Josef Olmert

17 May 1977: The Day Israel Finally Became a Democracy

May 17 is a momentous day in the annals of our people.It was in this day, in 1939, when the British Government of Neville Chamberlain, the man with the umbrella, the partner of Adolph Hitler to the shameful Munich Agreement, published the document of betrayal of the Jewish people, the notorious White Paper. 4 months before the beginning of WW2, the British all but abolished the Balfour Declaration, and doomed our people to stay locked in Eastern Europe. The rest is the bloody history of our people. But then, there is the 17 May 1977, the day when Menachem Begin and the Jabotinski Movement/Herut Party/Likud Party finally came to power in Israel, after 29 years of an independent Israel, after 44 years of Labor domination of the Zionist Movement.

So, why then the beginning of real democracy in Israel?, well, to be sure, as of 1948 , there were elections, there were parties, there were courts, there was media, all the ingredients of a real and kicking democracy. Not really.

It was the Mapai and Ben Gurion Israel. It was ”Their ” Israel, not ”our” as well. Our means the followers of the historic Jabotinski Movement, later the members and supporters of the Irgun, the Herut Party as established in 1948, the people of Altalena. Yes, we [not me…still in planning stage… our families], were citizens, but it was Ben Gurion was the almighty Messiah who coined the phrase ”without Herut and Mak” [the Communist Party], thus taking a glorious Zionist movement out of the Zionist field, shaming its ideology, outcasting its members, turning them to pariahs in their own beloved homeland. Was it so simple to get a job in those distant days, if you were ”one of them”?, not really. Was their part in the heroic struggle for establishment of the state ever recognized?, hell no! Even the simple humane act of allowing the bones of the great teacher Ze’ev Jabotinski to be finally put to eternal rest in the land he fought for was denied. Welcome to Mapai Land, welcome to thge elitist Socialist Israel of the 1950’s. It was a great state, full of achievements, full of dynamism, absorbing immigrants from four corners of the world, building the Negev and Galilee, in short a country to be proud of.

Yet, “they” did not want “us” to feel equal. They did a great deal to prevent us from feeling it. It was ”BEAUTIFUL ISRAEL”, and clearly , if we did not belong, then we were what?, ”ugly Israel”?

Menachem begin who took the mantle of leadership after the untimely death of Jabotinski, was the main target for ridicule and hatred. Ben Gurion did not even call him by name, and for those who raise their eyebrows, Ben Gurion was GREAT!, no other word can better describe him, but he was vindictive, petty on many occasions, the subject of a personality cult, ”hayahid bedoro” [the one in the generation], and therefore Menachem Begin had to be the opposite of all that, if we are to borrow from another culture, the anti-Christ…

Menachem Begin deserves a separate article [one only?, many…], but in the context of this article, the main point is the fact, that he was the leader/politician who not only survived the character assassination made against him, he also managed to create the political ”alliance of dispossessed”, the alliance of ideological Revisionists, the Mizrachim and Religious people, the electoral coalition , which also includes the Olim from the former USSR, the coalition , which is still in power nowadays. Building a coalition like that took time, and the profound reasons behind the inclusion of the Mizrachim and Religious constituencies are rooted in the earlier history of the Zionist Movement, and cannot be analyzed here. I am always reminded, that in Hatikva Neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the main street was always Haetzel Street, not Haganah Street… not an episodal note though. Hatikva voted Begin in the 1950’s, Hatikva voted Likud in 2015 as well. But even if there are conducive conditions for a political change , and in 1977 there were some very significant ones, there had to be a person , one leader who could channel the sense of frustration with the system, the sense of disenfranchisement into a positive political outlet, not through violence, not through incitement, not by calling for an end to democracy, rather by offering an alternative vision, by positive action, by mobilizing people in a voluntary way , first to believe, that a change is possible, then to bring it about.This was the greatness of Menachem Begin.

And so, in 17 May 1977, the strets in Jerusalem where I lived were very peaceful. No air of great change, but i could not but notice, that there were mostly Likud activists in the streets, many kippa-wearing Mizrachi youngsters. I , for one, knew that that the change was finally occurring. Then came Haim Yavin at 10 P.M and uttered the unforgettable word”Mahapach” [an upheava]. Menachem Begin came finally to the Promised Land, and with him many Israelis, who finally got their proper say in their beloved country. Begin’s first act was to announce ”Project Renewal” , the great project aimed at improving the lot of the poorer neighborhoods of the big cities, of the development town people, mostly the Mizrachim. ”Second Israel” finally became Israel.

Sadly enough, while the name Likud is the same as before, the electoral coalition is more or less the same, this is NOT the Likud of old days. This is for another time, today is a day of proud memory for those like me who until 1977 were called the”porshim”[the outcasts…].

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina