Men­achem Begin: The Bat­tle for Israel’s Soul

  • Review
By – March 3, 2014

Men­achem Begin — mak­er of peace with Egypt, Nobel Prize win­ner, wel­com­er of the Ethiopi­an Jews to Israel — was shunned by David Ben-Guri­on and renounced as a ter­ror­ist. In this sym­pa­thet­ic biog­ra­phy, Daniel Gordis, a promi­nent Amer­i­can-Israeli author and edu­ca­tor, shows Begin to be a bold leader and tire­less fight­er for klal Yis­rael, the entire­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple, and, with David Ben-Guri­on, both nec­es­sary ele­ments in the cre­ation of a Jew­ish state.”

A Zion­ist from his teenage years in Poland, Begin was imbued by Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s con­cept of hadar, the cre­ation of a con­fi­dent, proud, just, and faith­ful Jew, a per­son to be respect­ed and to respect oth­ers, and this con­cept col­ored many of Begin’s deci­sions. In 1942 Begin arrived in Pales­tine, hav­ing made his escape from Poland with his wife, Aliza, in 1939, only to be arrest­ed by the Sovi­ets and impris­oned in Siberia. Released when the Sovi­ets and Poles allied, he joined the Pol­ish Free Army in a unit that even­tu­al­ly made its way to Pales­tine. Unknown to Begin, his par­ents and broth­er were killed by the Nazis dur­ing this time. It was this back­ground that shaped Begin’s world view and ded­i­ca­tion to Jew­ish survival.

In this short biog­ra­phy Gordis con­cen­trates on what made Begin, at his death, mourned by tens of thou­sands in the streets of Jerusalem despite his retreat from pub­lic life ten years ear­li­er. Fol­low­ing Begin’s fight for a Jew­ish state from the moment he set foot in Pales­tine, Gordis recounts Begin’s unyield­ing and some­times bru­tal attacks on the British that forced him to live under­ground and earned him the con­tempt of Ben-Guri­on and many Zion­ists in the Unit­ed States and Britain. In con­trast to Avi Shilon’s recent Men­achem Begin, Gordis does not dis­cuss Begin’s involved pol­i­tics. He focus­es on the major events in Begin’s career, with full accounts of the attack at Deir Yassin and the Altal­e­na inci­dent, as well as the bomb­ing of the King David Hotel, bal­anced by the results of schol­ar­ly research.

In 1948 Begin found­ed the Herut par­ty and was elect­ed to the Knes­set. There he remained in the oppo­si­tion for the next twen­ty years, slow­ly build­ing a fol­low­ing until 1977, when his Likud par­ty — an amal­ga­ma­tion of sev­er­al oppo­si­tion par­ties — won a major­i­ty, and Begin became prime min­is­ter. As prime min­is­ter, Begin demon­strat­ed the qual­i­ties that revealed his sense of hadar. Among his first acts was the wel­com­ing of Viet­namese refu­gees — turned away by sev­er­al coun­tries — and the Ethiopi­an Jews. Always an advo­cate for the under­dog, Begin rec­og­nized the demands of the Sephardic Jews, long under­served by the gov­ern­ment, and launched urban renew­al and hous­ing projects. But Begin’s most unex­pect­ed move was his invi­ta­tion to take up Anwar Sadat, pres­i­dent of Egypt, on Sadat’s state­ment that he would go to Israel to make peace. Begin, who had laid his ground­work for this oppor­tu­ni­ty, greet­ed Sadat at the air­port, and thus began ardu­ous nego­ti­a­tions that end­ed almost a year lat­er with the Camp David accords and the award­ing of the Nobel Peace Prize to Begin and Sadat in Decem­ber 1978.

Begin’s fight to pro­tect Israel cli­maxed in 1981, when he ordered the bomb­ing of Iraq’s nuclear reac­tor to head off Sad­dam Hus­sein’s devel­op­ment of a nuclear bomb and vow to destroy Israel. Once again, unafraid of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al condemna­tion, Begin took the offen­sive to pro­tect the Jew­ish peo­ple. This posi­tion also led Begin to his last offen­sive deci­sion — as a response to the con­stant PLO bomb­ing of Israel along the Lebanese bor­der, Israeli forces invad­ed Lebanon. The mis­sion start­ed well but soon got beyond Begin’s con­trol, lead­ing to heavy IDF loss­es and inter­na­tion­al out­rage when, as Israeli troops stood by, Lebanese Chris­tians exact­ed revenge on Lebanese Mus­lims for the assas­si­na­tion of the Lebanese pres­i­dent. The ensu­ing demon­stra­tions and inves­ti­ga­tion left Begin, frail and mourn­ing his wife, phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly exhaust­ed. He resigned and left pub­lic life.

But even as he left pub­lic life, Begin left an indeli­ble mark on Israel. A man of Europe, he was the only Israeli leader who retained his giv­en name; while many Israelis looked to the future, the past was always alive in Begin’s eyes; in an increas­ing­ly sec­u­lar coun­try, Begin insist­ed on hon­or­ing Jew­ish tra­di­tion, ban­ning Sat­ur­day flights on El Al. His guide was the Bible, which he often quot­ed in his impas­sioned speech­es, and the rule of law. Com­plex and dri­ven, Begin devot­ed him­self to the Jew­ish peo­ple, not to Israelis, but to Jews wher­ev­er they were. In this acces­si­ble and well-doc­u­ment­ed biog­ra­phy, Gordis makes Begin’s life­long mis­sion com­pre­hen­si­ble and shows that, after his love for klal Yis­rael, Begin was also moved by a deep human­i­ty and con­cern for all peo­ple. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, chronol­o­gy, illus­tra­tions (not seen by review­er), notes, tables.

Relat­ed Content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions