by Yehudah Avner
The possible renewal of Saturday flights in the wake of El Al’s privatization calls to mind a Knesset oration of yesteryear.
For days, tension permeated the Knesset. Stocky, gesticulating men combed its corridors, committees and canteens, their numbers rising daily like tugboats heaving in fresh infusions of lobbying power. They were El Al union men, accompanied by their whispering lawyers, intent on scotching prime minister Menachem Begin’s resolve to halt the national airline’s flights on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Without let-up, they pressured, pestered and petitioned the parliamentarians. Even the ever-ebullient, highly erudite, and strictly observant interior minister, Dr. Yosef Burg, was collared.
He was waylaid by a union man who placed an amicable arm around his shoulder, jabbed a forefinger into his chest and barked into his face so grimacingly that his head was jerked backwards as if to have the arguments shoved physically down his throat.
This was on May 3, 1982, the day premier Begin limped into a crowded Knesset chamber tense with expectancy. He was in pain, recovering from a severe hip injury, and it was with heavy, purposeful steps that he mounted the tribune to deliver his El Al speech. He began quietly, factually, declaring that the government had finally decided to halt all El Al flights on Shabbat and festivals – a revelation that sent eyes glaring and hatreds flashing in the public gallery where the union men sat.
Simultaneously, a sudden restlessness seized the opposition benches, which erupted into a paroxysm of heckling: “So why don’t you shut down TV on Shabbat, too?” screamed one. “What about football matches on Shabbat?” bawled another.
“Are you going to stop Jewish merchant ships at sea, too?” shouted a third. This spasm of derision fazed the premier not one little bit. On the contrary, it supplied him with new inspirations of vitriolic wit.
“Shout as much as you will,” he ribbed, his deep-set, bespectacled eyes scanning the opposition faces with scorn, his gaze finally settling on the young, secular, radical left-winger Yossi Sarid.
“I have nothing to say to you and your kind, Mr. Sarid,” he said, with a glance that could wither. “In fact, I have nothing to say to anyone who supports a Palestinian state that is a mortal danger to our people.”
And then, changing tone, pitching his voice to a muted, sonorous, trembling pitch, this man who believed in oratory as the supreme artful weapon, a matter of style, cadence, and the application of controlled but massive intellectual energy, intoned: “Forty years ago I returned from exile to Eretz Yisrael. Engraved in my memory still are the lives of millions of Jews, simple, ordinary folk, eking out a livelihood in that forlorn Diaspora where the storms of anti-Semitism raged.
“They were not permitted to work on the Christian day of rest, and they refused to work on their day of rest. For they lived by the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’ “So each week they forswore two whole days of hard-won bread. This meant destitution for many. But they would not desecrate the Sabbath day.” “So, stop football on Shabbat, too?” butted in Sarid provocatively, triggering off another squall of jeers, hissing, and name-calling.
Adroitly, to the delight of his supporters, Menachem Begin put his power of mimicry to full use by calmly raising his right hand as if to catch a ball, tossed it back, and resumed his rhetorical flow: “Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity,” he said, his voice husky with emotion. “It originated with us. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew of a day of rest. “Ancient Egypt had a great culture whose treasures are on view to this day, yet the Egypt of antiquity did not know of a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and the arts, yet they did not know of a day of rest. “Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law still relevant
to this day, yet they did not know of a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China – none of them knew of a day of rest.”
“So, put on a yarmulke,” sneered Sarid.
“Hutzpa!” boomed Begin, bristling. “I speak of our people’s most hallowed values, and you dare stoop to mockery. Shame on you!” Then, arms up, fists balled, he thundered with the devotion of a disciple and the fire of a champion: “One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai, ‘ so that your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you.’ “Ours was the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.”
A crescendo of approval from the government benches sent the rafters rattling, muffling every last vestige of dissent. And he, the Great Commoner, idol of the common folk, caught up on the wave of his own enthusiasm and sense of mission, rose to a pitch of almost uncontrollable fervor, and thundered on: “So, are we in our own reborn Jewish state to allow our blue-and-white El Al planes to fly to and fro as if broadcasting to the world that there is no Shabbat in Israel? Should we, who by faith and tradition heard the commandment at Sinai, now deliver a message to all and sundry through our blue-and-white El Al planes – ‘No, don’t remember the Sabbath day. Forget the Sabbath day! Desecrate the Sabbath day.’ “I shudder at the thought.”
The ensuing ruckus was terrific. The speaker sat ham-fisted, vainly banging his gavel, which thudded as soundlessly as a velvet mallet. So Begin himself raised his palms and then lowered them gently, once, twice, thrice, until the furor quietened of itself. Whereupon, to hammer his point home, he quoted the words of the celebrated secular philosopher of early Zionism, Ahad Ha’am: “More than the Jews kept the Sabbath day, the Sabbath day kept the Jews.”
With that, he raised his eyes to the public gallery and vouchsafed its occupants an intensely solemn stare. “Let me say this to the good workers of El Al,” he told the crowd. “The government has been the object of threats. We disregard them. In a democracy, government decisions are not made under threat.” And then, like a sudden bugle call to historical grandeur, he perorated with compelling passion: “Know this: We cannot assess the religious, national, social, historical, and ethical values of the Sabbath day by the yardstick of financial loss or gain. In our revived Jewish state we simply cannot engage in such calculations when dealing with an eternal and cardinal value of the Jewish people – Shabbat – for which our ancestors were ready to give their lives. “One thing more. One need not be a pious Jew to accept this principle. One need only be a Jew.”
The writer was on the personal staff of four prime ministers, including Menachem Begin. ([email protected])
[Thanks to Sandy Kalinsky]