Commentary Magazine

Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men, by Ze'ev Chafets

Ordinary People

Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men: Inside the New Israel.
by Ze'ev Chafets.
Morrow. 249 pp. $17.95.

In his first book, Double Vision: How America's Press Distorts Our View of the Middle East, Ze'ev Chafets, who served as chief of the Israel government press office for most of the Begin era, gave the Western media a well-documented (and well-deserved) bashing for their unprofessional and sometimes downright dishonest coverage of various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In his second book, Chafets, an American-born Jew who has lived in Israel since 1967, sets out to correct a number of misconceptions about his adopted country. Some of his conclusions may not please an American Jewish audience. “As time goes by,” he warns, “the Diaspora and Israeli Jews understand each other less and less. . . . The failure of Israel to attract the bulk of Western Jewry, and the slowly dwindling common ground between Israel and the Diaspora, are an outgrowth of the development of both communities, reflecting the fact that in the last twenty years a new generation of Israelis, born and raised in the country, has become a majority.”

The old myths, and part of the old dreams, are dying. Although some in Israel might still aspire to create a socialist Utopia, today's sabras “are not the heroic figures of Leon Uris's fantasies, nor the New Jewish Men and Women of the pioneer blueprint.” What has moved to the fore in shaping contemporary Israel is not so much the dream of a model society, “a light unto the nations,” as the somewhat contradictory but no less authentically Zionist vision of am k'chol ha'amim, “a nation like any other.”

“Almost forty years after its birth,” Chafets writes in this bitingly funny, irreverent, and often sage chronicle—whose style accurately mirrors the style of his new country—Israel “is still in the process of becoming, of evolving into a true expression of the fears and hopes and capacities of its people; an expression of what Jews are like when Jews are on their own.”

To illustrate, he offers a gallery of impressionistic portraits: of extraordinary people like Menachem Begin and ordinary people like Leora and Shimshi Cohen, Israeli Yuppies who nevertheless believe that for Jews, Israel “is the end of the line. You've got to stop running sometime”; of low-budget rock stars and flashy union officials; of café owners and hookers; and always himself, a bumbling young immigrant trying to find a job and then rising abruptly in Israel's Byzantine political world, serving in the army, learning the language, slowly coming to understand the ethos of the Hebrew-speaking nation.

The best parts of the book are the sections dealing with Begin, with the rapid change in the status of Israel's Sephardi majority, and with the rise to power of the Israeli Right in the late 1970's. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, Chafets writes,

opened the way for a reexamination of old values, which in turn set loose forces of personal economic ambition and materialism. Suddenly it became respectable to want a better standard of living and say so, to earn more and have more. The Yom Kippur War was the pivot on which Israel turned from being a highly controlled, pioneer economy and began developing into a more open, Western one; and this—along with the resolve of outsiders to get a piece of the action, and the new security hunger—was responsible for bringing the Likud to power in 1977.

The classic outsider in Israeli politics, of course, was Menachem Begin, and Chafets provides rare insight into Israel's need for Begin after 1973: “For a period of confusion, he offered certainty. At a time of international pressure, he bristled with defiance.” What the Labor party did not understand, and what was responsible for its sudden defeat in 1977, was that “after Yom Kippur the country wasn't primarily worried about Arabs; it was afraid of ghosts. People were spooked by the demons of the past, and they turned to Begin, who had seen the apparitions all along.”

As Israel needed Begin, so Begin needed the Sephardim. After their arrival from Arab lands in the great immigration waves of the 50's, the Sephardim had found most of the paths to economic and political power blocked by Labor's Ashkenazi establishment; turning to Begin, the immigrant Sephardim and their sabra sons and daughters (aided by a split in the Israeli Left) put the necessary electoral muscle behind his 1977 bid for office. Chafets's thoughts on the Sephardi situation and his thumbnail sketches of Sephardim like David Levy, who left Morocco at age twenty and slugged his way through ridicule and defeat to become Deputy Prime Minister and a front-running contender for the leadership mantle of Begin's Herut party, should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand Israel today.

Chafets's analyses, although occasionally subverted by his penchant for zippy prose and pop metaphors—he refers to Begin as a “ghostbuster,” for instance, and, in a cute phrase that is quite wide of the mark, as the “Black Pope of Zionism”—are often surprisingly fresh. Thus, he compares the Sephardim with American Southerners, sharing a “common geography, history, and religious tradition as well as an identifiable regional accent,” and having about them an “aura of faded glory, a nostalgic pride in a great antebellum civilization.” The comparison may not impress scholars, but it serves as an illuminating guidepost to the mentality of a group that is too often dismissed or patronized by its “betters” both in Israel and abroad.

Significantly, Chafets scants the problem of the Arabs in the occupied territories. In a book that draws on personal encounters and friendships to explain present-day Israel, the omission, interesting in itself, suggests the radical separation of Jewish and Arab cultures in day-to-day life. This applies to the Arabs of pre-1967 Israel as well as to those of the occupied territories. Most Israelis simply do not have many—or any—Arab friends; conversely, most Arabs do not attempt to look beneath the barest superficial clichés about Jewish Israelis. The two peoples, fated (or doomed) to live together in a tiny country, do their best to keep each other at arm's length; their mutual disinclination to break down some of the barriers between them cannot bode well for the future.

Minor faults aside, Ze'ev Chafets has succeeded in writing a book about Israel that is entertaining without being sentimental, informative without being preachy, and politically astute without being tendentious. In a crowded field, this is no small achievement.

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