Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As the bicentennial of the United States Constitution was approaching in 1989, Michael Kammen published a book about its place in American culture—A Machine That Would Go of Itself. At the time, proud Americans passionately embraced their faith in the perfection of the country’s founding document, hammered out in the ­furnace of compromise, and they harbored an almost ­mystical conviction that it was perpetually suited to changing circumstances.

Contemporary fashions are far more skeptical. Some of the central features of the Constitution, from the electoral college to federalism to the toleration of slavery, are blamed for our present predicaments. Many firmly believe that the machine of constitutional governance can keep going only through substantial amendment, which is virtually impossible to do under current political circumstances, or wholesale reinterpretation. But many wonder how the machine got going in the first place: How did the American system become so convincingly legitimate, and how did it remain so? Toxic partisanship shows us that democratic self-government is fragile; most democratic experiments have ended in failure. We are therefore more aware that the perpetuation of democracy cannot be guaranteed through the perfection of its basic laws alone. Our traditions of governance require, at crucial junctures, solid virtues of leadership and cooperation. This is one reason we pay so much attention to the moments of founding and fracture. As we confront the divisions of our day, we look back and admire the perseverance and dignity of Washington and Lincoln. We take the measure of divisive struggles of other countries, hoping that some measure of wise and sober leadership might temper our own.

The acerbic rhetoric of the present moment puts me in mind of the tense conflict between the socialist or “labor” majority and the Revisionist nationalist minority that ­almost led to civil war in the nascent state of Israel. By the 1930s, long before the state was declared in May 1948, the lines had been drawn. The Revisionists, led by Ze’ev ­Jabotinsky, were more militant in their idea of Jewish self-defense and emphasized the urgency of establishing a ­Jewish state. They rejected the socialism that predominated among Palestinian Jews. In June 1933, Haim ­Arlosoroff, de facto foreign minister of the Zionist Organization that operated as a shadow government, was murdered on a Tel Aviv beach. He had just returned from Germany, where he had tried to negotiate an emigration agreement with the Nazi authorities. Revisionists were accused of the crime (in my opinion, wrongly), and the fallout cemented labor domination. Jabotinsky seceded from the Zionist ­Organization and formed a separate Zionist body.

With the outbreak of World War II, David Ben-­Gurion, the leading voice of Palestinian Zionism, enjoined the movement to oppose the White Paper of 1939 (promulgated by the British to strictly limit Jewish refugee immigration) as if there were no war, while at the same time supporting the war as if there were no White Paper. Once it became evident that the Allies would win, this effort to balance opposition to British policy in Palestine with support of the forces bent on Hitler’s defeat did not satisfy militants. Late in the war, Menachem Begin, a young follower of Jabotinsky, proclaimed a revolt against the ­British Mandate. At times, the Hagana (self-defense arm of the Zionist establishment) cooperated with Begin’s Irgun, a more extreme paramilitary organization. Yet at other times, known as the “Season,” they cooperated with the British in hunting down Irgun members. Begin recognized the fragility of Jewish unity, which was necessary for independence, and thus wisely refused to engage in reprisals.

Once the state was declared and surrounding Arab states, who rejected the U.N. partition plan, invaded, Ben-Gurion undertook the task of consolidating the Mandate-era militias. This meant dissolving the more left-wing elites within the Hagana and getting rid of the Irgun. Matters came to a head in the “Altalena affair,” named after the ship on which the Irgun sought to import large quantities of arms. There was disagreement regarding their distribution among various factions. Ben-Gurion chose to interpret the dispute as a threatened coup. The young officer who was ordered to fire on the Altalena, Yitzhak Rabin, wrote thirty years later that the government had been wrong about Begin. In the event, the boat went up in flames. Begin, for his part, commanded his loyalists to turn the other cheek and thus prevented civil war. He chose to pursue his aims by forming the parliamentary opposition. It may have been his finest hour.

But this was not the end of violence. During the first three years of independence, an influx of close to a million new immigrants nearly doubled Israel’s population. Most were oriental Jews, refugees from persecution in Arab lands. Providing for them necessitated an austerity regime for everyone else. Consequently, Ben-Gurion’s plurality at the polls decreased. However, Begin’s party, Herut, did not gain voters, and its representation in the Knesset was halved. The protest vote went to the bourgeois General Zionist list. For several months after this electoral failure, Begin disappeared to Europe, not even showing up to take his oath as a Knesset member.

The possibility of reparations from West Germany for Jewish property looted by the Nazis was one means of salvaging the Israeli economy. During Begin’s absence, diplomats came to an agreement on this very delicate matter. For much of the Israeli public, direct negotiation with Germany was unacceptable and compensation for property smacked of “blood money.”

A reinvigorated Begin excoriated the agreement forged by Ben-Gurion’s government at a mass rally. Once (during the Altalena crisis), he declared, he had given the word “No!” to resistance; now, he would give the word “Yes!”—“Yes” to descending again into the underground, “Yes” to saying goodbye to one’s family. “Nations rose to the barricades” at such desecration and provocation! Repairing to the nearby Knesset, trailed by the crowd he had inflamed, ­Begin continued in the same vein. Demonstrators seethed, rocks shattered the windows, and the tear gas outside snaked through and blinded the legislators inside. The agreement was ratified. Menachem Begin was suspended by the Knesset for three months.

What was the outcome? Begin never took any action to make good on his threats of going underground. Adenauer and Ben-Gurion continued their careful diplomatic dance against the backdrop of domestic opposition. Yehiam Weitz, a historian of the Israeli right respected by both sides, has argued that, though Begin was the star performer in this drama of polarization, others may have instigated his fiery speech. Moreover, this pattern of being preempted by less responsible underlings was repeated at other junctures in Begin’s career. In the short run, the reparations tumult probably boosted Herut electorally; it became the primary opposition party in the next election. Those who opposed him (and there were many who did so with vehemence) were handed one more reason to derogate Begin as a demagogue. By the time he became prime minister twenty-five years later, ending the labor movement’s long hegemony, the young firebrand had built a reputation as a noble and responsible leader, though his fiery emotions could occasionally get the better of him until the end.

Political foundings are hard. One is tempted to explain episodes like these as products of labile beginnings. After all, early threats of anarchy and disruption faced Washington and his successors. Deep disagreements can also undermine and destroy democratic culture. Legislative battles over slavery were only resolved by a harrowing civil war. Constitutions cannot forestall this danger. Even idealistic and intelligent leaders cannot ensure comity.

Historical analogies can mislead contemporary analysis. Why didn’t the Israeli reparations controversy lead to civil war? One prominent factor was the indelible, desperate sense of shared destiny and purpose in the new nation. Another was that the argument over reparations, though it touched a deep nerve among the people, was not long-lived. After the Ben-Gurion government prevailed in the 1952 reparations controversy, the prospect of destabilizing violence ended. The American debate over slavery, by contrast, became more pronounced and intractable as time went on, and the country eventually careened toward war. With the United States polarized politically, socially, and economically, one can’t help wondering whether our divisions can be held in check by an overriding conviction that we must put our differences aside as we unite in our loyalty to the Constitution. Or are our differences so irrefragable and our partisanship so bitter that we will become ungovernable?

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.

Photo by Government Press Office (Israel) via Creative Commons

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines