once responded to a march through the Arab town of Umm-al-Fahm by the Jewish far-right by appearing on a platform with the town’s Mayor to declare the importance of Israel’s Arab citizens to the state.
Rivlin has been a quintessential Jabotinsky-ite in this regard. For all the opprobrium flung at the founder of Revisionist Zionism by David Ben-Gurion and others, for all the crude caricaturing of Jabotinsky as a fascist, he was in fact the most committed liberal democrat of all the major Zionist leaders.
It was Jabotinsky, not one of the luminaries of the Zionist Left, who wrote these words:
It is an incorrect view which states that government
supported by the majority is democracy. The democratic
concept is the result of a historical process, of struggles
against governments of rule by the minority. This is
not yet, however, true democracy. Democracy means
freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate
freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom
of the individual, there can be no democracy. These
contradictions will have to be prevented. The Jewish
State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority
will not be rendered defenseless. The aim of democracy
is to guarantee that the minority too has influence on
matters of state policy. After all, that minority comprises
individuals who were also created ‘in the image of God’.
Rivlin alone survived the cull of Jabotinsky-ite liberals from the Likud Knesset list at the last election. Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan. who shared his commitment to keeping the Likud as an avowedly liberal nationalist party, were voted out by an increasingly chauvinistic party base. Populist nationalists like Danny Danon and Miri Regev, for all their pretensions (Danon regularly cites his debt to Jabotinsky), never seem to miss an opportunity to remind us just how far they’ve traveled from the teachings of the founder of their movement.
Who of the young guard of the Likud would associate themselves with the following lines from Jabotinsky?:
Even after the formation of a Jewish majority, a
considerable Arab population will always remain in
Palestine. If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants
then things will fare badly for the entire country. The
political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will
thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel.
Rivlin by contrast has frequently echoed precisely these sentiments.
And like Jabotinsky, Rivlin’s commitment to minority rights goes hand-in-hand with an unshakable belief in the importance of a strong Jewish military capability. Against the background of the recent violence and tensions in Jerusalem he has been typically hawkish in his response to Arab terrorism, whilst also speaking out against the anti-Arab racism bubbling up in Israeli society.
At a time when Israel faces threats on every border and peace looks as far away as ever, but also as extreme Jewish nationalism is on the rise and incited by demagogic political leaders, Jabotinsky offers the model to be followed: Muscular Zionism – his “Iron Wall” of uncompromising military might – alongside a commitment to a democratic society of equal rights, including protection of the minority from a tyranny of the majority.
The powers of the President in Israel are limited, but Rivlin has an important role to play using his pulpit to make the Jabotinsky-ite case.