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The Economist’s Revisionist Israeli History

On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

He called for holy war and the building of a third temple, and espoused a Davidic kingdom rather than a democratic state. And he championed rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron. A fringe discourse in the 1940s, Stern’s language is increasingly echoed by the activists on the religious right, Israel’s most potent grassroots force.

The Economist seeks to tar Israel’s right-of-center polity with the brush of Lehi terrorism, and in order to make such a claim you would have to falsify the entire political history of Israel from before its founding to the present day. So that is what the Economist has done.

The magazine wants to warn the United States, it seems, that Israelis are perhaps once again on the verge of “champion[ing] rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron.” To characterize the British Mandate as merely a “patron” is, especially by the 1940s, getting more mileage out of the term than its warrantee will cover. But comparing it to the U.S. today (the world’s only “superpower”) is absurd. As the Economist has surely by now heard–to its evident chagrin–Israel is actually an independent state. The government against which pre-state Jews rebelled was Britain; the current Israeli government is the current Israeli government. A rebellion against it in the name of Jewish sovereignty would be strange indeed; it would also have nothing to do with Washington D.C.

More broadly, however, the idea that the Israeli right are the inheritors of Stern’s Lehi is an irredeemable distortion of Israeli history. Here’s what actually happened: Stern’s fringe group was opposed not just by Ben-Gurion (back to him in a moment) and the Haganah; it was opposed by its rival, Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Begin–the actual leader of the Israeli right for most of the state’s first forty years–did not support the indiscriminate violence of Lehi, nor its terroristic attacks on civilians. As such, he did not support Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne, for example.

Back to Ben-Gurion. He saw Begin, not Stern, as his true rival. So the crackdown in the wake of Moyne’s assassination cast a net wide enough to be aimed at the Irgun too. After Moyne’s killing, the British wanted both justice and to establish deterrence. Ben-Gurion, however, used the incident as an opportunity to help the British squash Begin and the Irgun. Begin was the one in this particular incident who arguably showed the most restraint, since he neither supported Moyne’s killing nor engaged Ben-Gurion in the civil war Ben-Gurion was intent on starting and winning, with British assistance.

Ben-Gurion surely deserves his hard-earned reputation and gratitude from the Jewish nation. But it’s worth noting that his opportunistic attacks on Begin did lasting damage to the nascent state. The coalition of the left ruled Israel until Begin was able to finally win a national election in 1977. In that time, the Israeli ruling establishment sought to exclude anyone with the slightest connection to Begin or the right. It was antidemocratic, and it was wrong. But either way, Begin’s eventual triumph, which earned the Israeli right its place in the state’s political equilibrium, was the triumph of Stern’s rival, not Stern’s heir.

Of course some moderately less ignorant partisans will claim that Yitzhak Shamir’s succession of Begin in the late 1980s was the rise of a Lehi-nik, since Shamir was part of the group. But as everyone knows, Shamir cast aside the ideology of Lehi for the pragmatism of democratic governance when he joined the Mossad and then the state’s political class in the years after Israel became independent. The Economist’s portrayal of Stern and modern Israel is indefensible, and plainly false.

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