For a long time Menachem Begin had been itching to take on one of the most powerful labor unions in the country – the El Al workforce. He wanted to put a stop to the operations of Israel's national airline from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (the hours of the Jewish Sabbath), as well as on the major Jewish festivals. It was on this topic that Mr. Begin addressed the Knesset in May 1982, from the rostrum rather than from a wheelchair – the first time he had done so since breaking his hip almost six months before. However, since he was still in pain, it was with heavy steps that he mounted the platform, leaning on the arm of an usher and supported by his cane.
For days, the Knesset had been permeated with a rising tension as muscular, stocky men roamed its corridors and canteens, and approached its committees, their numbers rising daily. These were the El Al union bosses, accompanied by their whispering lawyers, intent on scotching Prime Minister Begin's plan to halt the carrier's flights on holy days. Without letup, they pressured, pestered, and petitioned the parliamentarians...
"Mr. Speaker, ladies and gentlemen, members of the Knesset," Begin began, "the government has decided that following a time lapse of three months, the aircraft of our national airline, El Al, will no longer fly on the Jewish Sabbath and festivals."
This announcement resulted in looks of sheer hatred appearing on the faces of the union men, who sat watching the proceedings in the public gallery. The opposition benches erupted into paroxysms of heckling:
"So why don't you shut down the television on Shabbat, too?" screamed one.
“Are you going to stop Israel merchant ships at sea, too?" yelled another.
The derision fazed the premier not one bit. On the contrary, it supplied him with new inspiration. "Shout as much as you want;" he taunted… And then, changing his tone, altering his voice to a muted, sonorous pitch, this man who believed in oratory as the supreme weapon, an artful combination of style, cadence, and the application of formidable intellectual energy, argued,
"Forty years ago I returned from exile to Israel. 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, Sunday, and they refused to work on their day of rest, Saturday, for they lived by the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.' So each week they foreswore two whole days of hard-won earnings. This meant destitution for many. But they would not desecrate the Sabbath day."
"So, stop soccer on Shabbat, too?" heckled one legislator, triggering off yet another squall of jeers, hissing and name-calling.
One Nation Alone
Adroitly, cutting through the pandemonium, Begin told the tale of Salonika, and as he did so the House listened. "In Greece there is a port city called Salonika, which had an extensive Jewish population before the war. Most of the port workers there were Jewish, and on Shabbat they did not work. Those stevedores would forego their pay rather than desecrate the Shabbat. Non-Jews goyim accepted this as a fact of life, and the port was closed on the Sabbath day. Imagine that!"
“And you want to close down the whole country, turn us back to the Dark Ages," yelled somebody.
"Ah, the Dark Ages," echoed the prime minister sarcastically, and to the delight of his supporters, he calmly raised his right hand as if to catch a ball, tossed it back toward the heckler, and resumed his rhetorical flow. "The Dark Ages, you say. Well let me tell you something, my dear socialist friend: Shabbat enshrines a social-ethical principle without peer. Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity. It originated with us, the Jews. It is all ours.
“No other civilization in history knew 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 a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and the arts, yet they did not know a day of rest. Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law which is relevant to this day, yet they did not know a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China – not one of them knew a day of rest."
"So, put on a yarmulke," sneered somebody.
"Chutzpah!" boomed Begin, bristling. "I speak of our people's most hallowed values and you dare stoop to mockery. Shame on you!" With arms held high, he thundered, "One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai, ‘so that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.’ Ours is the nation that bequeathed to humanity the imperative of a day of rest to apply to the most humble of beings. Ours is the nation that gave the laborers the dignity equal to that of their employers, that both are equal in the eyes of God. Ours is the nation that bequeathed this gift to other faiths: Christianity – Sunday; Islam – Friday. Ours is the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.”
A chorus of approval from the government benches went up, muffling every last vestige of dissent. Begin, idol of the common folk, caught up in his enthusiasm and sense of mission, rose to a crescendo. "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 to broadcast 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 El Al planes – 'No, do not remember the Sabbath day. Forget the Sabbath day! Desecrate the Sabbath day.' I shudder at the thought that the aircraft of our national carrier have been taking off the world over on the seventh day over these many years, in full view of Jews and Gentiles alike.”
Restoring a Nation’s Soul
The ensuing rumpus was terrific. The Speaker sat, 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 quieted. Once it had, he fixed his eyes on the public gallery and cast a solemn stare at its occupants.
"Let me say this to you, the good workers of El Al. The government has been the object of threats from some of you if we go ahead with our decision. We disregard these threats. In a democracy, government decisions are not made under threat. We cannot engage in profit-and-loss calculations when it comes to the eternal heritage of the Jewish people. There is no way of assessing 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. If it were not for the Shabbat that restored the souls and revived the spiritual lives, week by week, of our long-suffering nation, our trials and vicissitudes would have pulled us down to the lowest levels of materialism and moral and intellectual decay."
And to hammer his point home, he ended his speech with the celebrated saying, "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath day, the Sabbath day has kept the Jews."
With that he turned to limp back to his seat, amid cheers and jeers. But hardly had he taken a step when, struck by a sudden additional thought, he hobbled back to the microphone, and declared:
"Mr. Speaker, allow me just one further point. This House should know, it is not necessary to be an observant Jew to appreciate the full historic and sacred aura that enshrines this ‘perfect gift' called Shabbat. Its prohibitions are not arbitrary. They provide insulation against corrosive everydayness, they build fences against invasions by the profane, and they enrich the soul by creating a space for sacred time. In a word, one need not be pious to accept the cherished principle of Shabbat. One merely needs to be a proud Jew."
The Speaker bellowed that he was putting the prime minister's statement to a vote, and instructed the tellers to start counting. The tally was 58 in favor and 54 against, and Menachem Begin exhaled a long sigh of relief as he limped his way out of the hall.
Yehuda Avner author or “The Prime Ministers” served as an adviser and English speechwriter to Israeli Prime Ministers Rabin, Begin, Meir and Eshkol. He is a former Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Ireland and Australia, and served in diplomatic positions at the Israeli Consulate in New York and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. Ambassador Avner was born in Manchester, England. He has lived in Israel since 1947.