(JTA) – Israel’s State Archives last week released the previously classified minutes of a 1983 Cabinet meeting during which the government debated the Kahan Commission’s recommendation to fire Defense Minister Ariel Sharon on account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
The killings had taken place some months before, on Sept. 16, 1982, when 150 fighters of the Lebanese Christian Phalanges entered two Palestinian refugee camps and massacred 700 to 800 residents. The Israel Defense Forces, which controlled the area, allowed the Lebanese forces access to the camp.
The Kahan Commission blamed Sharon and senior Israeli officers, finding that they consciously disregarded the risk that the Christian fighters would seek revenge for the murder of their leader. It recommended that Sharon resign or else the Cabinet should fire him.
The dramatic proceedings give us a fascinating snapshot of Sharon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and their handling of core Jewish and Israeli dilemmas.
Sharon made an impassioned argument for the Cabinet to reject the commission’s recommendations.
“We are talking about a lot more than the question of whether Sharon should go or not go,” he said. “The [commission’s] conclusions are grave for Israel and the entire Jewish people … They implicate all of those seated here, including Mr. Prime Minister.”
The commission “did not hesitate to draw a parallel between Israel and the indirect accomplices to pogroms against the people of Israel,” Sharon said. If the government upheld its findings, it would give “those who wish us evil” a homegrown basis to say that the Jews too are capable of “genocide” and would stain Israel with the indelible “mark of Cain.”
In what quickly became known as the “bourekas speech,” Sharon told his colleagues that their choice was between their individual interests and the country’s.
“If you chop off my head … you will be still sitting here next week enjoying the bourekas [filled pastries served at the government meeting],” he told them, “but you would have betrayed the Jews.”
The meeting had all the core ingredients of the Israeli-Zionist drama: Should we apply universal principles of democratic governance or account for the particulars of the Jewish condition (we have so few allies that we accept them as they are)? Should we be expected to fight fair and maintain the “purity of our weapons” in a cruel neighborhood? How do brothers in arms judge each other when one falls short of the highest ethics and the world stands ready to condemn us?
These themes came to a crescendo when Begin told Sharon that he would vote against him. Here was a man whose connection to the Sharon family literally dated back to his birth. Sharon’s grandmother was the midwife who delivered baby Begin at Brest Litovsk in the Old Country.
Begin had survived the Soviet gulag, the Nazis, the shelling of the Altalena, nearly three decades in the opposition, seven elections as the head of the losing party and Ben-Gurion’s unbending animosity. And here he sat, confessing to being “broken-hearted,” looking at an Israeli-born hero who had previously been thought of as his natural successor and deciding to follow principles of universalism and democracy.
“Believe me when I say that I speak from profound pain,” Begin told Sharon. “I have not slept all night. Woe to this night . But we have no choice but to accept all of the recommendations of the commission. This is the judgment. We accepted the judgment when we appointed the commission. There is no other alternative.”
This was vintage Begin — emotional, authentic, profoundly Jewish. He did not say, “This is the law,” because it was not the law. He used the word “din,” connoting one of the attributes of God when sitting in strict judgment. There was no place for the balancing attribute of “rahamim,” or mercy.
Begin chose to uphold Israel’s good name as a democracy and reject Sharon’s argument that he should stand with the Jews in combat. Right before telling Sharon that he had made up his mind, Begin stared at him silently and confessed in his trademark fatherly demeanor, “When you smile with this tad of sarcasm, I am disarmed and can no longer be your accuser.”
“I only smile when I am shaken up and confused,” Sharon replied.
This was the sabra moment par excellence, the tough outer shell peeled back to reveal the soft core where the Jewish soul struggles with the mighty questions of the Zionist enterprise. And yet, when push came to shove, Begin did the right thing. He chose the rule of law. The only question was whether the military had acted lawlessly by recklessly disregarding the risk. A commission headed by the chief justice found that it did, and Begin would stand behind it.
We Jews often ask ourselves, “What will the gentiles think?” Begin gave us the answer: If we trust in the strength of our democracy, it does not matter.
There are voices at the highest level of the Israeli government who complained recently that movies like “The Gatekeepers” or “5 Broken Cameras” — two failed Oscar contenders that offered scathing critiques of Israeli military policy — only fuel the narrative of hostile voices.
They would be wise to heed the words of former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who famously said that we must fight with “one arm tied behind our back,” a democratic combatant in a sea of sharks. Despite the particularities of our condition, we will only win if we truly learn that skill.
As to Sharon, we all know that the people of Israel wound up forgiving him enough to elect him twice to the premiership. Perhaps they forgot Sabra and Shatila. Or perhaps, because Begin preserved the soul of the country when he judged him with din, he created the possibility that we could judge him years later with rahamim.
(Ari Afilalo is a professor of international law at Rutgers Law School.)