Commentary Magazine


Begin, by Eric Silver

Biography as Polemic

Begin: The Haunted Prophet.
by Eric Silver.
Random House. 278 pp. $17.95.

An Irresistible polemical itch is not ordinarily a motive for biography. But it is hard to see what else spurred Eric Silver, a British journalist stationed in Israel from 1972 to 1983, to his labors on Menachem Begin. Nobody familiar with Silver's reporting on Israel in the (London) Guardian and the Observer would have expected a labor of love, but Silver is incapable even of sympathy, in the neutral sense of that word, with his subject. Even when he is describing the youthful Begin's suffering at the hands of the NKVD, Silver cannot refrain from nagging and hectoring the victim for starting to develop that “paranoia” that would later make him so recalcitrant toward the “Palestinian enemy.” Like some aspiring Viennese doctor, Silver bases his analysis of Begin's character and entire career upon Begin's “abiding paranoia,” his unchanging conviction that the Soviets and the Nazis and the Arabs were bent on the destruction of the Jews and Israel. “Time magazine fed Begin's paranoia by advising its readers that ‘Begin rhymes with Fagin.’ ”

This “paranoia” was aggravated by Begin's feelings of “guilt” for having survived the Holocaust when so many others, including his parents, perished. Paranoia exacerbated by survivor's guilt resulted in “Begin's obsession with the Holocaust.” Had this remained the personal affliction of a neurotic (or one whom Jimmy Carter, a psychoanalytic colleague of Silver's, called “a psycho”) it might be forgivable and perhaps preferable to the “manic depression” that clinician Silver diagnoses in Begin from the time he became Prime Minister. But in fact paranoia and survivor's guilt underlay Begin's stony intransigence on the Palestinian problem, always for Silver the standard by which everything in this world (and perhaps the next) is to be judged. The real point of all this psychoanalytic buffoonery is to imply that Begin's sense of his country's beleaguered condition grew wholly out of his obsession with the Holocaust and not at all out of justified brooding over such minor annoyances as seven decades of Arab terrorism and five major wars.

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What made Begin peculiarly susceptible to these Jewish diseases was the ideology he inherited from the leader of the Revisionist movement, Vladimir Jabotinsky. Silver's jejune account of Jabotinsky's philosophy bears little resemblance to the original. On the basis of a frayed quotation brazenly torn out of an essay in which—a fact Silver studiously refrains from mentioning—Jabotinsky fiercely attacks various manifestations of racism, including the racist reactions of white Americans to the Johnson-Jeffries boxing match, and two or three other phrases wrenched out of context, Silver claims that Jabotinsky was an anti-liberal who stood for the “manipulation of the masses” and “racial exclusivity.” This travesty of Jabotinsky's ideas results partly from willful distortion but also from a certain narrowness of intellectual culture which leads the author to interpret a statement like “without ceremony there is no liberty” as evidence of incipient fascism. Silver also claims that Jabotinsky's “pessimistic view of the human race” is “hardly the stuff of liberalism.”

He is wrong on both points. Although Jabotinsky saw more clearly than any other Zionist leader that the one element in the Nazi program that would be fully carried out was the destruction of European Jewry, and that Palestine would not be won without a Jewish army, someone who believed up until September 1939 that there would be no war, as Jabotinsky did, was hardly a doctrinaire pessimist. “Almost incurably optimistic,” according to Walter Laqueur, “Jabotinsky to the end of his life remained a confirmed liberal. . . . [He] had no use for the idea of the totalitarian state, dictatorship, suppression of political enemies.”

Having identified Begin as the heir of Jabotinsky, Silver alleges that the man who abandoned underground activity the moment Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state in 1948, and then led a loyal opposition for twenty-nine years, actually harbored “a lingering nostalgia for revolution, if not for dictatorship.” And what is the evidence for this charge? It is that Begin believed that “the government was often wrong, the Knesset was not the final repository of wisdom or legitimacy.” By these standards the honorable member of the House of Commons for Westminster from 1865 to 1868, who was named John Stuart Mill, must also be adjudged guilty of a desire for dictatorship, for he not only believed but incessantly declared that although the majority is always right because it is the source of temporal authority, it is also always wrong because it is not the source of spiritual authority.

Yet Silver is not mistaken in finding in Jabotinsky the seeds of what he resents and even loathes in Begin. “There was in him,” said Ben-Gurion of Jabotinsky, “complete internal spiritual freedom; he had nothing in him of the [Diaspora] Jew, and he was never embarrassed in the presence of a Gentile.” What for Ben-Gurion was Jabotinsky's one redeeming virtue is for Silver Begin's besetting sin. It is the sin of pride that inheres in the belief that some transcendent meaning attaches to Jewish existence, a belief that made Begin a “blinkered and ethnocentric” visionary who “wept for Jewish suffering, preached Jewish pride, and gloried in Jewish might.” Silver finds something at once ludicrous and dangerous in Begin's relentless insistence on Jewish dignity and self-respect: ludicrous in that a man ought not to fancy himself guiding a great ship of state when he is navigating an enclosed basin; dangerous in that it binds him to a foolish consistency that renders all compromise impossible.

