MENACHEM BEGIN: A LIFE by Avi Shilon

(Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin speaking to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset advocating acceptance of the Camp David accords, March 20, 1979.  Future Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Shamir is seated to his right.)

In exploring the creation of the state of Israel over the last 67 years the dominant figure that emerges is David Ben-Gurion.  The head of the Jewish Agency before and after World War II, Ben-Gurion guided the nascent Israeli state and dominated its politics for decades.  However, another transformative figure emerged during the same time period that many outside Israel seem to avoid giving him his due, Menachem Begin.  Whether speaking about Begin’s leadership of the Irgun and the pressure he placed on the British to relinquish its Palestinian mandate; his political leadership that brought about his election to the Prime Minister’s office in 1977 which fundamentally realigned Israeli politics to this day; or his evolution as a terrorist or freedom fighter to a respected politician, depending on your viewpoint, in negotiating the Camp David Accords, the first peace treaty with an Arab state that recognized the state of Israel and altered the balance of power in the Middle East, Begin’s life has left an indelible mark on the Israeli people.  The latest example of Begin’s profound ideological influence on Israel are the recent elections that returned Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister’s office, leading the Likud bloc that Begin helped create in the 1970s.  The most complete biography of Begin’s life and career is written by Israeli historian, Avi Shilon, MENACHEM BEGIN: A LIFE that mines the Israeli archives and reflects numerous interviews in producing a complete picture of Begin in all aspects of his long career, in addition to providing an interesting analysis that delves into his personality and the motivations for the actions he took.  Daniel Gordis has written the most recent biography of Begin, entitled, MENACHEM BEGIN: THE BATTLE FOR ISRAEL’S SOUL, in which the author admits he is not concerned with all aspects of Begin’s life but “the story he evoked in Jews, of what he said to the world about Jewish history and the Jewish people and the legacy he bequeathed to the state he was instrumental in creating,” as well as looking at his life “through the lens of the passion he still evokes.” (Xiv-xv)  However, Gordis does not come close to Shilon’s book published in English in 2012 in scope and depth of analysis.

The common theme in Shilon’s life of Begin was his pride in being Jewish, a pride that would shape his entire life.  He idealized his father who was a committed Zionist who raised his children with a blend of Jewish tradition and the ideas of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a leading figure in the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Begin’s father was his life’s role model as a man living in a Polish village named Brisk, who would use an axe to open a synagogue to allow Theodore Herzl to speak when the head rabbi refused to allow the founder of Zionism to address his congregation.  Further, he would confront anti-Semitic Polish soldiers who almost shot him in front of his son.  Ze’ev-Dov, Begin’s father encouraged his children to go to Palestine and was a model of persistence or stubbornness who would perish along with Begin’s mother and sister in the Holocaust.  Begin’s father stressed the solidarity of the Jewish people and vigorously opposed those who disagreed with him.   Along with his exposure to Judaism as a child, the actions of his father that he witnessed, and the events of the Shoah are all mirrored throughout Begin’s career and the development of his worldview.

(The arrival of Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat in Israel alongside Prime Minister Begin, November 19, 1977)

When discussing Menachem Begin, opinions range from the beloved leader that impacted Israel greatly as a statesman and a man of the people, or a stubborn individual who has authoritarian tendencies with an acerbic tongue and supported violence to achieve his aims.  Shilon comes down between the two extremes as he develops a fascinating portrait of Begin.  From the outset Shilon traces Begin’s ideological roots back to his enrollment in the Beitar Movement that stressed the ideas of Ze’ev Jabotinsky at the age of sixteen.  The movement called on Jews to hold their heads up high, stressed nationalistic issues, and the power of the Jewish people to achieve a future in Israel.  The young Begin was greatly influenced by Jabotinsky, but also Marshall Jozef Pilsudki who led the Polish nationalist movement after World War I, and Guiseppi  Garibaldi, the Italian nationalist who worked to achieve the unification of Italy in the 1860s.  By the time Begin entered his twenties his worldview was formulated as Shilon accurately points out, he “applied Polish nationalistic concepts to his perception of Jewish nationalism – especially regarding the importance of using military means to expand territory – and to this notion he added the spiritual nationalistic anchor – Jewish tradition.” (12)  These themes would be evident in all aspects of Begin’s life’s work.

Shilon’s chronological narrative focuses a great deal on the ideological rifts that developed as Begin worked his way up in the Beitar movement to positions of leadership, the implementation of the Irgun’s war against the British, his time in opposition after the creation of the state of Israel, and his period as Prime Minister.  As Begin rose to prominence in the Beitar movement he would disagree with Jabotinsky in a number of areas, most importantly over the use of terror and cooperation with the British.  During the Irgun years the issue was the application of violence and whether to go along with the Jewish Agency, led by David Ben-Gurion and his strategy.  After independence Begin was adamant about not negotiating with the West German government over reparations as the Holocaust impacted him so severely, and once in power the issue of returning territories won in the 1967 war forced him to change his position of never returning territory that was part of “Eretz Yisroel.”  However, no matter the situation, Shilon credits Begin with his courage and his ability to discern the mood of the public in any decision he made.

(The Beitar Movement that Begin joined at the age of 16, he is seated in the center)

The most controversial part of Begin’s career was his leadership of the Irgun, which the British labeled as a terrorist group before, during, and after World War II.  Begin’s raison detre was to rebel against the British.  At the outset, Begin had no knowledge about leading an underground organization and planning and carrying out operations.  He rose to leadership in the Irgun based on his European background, particularly his training in the Polish army, and his fluency in a number of languages.  As in most cases during his career, Begin let his ideas that many felt were beyond reality, and his oratorical ability to carry the day, and left military planning to experts, a concept that appears over and over during his career.  Begin saw the British refusal to allow Holocaust refugees into Palestine as enough of a reason to declare war on them.  He strongly believed that the British were solely responsible for blocking the creation of the state of Israel.  Begin believed the employment of terror against the British mandate during and after World War II would force them out of the region, buttress the confidence of the Yishuv, damage British prestige, and arouse international public opinion, especially in the United States.  One must ask was terror a successful strategy to accomplish ones goals?  In Bruce Hoffman’s new book ANONYMOUS SOLDIERS: THE STRUGGHLE FOR ISRAEL 1917-1947, the author asks, does terror work?  Based on historical events and the creation of Israel in 1948, his conclusion is that it does.  Shilon does not skirt over the controversial actions taken by the Irgun, the bombing of the King David Hotel, the hanging of the British sergeants, the Deir Yassin massacre, the Altalena Affair, and other events are explored in detail and the author does not hold back any criticism in discussing Begin’s actions.

The contentious relationship and almost hatred between David Ben-Gurion and Begin is a common theme throughout the narrative.  Ben-Gurion always feared Begin’s popularity among the young and wanted to prevent him from gaining any political power.  Shilon points to the fact that Ben-Gurion and Begin shared many characteristics, including a propensity to act in an authoritative manner.  Begin never could accept an Israeli democracy under Ben-Gurion’s control.   For Begin, Ben-Gurion was too secular, and Begin believed in a Hebrew republic that distinguished between the state and religion – a dichotomy that still exists today when one listens to Netanyahu’s repeated call for a “Jewish state.” The integration of the arguments into the narrative between the two in the Knesset and the Israeli media enhances an understanding of the two men as well as providing insights into why they disagreed over policy and their personality differences.  For Begin, religion was the unifying principle of the Jewish people.  For him, the Israeli national concept was based on the Jewish people in its biblical version, and pursuing the military path was a legitimate means to a desired end.

(Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, Begin’s political rival/enemy)

Shilon’s use of primary materials to reflect on Begin’s relationships is important in gaining an accurate view of how he dealt with people.  Begin always respected military men, particularly those he felt were “warriors.”  His relationship with Moshe Dayan, who was a member of the Labour coalition reflects Begin’s ability to compromise when necessary.  His relationship with Ariel Sharon, another military hero is important in addition to his up and down relationship with Ezer Weizmann, an Air Force hero who represented the younger generation that at times would revere Begin because of his background.  In overseeing the dismantling of the Irgun after independence we witness a distraught Begin as he must pursue realpolitik to further his Herut party politically.  The discussions and overt hostility that arises between Begin and his Irgun fighters is important as it reflects the evolution of Begin as a politician and what he sees as the best interests of the Israeli people.

