For someone born in Poland during the war, who survived the Shoah in Vilna – the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania‘ – someone whose father z”l was the editor of “Bloy Weiss,” the Zionist revisionist paper in Warsaw, whose father headed “Brith Hatzohar” in a DP camp in Austria from ’46 –’48 and whose “Beitar” commander in NYC was Misha Arens.
Someone who was also suspended from the yeshiva of Flatbush for three days and called a “Jewish fascist” by his principal, because he cut school to welcome Menachem Begin at La Guardia Airport in NYC.
A person who staged a protest in 1958 during a “machon hakaitz” [Summer camp] visit to Acre when the Jewish Agency forbade the group to visit the gallows room, for someone who was blackballed from becoming the CEO of the KKL-JNF in the USA because he once was a “Beitari” – this evening is very, very special.
Having been privileged to serve the Jewish people for many years, I have received various recognitions, but receiving the Begin Prize in the Begin Center, in Jerusalem, is one of the great honors of my life. This is so for three reasons.
First, because of the company I will keep with others who received this coveted award, like the late Ilan Ramon or the IDF’s home front command rescue unit for the residents of Sderot.
Second, because of the description of the award which is given to people or institutions who have done extraordinary things for Israel and the Jewish people. It is recognition for what has been my sacred mission throughout my entire adult life. Nothing could be more satisfying.
Third and above all else, is the fulfillment I get to have my name eternally linked to one of my heroes, one of the great leaders of the Jewish people.
As a survivor, a member of She’erith Ha-Pleita (The Saved Remnant), a fervent Zionist organization from my youth, and as a professional devoted to Israel’s well-being, I appreciate and value Menachem Begin for representing so many things I hold dear. He was a proud Jew. He was a leader. He was a patriot. And he knew that both words and actions matter.
One issue that has great relevance today is his decision to authorize the IAF to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor (at Osirak) in 1981. He did it primarily because he understood that the security and existence of the Jewish state was at risk, and he believed that Jews must defend themselves.
But in my view, he also did it because he was sending a message to the world, that the greatest threat to the world was when rogue nations get nuclear weapons.
So his message was a great one for me and the Anti-Defamation League: first, stand up strong for yourself; then, in doing so, you will also be standing up for others.
My work for the Jewish people is in Begin’s spirit. I am proud of my Jewishness and for using my strength to defend our principles, and then because we deliver a message to the broader world about standing up against hate.
THE MENACHEM Begin Prize is a high moment in my life. Before concluding, I want to share with you a few of my encounters with Begin.
Arnold Foster and I were doing a 15-minute radio program called “Israel Report” and invited Begin for an interview. He answered our first question with 15 minutes of talk. We explained the format to him and recorded it again. Similarly, he gave a very long answer. We recorded for a third time. When I interrupted him in an effort to shorten the answers, he asked: “You don’t like my answers?” We made a further attempt. The show was never broadcast.
When Begin was elected prime minister, some in the American Jewish community were worried about his Yiddish shtetl image. I called Yechiel Kadishai and offered to help.
Yechiel consulted Begin and called back after a few hours to say that he (Begin) would appreciate our assistance.
We came to his office, and experts gave him some tips. They also offered assistance with his wardrobe.
Aliza, his wife, was not happy about it and claimed that she hadn’t done such a bad job dressing him for the last 40 years, nor since he became prime minister. Begin said to her: “Aliza, if this will help the Jewish people, what do you care? Why are you angry?” And we continued our work.
In Begin’s first visit to the US, everyone wanted him on their platform. The ADL could not compete with the United Jewish Appeal bonds and others.
Kadishai suggested we offer Begin something he couldn’t decline. We therefore initiated the Jabotinsky Prize, and Prime Minister Begin came to receive the award.
Finally, in a two-week period, Alex Schindler turned the American Jewish community’s perception of the prime minister from having been a terrorist to a respected leader. In honor for his contribution, Begin gave Schindler a state dinner, the only time this was done for a private person.
Begin was a great leader, orator, teacher and above all, a very gentle man.
This op-ed is based on remarks made by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, upon the occasion of his receiving the Menachem Begin Award on Wednesday night.