Published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, April 4, 2014
In 1977, not long after Menachem Begin formed the ﬁrst Likud-led government, there was worry among some advisers and American-Jewish leaders that his “shtetl Jew” appearance would harm Israel.
Unlike the dapper Labor leaders of the past, such as Yitzhak Rabin, or the short-sleeved “pioneers” of the 1950s, Begin wore a rumpled black suit and decidedly accountant-looking glasses. Some fashion big shots were sent to his modest home and “suggested he make some changes.”
In his biography Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, author Daniel Gordis includes Aliza Begin’s response. “For 40 years I dressed you and you became the prime minister, why do you need all this?” Begin replied, “If it is good for the Jewish people, what do you care?” This was a quintessential measure of the man, who never forgot the place of Judaism in his worldview. As Gordis points out, “First and foremost he was a Jew.”
The decision to write a biography of this important and essential prime minister of Israel did not come immediately to rabbi, popular author and Shalem College senior vice president Gordis. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he describes the long road it took him to realize Begin’s place in Israel’s history.
Nextbook was publishing a series of “Jewish Encounters” biographies and editor Jonathan Rosen approached him. “I said I’d write about the greatest leader, David Ben-Gurion, and Rosen said someone was already writing on him. Who? ‘Well, [President] Shimon Peres’ – and Peres was more intimately acquainted with him.”
Time went by and Gordis completed his 2012 book The Promise of Israel. But the nagging question kept coming back. “One of the critical issues facing us is this issue of peoplehood, and you can’t understand who the Jews are if you can’t look at peoplehood.”
Rosen suggested looking at Begin as someone who embodied this concept. “I realized there was room to tell the story, not super lengthy or academic, yet serious, and do what none of the other biographies had done – which is focus on his Jewishness and then talk about peoplehood.”
Gordis was raised in a traditional Labor Zionist home. “In my house, there was only one picture of someone who was not from our family; it was [Israel’s first prime minister] Ben-Gurion, and it was always in the kitchen.” Growing up in Baltimore, this Labor Zionist tradition permeated his understanding of Israel. For instance, “I had been raised that the Deir Yassin [massacre] was carried out by the Irgun. I had heard that the battle of the Altalena [arms ship] was a battle over smuggling arms. And I discovered that everything I learned was different than what I’d been taught.”
Thus the journey to revive Begin’s legacy began, also as a personal journey to understand the centrality of peoplehood and to see how Gordis, and many of us, had been led to believe a selective history about the founding of Israel.
To prepare for the biography, the author read the various autobiographical sources that exist, including Revolt and White Nights, where Begin recounted his time in a Russian gulag and also his years in the Revisionist underground in the Land of Israel. He also interviewed Begin confidants such as Yehiel Kadishai, who died last November. “Between the speeches and books, interviews and articles, I think you can get inside his worldview. This is a guy who could hardly say a paragraph without quoting the Tanach, and Jewish history was ever-present, he would speak about Brest-Litovsk [a town in Belarus], and he would quote from the Book of Samuel. “When he would critique the government for how it treated Robert Soblen [an American Jew accused of espionage who fled to Israel but was then sent back], he gave this whole talk, and he spoke about ‘clean hands and pure heart,’ which is a quote from a Psalm.”
Begin’s deep Jewish knowledge and religious feeling was also revealed during the raid on Iraqi’s nuclear facility at Osirak. He paced back and forth reciting Psalms.
MENACHEM BEGIN was born in the Russian Empire in 1913. A leader in Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Betar, his life was inter rupted by the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939; he was arrested by the Soviet NKVD in 1940. In 1941, when the Nazis invaded Russia, his father, mother and brother were murdered. Life seemed to lose hope and he ended up joining a Polish army unit, called Anders Army, that miraculously found its way to Palestine.
From 1944, he was a leader of the Irgun. It was here that his formative experiences were carved on the anvil of hardship. The Irgun faced battles not only with the British but with the Labor Zionist leadership, which sometimes collaborated with the British against other Jewish organizations. His struggle with the British involved the use of methods described then as “terrorism.”
Gordis relates that “his message was clear: We are no longer victims; we are your equals. Whatever you do to our fighters, we will return in kind.” He fought for “hadar” or “national honor,” which was part of the Betar anthem. In one instance, when the British whipped a member of the Irgun, Begin ordered the whipping of a British soldier in retaliation. Eventually, the British ordered an end to whippings. “No Jew or Arab was ever flogged again by the British in Palestine.” Begin declared, noting that he received praise from people around the world.