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Silver calls Begin “Israel's first ideological Prime Minister,” by which he appears to mean that a man who is “a Jew rather than an Israeli” must inevitably lack the flexibility, moderation, and sweet reasonableness that characterized such non-ideological Labor Zionists as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. Begin's consistency, of character and of doctrine, is the most frequently reiterated theme of this book. Begin “never forgave and never forgot”; he “had been singing the same song for forty years.” He might offer peace proposals to the Arabs, but “the leopard had not changed his spots.” He might at times, like a deceitful ape, appear conciliatory and even suppliant, but he was always ready to spring, gibbering and biting, at your face. He might appear gregarious to outsiders, but underneath he remained “watchful and calculating.”

There is, however, little in the body of Silver's book to support this claim, and a great deal to undermine it. The Begin who “never forgave and never forgot” in 1977 publicly embraced the man assigned to capture him during the “saison” (the period in 1944-45 when the Haganah tried to put a stop to the activities of the Irgun, led by Begin, by delivering over its leaders to the British); the unbending ideologue secretly nourishing aspirations to dictatorship was no sooner elected Prime Minister than he invited all Zionist parties to join a national-unity government; the man who in 1970 had left a national-unity government to protest Golda Meir's endorsement of United Nations Resolution 242 endorsed it himself in 1977; the man who for decades insisted on the indivisibility of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel put his signature to the Camp David treaty that recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” and agreed to leave open the question of ultimate sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. So great is the discrepancy between generalization and particulars in Silver's handling of this theme that the reader sometimes has the impression that one person formulated the thesis of this biography and somebody else collected its material.

In one respect Begin is in his biographer's eyes even more dangerous than Jabotinsky himself: at least Jabotinsky did not have the religious taint upon him. Begin, however, is “mystical” and believes in “a God-given right to the whole land.” (Egyptians, to be sure, are entitled to insist on their inalienable “right” to every last inch of Sinai's, suddenly, sacred soil.) It was Begin's religious convictions that made him violate the established rules of Jewish-Arab discourse and speak of Jewish rights rather than Israeli security. What else could be expected from a man who, unlike Moshe Dayan, barely knew the land of Israel except through the distorting vision of “biblical dreams”? If only, so Silver implies, Begin could have thought about Jerusalem and Hebron with the naturalistic detachment that an Englishman brings to London and Leeds, how much better things would have been.

Silver appears to have spent too many of his years in Israel in those circles where one's reputation for intelligence rises in direct proportion to one's contempt for the Jewish religion, a subject on which he is capable of utterances almost classical in their foolishness. Thus he deplores the fact that Begin dogmatically clung to the strange belief that “Judaism could not be divorced from the Jewish religion.” Such remarks reveal a calamitous failure of perception, a failure similar to that revealed in Silver's identification of Begin as “a Jew rather than an Israeli,” in his assumption that no previous Prime Minister of Israel lived by belief rather than conclusions, and in his repeated scolding of Begin for “selective compassion” that embraces the suffering of Jews but not that of their enemies. The missed perception is simple yet profound. Israel is a nation hedged 'round by the threat of destruction: its citizens, like men everywhere, will live and die upon a dogma; they will not be martyrs for a conclusion.

The book provides a fuller, more convincing account of the great public events with which Begin has long been associated than of the inner world of this now-tragic figure. But these events too are seen through a jaundiced eye. The April 1948 reprisal action at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, for Silver the original, ineradicable sin of the Jewish state, “continues to haunt Menachem Begin [whose Irgun was the military force primarily responsible for the action] and the state he helped to create.” His account of the event, in which 120-140 Arabs were slain, is not one-sided, but it relies heavily on the recollections of two Israelis of the far Left—Yair Tsaban and Meir Pail—and never explains how it was that the innocent inhabitants of this village happened to have arms in every house, or on what basis—apart from his own ipse dixit—he denies the abundant evidence of the presence of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers there. Silver's main aim is to show that as soon as the battle situation became chaotic, the “original rapacious instincts” of Irgun members inevitably came to the fore. Silver thinks Begin and Israel ought forever to be haunted by Deir Yassin because news of it hastened the flight of Arabs from western Palestine. What he does not say is that it was Arab radio propaganda's wildly exaggerated version of the event, replete with inflated figures and invented atrocities, which struck terror into the Arabs of Palestine, or that, in the words of the anti-Zionist historian Christopher Sykes, “the terror was all the more because many Palestine Arabs had a bad conscience about atrocity toward Jews.”

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Finally, a word is in order about what the poverty of the English language compels me to call the style of this book. Silver's diction is compounded of British slang, sports lingo, clashing metaphors (“His first attempt to strike a more flexible pose cut little ice”) and sheer bad taste (“In the campaign . . . Menachem Begin made the biggest comeback since Lazarus”). His simple sentences provide syntactical comedy (“Among those who lost their lives were Avraham Stavsky”; “Sadat began setting deadlines . . . and to flaunt the war option”) and his complex ones are trails of prepositional phrases that move like a sick dog with tin cans tied to its tail.

But the content of the book is more crucially affected by less spectacular depredations, especially the misuse of quasi-technical terms of which Silver has no clear understanding. Among these are monism, extermination, theocracy, and—this above all—“Old Testament prophet.” Silver has a vague notion that such a fellow—to whom he likens Begin—is a prognosticator with absolute confidence in his wisdom. In fact, a biblical prophet's role is to return an errant people to the law. Jonah goes to Nineveh to warn its inhabitants that they will be destroyed in forty days—if they do not repent. Had he succeeded as a prognosticator, Jonah would have failed as a prophet. Had Eric Silver taken this as the keynote of his biography, he might have offered a more revealing portrait of the “prophet” who now ponders in his tent, haunted not by Deir Yassin but by the tragedy of Lebanon.

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