Shilon does an excellent job in analyzing three events that form turning points in Begin’s rise to power in 1977.  The first, in 1952 is his opposition to accepting reparations payment from the West German government, highlighting the impact of the Holocaust in every decision Begin made.  Occurring at a time when his Herut party was in decline it provided a platform for Begin to touch the soul of Israel.  Later in his career when German Chencellor Helmut Schmidt stated on a state visit to Saudi Arabia in 1981 that Germany had a moral obligation toward the Palestinians because it was Germany that was responsible for their plight due to the Holocaust.  An incensed Begin responded at a political rally that, “He is greedy….he seeks two things.  To buy oil cheaply and sell weapons dearly.  He talks about moral obligation to the Arabs?  The obligation to the Jews will never end.” (337)  the second event, the 1967 Six Day War brought Begin into a unity government as a minister without portfolio.  Here the Labour government was following Begin’s approach in dealing with Israeli security and resulted in the capture of the West Bank, or as Begin referred to as Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights.  This period of Israeli euphoria is well chronicled and leads to the third event that brings Begin to power, the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  The soul searching that followed the war would lead to the coalition of Herut and two other parties to form the Likud bloc that would produce the election of Begin as Prime Minister in May, 1977.  Shilon’s analysis and questions pertaining to Begin’s rise are valid and thought provoking.

(Begin in disguise as a rabbi during his years underground.  His wife Aliza and daughter Chasia are also pictured)

The final section of the book culminates with a shift in Begin’s approach to foreign policy.  His view was that the Sinai and Golan Heights were not part of the promise land that God gave to the Jewish people, therefore he was willing to negotiate their return.  This would allow him to reduce international pressure over Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, Gaza, and the settlement program.  This shift in his thinking allowed Begin to go to Camp David and reach an accord with Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, but being very careful not to give into demands concerning the Palestinians.  For Begin the autonomy agreement that was reached was nothing more than papering over a problem and pushing it into the future when Begin accurately predicted there would be a massive influx of Soviet Jews to Israel alleviating the demographic challenges that Israel faced with the Arabs. Begin’s biggest mistake as Prime Minister was his invasion of southern Lebanon as a means of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization.  As Robin Wright, the Middle East historian has noted, this became Israel’s Vietnam, and it would take a number of years after Begin retired to extricate itself from.  For Begin the decision to invade Lebanon has been fraught with controversy.  The role of then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon is at the center of the debate whether he exceeded instructions approved by the Israeli cabinet and pursued his own agenda while keeping Begin in the dark.  According to Shilon, the Prime Minister was “detached from what was happening on the ground,” and though he supported Sharon’s actions, he was culpable for the disasters that followed, including the Shatila and Sabra refugee camp massacre, the increasing Israeli casualty rate, and the eventual emergence of Iranian backed Hezbollah.

Foreign policy was Begin’s bailiwick, and social and economic issues did not create the same interest.  However, he would take advantage of the poverty that recent immigrants from the Arab countries and Ethiopia endured as they tried to assimilate into Israeli society.  He would pit these Sephardic Jews against the ruling Ashkenazis to gain their political support and enhance Likud’s popularity.  Further, he would employ a populist message to gain the support of workers and the middle class to reflect an image of fighting for those who did not benefit from the Labour government’s policies.  Begin would make economic policy pronouncements to assist the poor, but losing interest, he would as he always said, would turn implementation of those policies to the experts.

Shilon’s effort and the excellent translation from Hebrew by Danielle Zilberberg and Yoram Sharett should stand as the preeminent biography of Begin for a great while.  Though at times somewhat wordy, the author has captured the essence of who Begin was, and what his place in history has become.  Today he remains as one of the most popular figures in Israeli history and if Bruce Hoffman is to be believed Begin showed that the use of terror in certain situations can be successful, and that even a rigid ideologue can evolve and have a positive impact on his people.

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