Menachem Begin is today widely regarded as one of the most effective and far-sighted statesmen in Israeli history. At one end of the political spectrum, he is fondly remembered for surrendering the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and uprooting Israeli communities there. At the other end of the spectrum, he is hailed for taking strong action against PLO terrorists and Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor.
But when he was first elected prime minister in 1977, Begin was the object of an unprecedented frenzy of hatred from the international news media. He was called a terrorist, a fascist, a lunatic. To explain how to pronounce the name of the new Israeli leader, Time magazine notoriously found just the right Dickens character: “Begin (rhymes with Fagin).”
Journalists hated him because he represented traditional, old-world values. They hated him because he revered the Bible. They hated him because he could connect to the common man — to the silent majority of Jews from Arab countries who had been scorned by Israel’s political and intellectual elites.
Does this remind you of anyone in American politics today? Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is not only mocked and pilloried by a shameless and unscrupulous horde of media predators, but also sidesteps them, as did Begin, to connect with the common citizen.
As is the case with Palin today, the news media waited hungrily for any opportunity to pounce on Begin. Any minor misstep was reported as if it were a major scandal. Those were the days of “gotcha” journalism at its most reprehensible.
When the Lebanon War erupted in the summer of 1982, the media sharks smelled blood. (Not, mind you, the blood of the innocent Israeli civilians who were periodically murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists based in southern Lebanon — which was, of course, the cause of the war.)
At one point during the war, Lebanese Christian forces (who were allies of Israel) entered the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla and killed hundreds of Palestinians. A maelstrom of media accusations battered the Jewish state. The most notorious was the allegation that Israeli leaders gave the Christian forces a green light to do what they wanted in Sabra and Shatilla.
Begin characterized the media attacks as a “blood libel.” Of course he was right. Blaming Israel for a massacre it did not commit was a blood libel. Indeed, an American jury eventually found that Time magazine had printed a false and defamatory report that then-defense minister Ariel Sharon was complicit in the killings.
But Sharon’s vindication came only years later. In the meantime, Begin was forced to suffer wave after wave of slander. It was too much for him. The ceaseless abuse, combined with his grief over his wife’s passing, drove him to resign from office less than a year later. Unlike other Israeli ex-prime ministers, who often return in future cabinets and sometimes even become prime minister again, Begin never returned to public life. He spent his final years as a virtual recluse.
They broke Begin. But they won’t break Sarah Palin.
Menachem Begin was the product of a bygone era. His gentlemanly manner, thoughtfulness and civility were no match for the new era of international electronic media assaults and technologically savvy propaganda.
Sarah Palin, by contrast, is a consummate 21st-century political leader. Alongside her formidable charisma, she has deployed a brilliant and highly innovative new media strategy. She may well be associated in history with pioneering the political tweet. And she has demonstrated that she is more than ready for a (nonviolent) fight.
Palin was right to describe the attacks on her as a blood libel. Falsely accusing someone of shedding blood or causing bloodshed is the definition of a blood libel — whether it’s medieval churches accusing Jews of baking blood in Passover matzos, or contemporary Muslim extremists accusing Israel of harvesting Arabs’ organs or political partisans blaming conservative political figures or talk-show hosts for the Tucson massacre.
“Blood libel” is a term that has been, and continues to be, legitimately used in contemporary American political debate by all sides. During the 2000 Florida recount, for example, Rep. Peter Deutsch said that some Republican accusations against Democratic nominee Al Gore were “almost a blood libel.” Newsday editor Les Payne in 2008 called the notion that African-American journalists wouldn’t be able to objectively cover the Obama candidacy a “blood libel.” Former deputy undersecretary of defense Jed Babbin said that John Kerry’s 1971 testimony about alleged war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam was “a blood libel.”
Hypocritical blame-meisters will call Palin every name in the book. They hope to demoralize her and her supporters. It won’t work. After more than two years of enduring every attack imaginable, she knows their tricks. She won’t let them do to her what they did to Begin.
Benyamin Korn, a former executive editor of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, is director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin.