Commentary Magazine

The Most Jewish PM

Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul
By Daniel Gordis
Schocken, 320 pages

Menachem Begin, who lived the lives of 10 men at a time and in places where many Jews were denied even their very existence, left behind two memoirs. White Nights (1957) covers his years of Soviet imprisonment in the 1930s for the crime of Zionism; The Revolt (1951) charts his journey to Palestine and a bloody but successful guerilla campaign to expel the British and found the modern state of Israel. Of his three decades in political opposition and six years as prime minister, we have only his speeches and articles as first-person records. Begin had planned another memoir, From Holocaust to Rebirth, a personal account of Jewish history, dispossession, and statehood, but it never appeared.

In its stead, historians have grappled with the private and confounding figure of Begin. There has been the substantial analyses of Avi Shilon (Menachem Begin: A Life) and Eitan Haber (The Legend and the Man); the personal reflections of his aide Harry Hurwitz (Begin: His Life, Words and Deeds) and the inane polemics of his critic Amos Perlmutter (The Life and Times of Menachem Begin); the involving and powerful prose of Ned Temko, whose To Win or to Die benefited greatly from in-depth interviews with close friends and family.

None of these volumes is indispensable, although Shilon’s comes close. It has fallen to Daniel Gordis, an Israeli rabbi and scholar, to pen the gold standard text in Begin studies. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul is a biographical analysis of Begin’s place in Israel’s struggle for national and spiritual renewal. For Gordis, Begin embodied this revival most acutely because he “was, and remains, the most Jewish prime minister that Israel has ever had.” His volume surveys how Begin’s reverence for the traditions and customs of Jewish life sustained him in turbulent times.

Born in Brest-Litovsk in 1913, Begin was raised in a religious home and later joined the Betar, the Revisionist-Zionist youth movement of his future mentor and ideological lodestar Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Fleeing the Shoah, which took the lives of his parents and brother, Begin sought refuge in modern-day Lithuania but before long was jailed by the Soviets for Zionist activities. Following his release from prison, he travelled to Palestine and commanded the Irgun, a paramilitary group which rejected the Jewish Agency’s cooperation with the British Mandate and the Haganah’s policy of havlagah (“self-restraint”). The Irgun believed only force would liberate the land of Israel. The British placed a bounty on Begin’s head but his campaign, in particular the King David Hotel bombing, sapped their morale and London eventually surrendered the mandate, paving the way for Jewish independence.

Had this been the end of Begin’s public life, he would still be a central figure in Zionist history. Yet the new state breathed new life into Begin and he entered politics under the banner of his Herut party, largely composed of former underground comrades and committed to realizing Jewish sovereignty in the entire land of Israel—on Jabotinsky’s “two banks of the Jordan.” While Begin focused on biblical geography, the left dominated the political landscape and consigned Begin to eight terms in opposition. Then the 1977 election brought the mahapach (“upset”) in which voters turned out the Labor establishment and put Begin in charge after nearly 30 years on the back benches.

Begin’s tenure was scarcely less eventful than his earlier life. He signed a peace treaty with Egypt, won the Nobel Peace Prize, bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, brought Vietnamese refugees to Israel, set the wheels in motion to rescue Ethiopian Jewry, and waged war against Yassir Arafat in Lebanon. Although that last conflict, protracted and unpopular, sullied his public image, his death in 1992 prompted thousands of Israelis to ascend the Mount of Olives to see him laid to rest.

Begin emerges here as a Jew above all else, and his Jewishness was a source of strength and continuity through his life’s trials. He clung to a childhood memory of his father tearfully reciting Vehi She’amda, the archetypal prayer of Jewish faith and defiance:

This stood for our fathers and for us. For not only one rose against us to destroy us; rather, in every generation they rise against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.

Those words could have been written for Begin and his times. Even in the gulag, he fasted on Yom Kippur and held seders in his tiny cell, four rations of coffee standing in for the customary four cups of wine. Gordis contends that he carried this “finely honed appreciation for the rhythms and priorities of Jewish life and tradition” into his political leadership, and points to Begin’s preference for addressing his speeches to all Jews, not just Israelis.

Nothing brought this to the fore as violently as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision in 1952 to open negotiations with Germany to secure reparations for the destruction of Jewish property under the Third Reich. Begin led a tumultuous public protest that descended into a riot outside the Knesset, while inside he accused the government of “rob[bing] us of the little respect that we have managed to obtain” and beseeched Ben-Gurion “in the final moment as a Jew to a fellow Jew.” For Ben-Gurion, reparations were a practical matter, an economic lifeboat for the impoverished Jewish state. For Begin, they were a crime against the Jewish past. This was the moment, Gordis assesses, that Begin “was redefined as the political voice for whom the dignity of Jewish memory and its inseparability from Jewish survival mattered more than anything else.”

The book is as much a rescue mission as a biography, debunking the legion slanders levelled against Begin. Gordis is scathing about leftist Jews, led by Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, who penned a letter to the New York Times in which he called Begin “this latest manifestation of Fascism” and grossly misrepresented the Irgun’s 1948 assault on the Arab stronghold of Deir Yassin. Scholarship later showed the facts to be more prosaic, but history had already attached the label “massacre” and pointed to the testimony of the Zionist left as evidence. “A narrative that was largely invented by the Jews was broadcast to the world and continues to haunt Jews and Israel to this day,” Gordis notes.

Begin, a short, unprepossessing man with fierce eyes and a stony expression, was a central-casting ideologue for the left and Israel’s enemies. He was a terrorist in the underground, an enemy of democracy in opposition, and a dangerous maximalist in government. Yet, it was Begin who made peace with Israel’s most fearsome enemy, Begin who demolished the town of Yamit and handed back the Sinai, Begin who challenged the casual racism directed at Israel’s Mizrachi population, Begin who set the stage for Operation Moses that liberated the Jews of Ethiopia, Begin who gave sanctuary and citizenship to the boat people, and Begin who argued for both a constitution and civil liberties for Arab Israelis.

His compassion should not have come as a surprise. After all, he “had inherited the Bible’s unique Jewish particularism combined with a powerful sense of universal responsibility.” While Gordis perhaps overeggs the pudding in suggesting that for Begin “Zionism was but the Jewish expression of a universal yearning,” it is true that Begin the Zionist and Begin the humanitarian, though sometimes in conflict, were never that far apart. He navigated the age-old Jewish tension between tribalism and liberalism by recognizing that the noblest tenets of universalism—human dignity, liberty, the rule of law—were secular descendants of the mitzvot, and that faith and observance could lead one toward rather than away from them. In this, as in many things, Begin was a study in paradox: intellectual and warrior, liberal and nationalist, proud particularist and colorblind humanitarian. He taught the Jewish people that they could be good and strong at the same time.

Begin’s legacy is that he helped to shift the language of Jewishness from the passive to the active. Where once Jews had only hoped and yearned, now they built and conquered. Nowhere is this captured more evocatively than in his defense of the 1982 incursion into southern Lebanon:

We will be nobody’s cowering Jew. We won’t wait for the Americans or the United Nations to save us. Those days are over. We have to defend ourselves. Without readiness for self-sacrifice, there will be another Auschwitz. And if we have to pay a price for the sake of our self-defense, then we will have to pay it.

The miracles of 1948 and 1967 gave Jews around the world something to be proud of, but only as onlookers admiring the derring-do of warrior-pioneers in a far-flung desert. Begin made Jews everywhere an inseparable part of Israel’s national story, and in doing so he made Israel stronger.

Daniel Gordis has established himself as one of today’s most vibrant thinkers on the Jewish people with his books Saving Israel and The Promise of Israel. What sets him apart from so many other observers is his facility for exploring large and important ideas in a way that the general reader can understand. The achievement of Menachem Begin is twofold: the illumination of a complex, pivotal figure in Jewish history and, in its execution, the guiding of the Jewish people toward a better understanding of themselves.

About the Author

Stephen Daisley a journalist living in Scotland, writes frequently for Commentary.

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