Banner: a photograph of a suite in the King David Hotel in 1930s Jerusalem.
Shortly after noon on July 22, 1946, several men dressed as Arabs entered the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. At that time, the hotel housed the headquarters of the British military in Palestine, as well as the central offices of the British Mandatory government. The men placed 350 kg (770 lbs) of explosives in the La Régence café beneath the hotel, then left into the blistering summer heat outside.
Thirty-seven minutes later, an enormous blast demolished part of the hotel and left 91 people dead, including 21 British government officials and 41 Arabs.
The bombers were members of the Jewish paramilitary organization Irgun.
In the aftermath, the head of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion, and the public Jewish political leadership in Palestine, denounced the attack forcefully. A local Jewish newspaper called the Irgun “fascists.” By today’s standards, they could not have been less wrong.
The Irgun and a smaller group called Lehi – or, often, the Stern Gang – were the two violently nationalist Jewish paramilitaries in Mandatory Palestine. They got into political disputes with the mainstream Jewish leadership and defence forces (the Haganah) as often as they got into military conflicts with the British and the Arabs. The Irgun and Lehi massacred Arabs and assassinated high-profile Western targets, such as the British minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, in 1944, and Folke Bernadotte, the official UN mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948.
Lehi was infamous for seeking an alliance with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy prior to 1942, believing Britain to be the greater enemy to Jewry and apparently salivating at the opportunity to facilitate the mass movement of German Jews to the Land of Israel. Both Lehi and the Irgun were adherents of the ideology of Revisionist Zionism, which maintained that all Jews had a right to enter Israel at any time, and only armed force could secure this right from infringement by the Arabs and the British.
This ideology was in the minority among Jews in Mandatory Palestine, and the two biggest Zionist figures of the time, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, were both members of Israel’s left-wing Labour Party, Mapai.
During the Israeli war of independence in 1948, David Ben-Gurion presided over the announcement of the formation of the State of Israel, and the Haganah morphed into the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The Irgun and Lehi both agreed to disband, surrender their arms, and enlist in the IDF in exchange for a general amnesty. The Irgun tested this agreement, however, and violated it, as well as a UN ceasefire, when they attempted to smuggle arms into Israel from France aboard the Altalena. Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun, was awaiting the ship on the shore himself.
The Altalena was sailing near Tel Aviv, and David Ben-Gurion ordered IDF forces on the shore to fire at the ship. Machine guns raked the ship until it caught fire, then kept at it until the crewmembers and passengers were jumping overboard and the Altalena had sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Menachem Begin was hysterical, but Ben-Gurion proclaimed: “Blessed be the gun which set the ship on fire; that gun will have its place in Israel’s War Museum.” Nearly 20 people died in the affair.
Menachem Begin disbanded the Irgun shortly thereafter and did not test the agreement again. Jewish civil war was avoided through David Ben-Gurion’s wise decision to shoot machine guns at defectors until they licked boot heels, and Menachem Begin’s wise decision to lick Jewish boot heels instead of Arab or British boot heels.
David Ben-Gurion remained de facto and/or de jure leader of Israel until 1967, to great acclaim. And yet, though Ben-Gurion, the Labour Party, and the Israeli Left won the battle, going by electoral numbers, Menachem Begin won the war.
Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected Prime Minister of Israel – David Ben-Gurion’s position – in 1996, and has held the position since 2009. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is a direct descendant of the right-wing Herut party founded in 1948 by Menachem Begin, itself the obvious political adaptation of the terroristic Irgun. Herut was founded five days before the Altalena affair. Zionist Union, the successor to the Israeli Labour Party (Mapai) today holds fewer seats than Likud.
In the first Israeli general election of 1949, Herut won fewer seats than the Communist Party of Israel, and less than one third of the number of Mapai seats. Today, the Communist Party is dead and gone, and Herut’s successor Likud is running the government without the Left.
Some research reveals an interesting pattern in Israeli history compared to other industrialized Western nations: the complete and utter collapse of the Israeli Left since the founding of Israel, and the steady ascendancy of the Israeli Right – and not an Anglophone-style milquetoast Right, but a nationalistic and religiously-inclined Right descended from militiamen and terrorists.
Here’s my attempt to numerically chart the collapse of the Israeli Left:
Israel’s proportional representation system has wrought a litany of factional, religious, regional, and ethnic parties since the country’s founding, so I avoided them and focused on the most prominent ideological parties on the Right and Left, and especially on the ancestral lines of Ben-Gurion-Mapai-Alignment-ZU and Begin-Irgun-Lehi-Likud. With the exception of a small blip in the 17th Knesset, when a centrist alliance led by the Left stole a number of Likudniks, the Israeli Left has been in freefall since the 1950s.
The dominant Israeli Left parties were up to 7.5x larger than the Right party in the state’s infancy, yet haven’t surpassed the Right since the dawn of the new millennium.
Menachem Begin first became Prime Minister in 1977, four years after the death of David Ben-Gurion, and beating out Ben-Gurion’s Labour successor Shimon Peres. The man who brought down the King David Hotel and second-guessed the Israeli state as soon as it was established was now its leader. The 1977 election result was termed a “revolution” by a TV anchor.
Less than a decade later, Yitzhak Shamir was elected Prime Minister. Yitzhak Shamir was a Lehi leader prior to the 1948 war. And barely a decade after that, Benjamin Netanyahu first took the office of Prime Minister of Israel.
Why did the Israeli Left fall out of power? I am not yet sure of the reason why, but a couple explanations worth exploring come to mind.
One possibility is that the early dominance of the Left was due entirely to its status as a set of institutions under the command of great men like David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, and a number of their peers and contemporaries like Moshe Dayan and Yigael Yadin. The rule of this set of Jewish leaders lasted from roughly around the 1930s to the mid-1970s, corresponding almost perfectly to the predominance of Mapai et al.
It would not be hard to argue, à la Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history, that the institutions of the Israeli Left were just manifestations of the tenacious leadership of a small group of Israeli Jews. Menachem Begin outlived David Ben-Gurion, and took over the Israeli state to the best of his ability, setting up his descendants in power.
Another possibility is that Israel’s Jewish demographics shifted concretely to the Right in the 50 years following independence. One of the articles I found that noticed the phenomenon blamed the influx of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews and Jews from the USSR. The author’s reasoning is dubious to say the least, but it is possible that the founding stock of Israel, in large part kibbutz-working socialists from Central Europe and Germany, was decisively altered by these newcomers with very different ideas about politics, nation, identity, and the Arab menace.
Trails of international Jewish money and influence are also necessary to explore. Israel was founded in no small part thanks to an enormous non-profit, the Jewish Agency, that collected funds for emigration, settlement, weapons, farm equipment, machinery, etc. The Rothschild family funded Jewish settlement in Palestine in the 19th century. French, American, British, Soviet, and Czechoslovakian support were all crucial at different points in Israeli history. The Jewish diaspora has arguably been more important to Israel than the settled population itself.
Dissident rightists of all stripes should pay attention to Israel and to Israeli history. The conjuring of an ethnonationalist state in hostile enemy territory in less than a century is not the only interesting thing about the Jewish state. Its dying Left and ascendant Right in a time period when the opposite happened in all Western countries is also something very peculiar. Who will control Israel in 50 years’ time? It will not be the socialists, communists, or progressives. By all accounts, it will be the nationalists, the conservatives, and the hardline religious Jews. It may be a very different Israel from the one envisioned by its founders.
Israel’s Left collapsed like the King David Hotel, and Menachem Begin laughed all the way to the Prime Minister’s office, and then all the way to Israel’s future.