Friday, January 27th | 5 Shevat 5783

November 1, 2017 4:05 pm

‘Revisionist’ New York Times Suddenly Discovers New Love for Jabotinsky, Begin

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avatar by Ira Stoll


The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times runs a truly overheated and ridiculous “Memo From Jerusalem” by Isabel Kershner under the headline “Is the End of Israeli Democracy Nigh? Israelis Debate Its Future.”

Rather than focus on the many silly aspects of the article, I decided, for once, to focus on something worth praising. Describing Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, the Times writes:

Mr. Rivlin champions the old-school nationalist but liberal democracy envisioned by the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement of Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, who pushed for a greater Israel territorially but were sticklers for defending minority rights and the rule of law.

This made me laugh out loud. The Times now declares that Jabotinsky and Begin were liberal democrats, “sticklers for defending minority rights and the rule of law.” What a change — and a welcome change — this is from how the Times covered Begin and Jabotinsky in years past.

Let’s review the record.

A January 27, 1935 news article in the Times about an appearance by Jabotinsky in Manhattan reported, “As leader of the militant right wing of Zionism and frequently accused of Fascist leanings, Mr. Jabotinsky has been opposed by Socialist and Democratic Zionists.”

In 1948, when Begin was visiting the United States, the Times greeted him with a news article reporting on a statement by Albert Einstein and 20 other “scholars and teachers” who denounced Begin and his followers as “terrorists” who “have preached an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority.” The statement said that “like other Fascist parties…they have proposed corporate unions on the Italian Fascist model.”

In a July 10, 1977 article previewing Begin’s visit to Washington to meet with President Carter, C.L. Sulzberger wrote that in 1948, he “personally” had “heard Mr. Ben‐Gurion refer to Mr. Begin as ‘that damned terrorist.’”

In June 1981, under the headline, “Israelis Worry Over What Some View As a Tendency to ‘Growth of Fascism,’” David K. Shipler reported:

As Israel moves through an emotional political campaign marked by violence and name-calling, a worried debate has broken out on the future of the country’s democratic process.

Many Israelis who are not usually given to extreme statements are now sounding urgent alarms about antidemocratic trends, insensitivity to individual rights, governmental pressures against a free press and a rising chauvinism that sees criticism as disloyal, treacherous and unpatriotic.

Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem said this week that Likud, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s political bloc, ”has fostered a hysterical personality cult which arouses fears of the growth of fascism in this country.” … Shimon Peres, the Labor Party candidate for Prime Minister, declared: ”We won’t permit Israeli democracy to be turned into autocratic rule, with an idolized leader, with Khomeini-like statements. I see the battle today as being over Israel’s democratic soul.” …

In the name of national security, Mr. Begin’s Government has fostered a tightening of attitude during its four years in office. Journalists in the state-owned television authority report overt pressure on them to slant their newscasts away from Arab interests on the occupied West Bank, for instance. At least one independent newspaper with an anti-Government tone has been warned that the Government will attempt to do it financial harm.

Sound familiar?

In August 1984, David Margolick reported for the Times, “Mainstream Zionists like Chaim Weitzman and David Ben-Gurion long considered Jabotinsky a dangerous man, a militarist, even a fascist.”

In November of 1988, Leon Wieseltier wrote in the Times, “Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism and the idol of the Likud, completed an agreement with the Ukrainian nationalist who was responsible for the bloodiest pogroms of the 20th century.” (Wieseltier seemed to have maybe meant this as a kind of praise, or at least as a way of encouraging Israel to be open to negotiating with the PLO, but that’s beside the point.)

As recently as 2012, Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote about how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “raised in the Jabotinsky strain of Zionism by a father who viewed Arabs as ‘semi-barbaric’ and rejected an ‘emasculating moralism’ in favor of a new warrior breed of Jew.”

Got that? While Begin and Jabotinsky were alive, and even after their deaths, the Times described them as fascists and terrorists. Now that they are safely off stage, the Times is rehabilitating them — revising its own coverage of the Revisionists for the purpose of using them as a cudgel with which to beat the current elected prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu.

If Netanyahu can take any solace from this, it is that he can be secure and confident in the knowledge that, 40 years from now, the Times will be invoking him as a model of moderation in comparison to whoever then occupies the Israeli prime minister’s office. The only Revisionist Zionist the Times likes, alas, are ones who aren’t currently prime minister.

In the meantime, it’s really wonderful to see the Times finally coming to its senses on the question of Jabotinsky and Begin. May the newspaper eventually make similar progress in respect to Netanyahu.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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