Israel mints ultranationalist hero
This week Israeli schools began lessons on Rehavam Zeevi, an advocate of expelling Palestinians.
The high school students listening to principal Arik Wurzburger's lecture may not have realized it, but they were participating in the creation of a new Israeli hero.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Rehavam Zeevi, assassinated a year ago by Palestinian militants, was regarded almost to the end of his life as an extremist for his anti-Arab views. But now, with a push from the government, and amid the charged emotions generated by war and terrorism, he is taking on new life after death. His call for "transfer," a euphemism for a mass expulsion of Palestinians, is now embraced by an estimated 20 to 30 percent of Israelis.
A battle over Mr. Zeevi's legacy came to a head this week when some, but not all, schools offered lessons about his "heritage" in keeping with a government recommendation.
Pitting a small but vocal left-wing opposition against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national unity coalition, the debate over Zeevi's legacy offers a window into a larger contest over Israel's identity.
Those promoting Zeevi's legacy control the Ministry of Education and other government institutions and identify themselves with a Jewish nationalism of territorial expansion and power. Those rejecting his ascent to hero status identify themselves with territorial compromise with the Palestinians and humanistic values, concepts under fire after two years of fighting.
At the Light of the Torah High School in Israeli- annexed East Jerusalem, Mr. Wurzburger told the religious pupils, many of whom identify themselves as "transfer" supporters, that Zeevi's "political views are controversial."
Wurzburger took no position on the issue. The important thing to mark, the principal said, was that an Israeli minister had been murdered.
He stressed that like the Bible's Joseph, Zeevi should be admired for his intimate tie to the land of Israel. "Every section of the land was a part of him," he said.
Attentive silence greeted this opening of a new page in official Israeli history.
Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister and architect of the Oslo peace process, who was assassinated by a Jewish fundamentalist in 1995, is the only other leader to be designated by the education ministry for class discussion. In Mr. Rabin's case, the occasion is mandatory, and entails a full day of assemblies and activities, giving stress to the need for tolerance and education in democracy.
Zeevi's roles were many: an underground fighter from the same generation as Rabin and Mr. Sharon before the founding of Israel, a general who commanded the occupied West Bank, a counterterrorism adviser and director of the Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.
He was best known, however, as the person who, as the head of the Moledet [Homeland] party, turned the idea of expelling Palestinians into a political platform. According to Zeevi, "transfer" could be accomplished by making the lives of Palestinians so miserable they would relocate.
Alternatively, it could result through agreement of the Arab states to absorb the Palestinians. During a war, "transfer" could be carried out by force, according to Zeevi.
Zeevi was widely known by the nickname Gandhi because as a young man he was thin. The name took on an ironic twist later when Zeevi invariably urged more use of military force and referred to Palestinians working illegally in Israel as "lice" and a "cancer."
In the Ministry of Education lesson plan, Zeevi is described as someone whose "love of the homeland" included a knowledge of its every stone and flower, who spoke an exemplary "clean" Hebrew," who "kept the faith with his comrades-in-arms even if he differed with their political views."
Zeevi, was also honored Sunday with a postage stamp. At the state ceremony, his son, Palmach, declared with a choked voice, "You have earned your place in the national pantheon."
Zvi Hendl, a member of the Knesset elected on the same list as Zeevi, backs promoting his memory. "The heritage of Gandhi, of defending the homeland, started before the state was created. He is a man who oversaw the publication of more than a hundred books. Pupils must know that Zionism is about holding a book and fighting when you have to, and of saying what you think is right. That is what Gandhi was about."
But not everyone was willing to partake in what left-wing Israelis see as a bid to create a right-wing foil to Rabin. Some schools ignored the ministry's advisory. Roman Bronfman, a left-wing legislator said: "The opposition in Israel is very weak today and that allows the government to rewrite history, to write about the life of Zeevi without mentioning transfer. Actually, this is a way of bringing transfer into the schools through the back door."
At the René Cassin High School, whose students have lost 15 classmates to terrorist attacks and where support for mass expulsions of Palestinians is high, educators "were asked to speak about Zeevi's activities in the army and to refer to transfer in a non-positive way," said principal Yehezkel Gabay.
"Students were told that transfer according to a person's origin is unacceptable," he said. "It is possible to discuss expulsion of people who harm state security."
Hashem Mahameed, a veteran Arab member of the Knesset, commented: "Politically speaking, Zeevi was all about forcing people to leave their land. I am really afraid that under the dust of the coming war with Iraq, things might happen here, parts of the Jewish population might start to think seriously about transfer."