Indeed, his methods were admired by other groups resisting the British and colonialism. For him, it was also a Jewish metaphor: “Our brother-Jews throughout the world straightened their backs.” What Gordis attempts to convey is that our understanding of this policy has been profoundly prejudiced by Ben-Gurion and others, who slandered Begin as a “fascist.” Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt even compared his party to the Nazis in The New York Times. “The narrative that most American Jews know about Israel, it is a Labor Zionist narrative, it is the narrative that Ben-Gurion fashioned for us. It was that this was going to be a peace-loving socialist, democratic, white European country. It would be a Hebrew-speaking, felafel-eating version of the Northeast corner of the US.”
The problem was that Israel never fit this myth, and the false utopia painted of it leads to an inevitable identity crisis when the reality doesn’t mesh. In fact, Israel was a far more complicated place. For instance, in the 1950s, when Moroccan, Iraqi and Yemenite Jews arrived en masse, they were subjected to ill treatment by the authorities, who looked down on them.
In one infamous instance, the authorities tried to restrict Moroccan Jewish immigration to only healthy Jews. Begin then stood in the Knesset in 1955 and declared, “If you had not wasted millions building luxury palaces, there would be money for absorption… the saving of life takes precedence not only over the Shabbat but also the development of our economy… if there is a rescue plan, we will also assume the burden, because rescue supersedes everything else.”
Begin demanded that Israel be a country of civil rights and equality. In the 1950s and ’60s he fought to end the military administration of Israeli Arabs. And he was angered by the Labor Zionist policies that divided the country between Ashkenazi and Sephardi. It was the source of his most famous speech, as Gordis relates, of his iconic underground fighters Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, who died clutching a grenade rather than be sent to the British gallows. For Begin it was a parable: one Ashkenazi, the other Iraqi, but Jews first.
(Menachem Begin speaks on the eve of the 1981 elections, see minute 3:00 for the parable of Feinstein/Barazani)
Gordis sees an inspiring legacy: “It was Begin who pushed for stopping the military rule over Arabs. It was Begin who gave away the Sinai. He was not opposed to working with Arabs; but he refused to be part of a charade.” He believed strongly in the rule of law. “He was a huge proponent of the settlement project and he endorsed Elon Moreh, but when the court ruled, his response was that ‘There are judges in Jerusalem,’ and he supported the law. Compare that to more recent governments that ignore rulings.”
The author is best at making this complicated narrative accessible. He boils down this long life, full of controversies, into clearly crafted prose. However, in the end, it is not only an uplifting biography that sets the record straight. Begin was a complicated figure. As such, after the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and as the scandal of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre unfolded, he began to sink into a slump. Gordis notes, “The guy who begins his life in hiding, ends his life in hiding. He hid during the revolt and then hid from the Israelis. It is a Greek or biblical tragedy, the man who was Israel’s greatest orator ends his life in silence, the one who was the architect of one of Israel’s greatest military moments also led Israel into, not a blunder, but complicated wars. The leader who won the Peace Prize, ultimately ended his life knowing he had brought the country into battle with a non-state enemy. “It is a tragedy of biblical proportions.”
For Gordis, the goal is to create a unifying narrative for the current generation. “What I want to do is rehabilitate him among English-speakers… the Jewish world has become polarized between Left and Right, pro-peace and whatever.
One of the things that is important to remember, it is humbling to recognize we would not have a state if not for Ben-Gurion, and not for Begin also. They were nemeses to each other, yet it is humbling for us who have strong opinions to remember that we are right – but it may very well be that even those who disagree with us, that they helped to create and perpetuate the state. The idea is that you needed both.” Gordis looks to America for this inspiration: “We see [Federalist] John Adams and [Republican] Thomas Jefferson as part of the same band of founding fathers.”
This is an important message. Israel has, for many years, wallowed in visceral and self-destructive debates in which various parts of society are viewed as unwanted “threats.” Can this biography of Begin serve as a unifying model, not only because of his Jewishness and steadfast pride, but because of his commitment to Jewish values – such as encouraging greater civil rights for the Arab minority and allowing in Vietnamese refugees? For those not familiar with the riveting story, Gordis’s work certainly serves as an enjoyable and important introduction to this fascinating man.