#11. Begin and Trump
Rivers of pixels have been spilt over fears of the new administration and America’s deep divisions. I’ll add a short personal story, going back 40 years today. My purpose is not to compare Prime Minister Begin’s and President Trump’s characters, but to focus on our own emotional reactions to them.
Out of School
My first software job was in February 1976. Newly married, just graduated from MIT, I started as an assembly language programmer at Data General. Later that year, Diane and I decided to try out Israel, arriving two months after the US BiCentennial / Entebbe rescue. We found jobs in Jerusalem and enjoyed a fun year, just the two of us in a freezing rental on HaPalmach St.
In January 1977 our close friend Judy visited. She had a cousin named Hillel Seidel, a Member of Parliament from the small Independent Liberals party. Judy took us to visit the Knesset. It was exciting to see the action behind the scenes, especially the Knesset cafeteria, where bitter political rivals chatted like old friends.
We were introduced to the Likud’s Menachem Begin, who was 63 at the time (yikes, that’s my age!) A gentleman, he kissed Diane’s hand and said hello to us. He then remarked to her, “I can tell from your accent that you’re not originally from here.” Diane shrank. But then he added, “Don’t worry about it, neither am I!”
No Way He’ll Win
In the spring of 1977, nobody — I mean nobody — imagined Begin actually winning the election. Not only was he a so-called fanatic but he had lost every single election since 1949, even the one right after the Yom Kippur War. Everyone just KNEW that Labor had been in power, was in power, and would always be in power, right? Of course right.
With my (superior?) American perspective, I kept telling co-workers that democracy means that governmental turnover is possible, however unlikely. Expect the unexpected. And on May 17, the Likud won and Menachem Begin became prime minister. And then came the Anwar Sadat visit, Camp David, peace treaty with Egypt, etc. All seemed about as unlikely in January 1977 as a visitor from Mars. When Sadat arrived in Jerusalem, Golda Meir said to him, “Mr. President, couldn’t you have visited while I was the prime minister!”
Four years later, Begin was reelected, three weeks after the Israeli Air Force’s pinpoint destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, an act internationally condemned. BTW I once read that A. M. Rosenthal, NY Times Editor, said one of his biggest professional regrets was attacking that operation.
I do not want to compare Begin’s character here with President Trump’s. Two recent articles are noteworthy: Daniel Gordis’ Before Donald Trump, There Was Menachem Begin and Bernard Avishai’s What Americans Against Trump can Learn from the Failures of the Israeli Opposition.
Reflect on the big picture. There are natural, even healthy, tensions between Left and Right, freedom and equality, and between universalism and particularism. We’ve become polarized and emotional in our certainties, too unwilling to at least understand the other side. Black-and-white thinking is easy, it’s those grays that are tough. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock explained in 1970 why Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Our poor impressionable minds & hearts can’t handle the complexity, overload, and accelerating rate of change. Don’t you ever just want to stop the world? Trump voters know that he won’t be able to keep all his promises; many don’t even want him to. That’s not the point. The unshakable message, as with Begin: shake things up.
My two biggest concerns today (besides the profound chasms in American society and myriad policy dilemmas facing Washington) are how clueless we are about the new cyber-warfare (read David Ignatius) and our insistent gullibility to fake news (i.e. the legitimacy of the well-formatted written word). These two areas require radically creative responses and adjustments to our mental models, and quickly.
I may not have voted for Trump, but let’s adjust to reality and hope/work for creative solutions to our new challenges, because so much of what we know to be true — isn’t.