Menachem Begin: His legacy, a century after his birth

A Dose of Nuance: More than two decades after his death, it behooves us all to reflect on the profundity of his contribution to the Jewish people.

Menachem begin giving speech 370 (photo credit: gpo)
Menachem begin giving speech 370
(photo credit: gpo)
Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was born 100 years ago today. A century after his birth, and more than two decades after his death, it behooves us all, regardless of our political stripes, to take a moment and reflect on the profundity of his contribution to the Jewish people.
That claim will undoubtedly strike many as strange, since more than half a century after he helped rid Palestine of the British, Begin is still disparaged by many of the very same Jews who see in the American revolution a cause for genuine pride.
Begin himself seemed to sense the irony, so he spoke time and again about the American revolution. In an article commemorating the 35th anniversary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s death, he combined two passages from Thomas Jefferson’s letters to fellow statesmen – one to James Madison and another to William Stephens Smith. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” Begin quoted Jefferson, adding the American revolutionary’s sobering observation that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
It was natural that Begin thought about the Zionist revolution in light of what American revolutionary patriots had wrought 175 years earlier. After all, the American and Zionist revolutions shared much in common. Both were fueled by a people’s desire for freedom after long periods of oppression, in which religion had played a central role in their persecution. Both were designed to force the British to leave the territory in question so that they (the American colonialists and the Zionists) could establish their own, sovereign countries – in Israel’s case on the very ground where a sovereign Jewish nation had stood centuries before. Both produced admirable democracies. And both were violent revolutions.
Given those similarities, it is worth asking why many Jewish Americans bow their heads in respect to Nathan Hale, but wince in shame at the mention of the Hebrew freedom fighters who sought precisely what it was that Hale died for. Why is George Washington, who conducted a violent, fierce and bloody campaign against the British, a hero, while for many, Begin remains a villain or, at the very least, a Jewish leader with a compromised background? Some of the difference has to do with time. We have photographs of the two British sergeants Begin ordered hanged in response to the British hanging of his men, and of the shattered King David Hotel, which he ordered bombed. We know the names of the sergeants and of the victims in the hotel attack, but not of the British young men who died at the hands of America’s revolutionaries.
The passage of time and the absence of details have allowed the heroic story of America’s freedom fighters to endure, while the pain and suffering of those whom they fought has gradually faded into oblivion. The leaders and fighters of the Zionist revolution have been afforded no such luxury.
The fighters of the Zionist revolution have also had the misfortune of another inequality. Native Americans are not the object of the world’s sympathies.
Early Americans killed or moved entire tribes, yet the American revolution is now seldom assailed for its treatment of Native Americans as vehemently as is the Israeli revolution for its conflict with Arabs. The Palestinians have been infinitely more successful in their quest for international support, and the reputation of Israel’s revolutionaries – despite their similarity to those in America two centuries earlier – has borne the brunt of the international community’s displeasure.
And Begin’s reputation was also scarred by David Ben-Gurion’s refusal to acknowledge his own participation in some of the events for which Begin is vilified. Ben-Gurion consistently denied having had anything to do with operations that did not go as planned, while Begin stood ready to take responsibility. The Hagana’s David Shaltiel had approved the now infamous Deir Yassin operation, but when it went tragically and horribly awry and many innocent people died, Ben-Gurion painted Begin as a violent thug, pretending that his organization had had nothing to do with it. The Hagana was also intimately involved in the approval and planning of the King David bombing (for Ben-Gurion had come to see that Begin was right, that the British needed to be dislodged), but when civilians were killed because the British refused to heed the Irgun’s warnings to leave the building, Ben-Gurion assailed Begin, pretending that he and his men had known nothing of the plan.
Ben-Gurion was one of the greatest Jewish leaders ever to have lived, and the Jewish state might well not have come to be were it not for him. But his greatness notwithstanding, he was unfair to Begin – consistently and mercilessly.
Yet Ben-Gurion was not alone. Begin is, in many ways, still the victim of campaigns waged against him by Diaspora Jews. On the eve of Begin’s planned 1948 trip to the United States, when Albert Einstein and political theorist Hannah Arendt joined some two dozen other prominent American Jews in writing to The New York Times to protest his visit, they could probably not have imagined the long-term damage they would do not only to Begin’s reputation, but to the causes for which he stood. “Within the Jewish community,” Einstein and Arendt wrote, the Irgun has “preached an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority.”
American Jews believed them. But that characterization of Begin was utterly false.
Unless believing in God makes one a religious mystic, Begin was far from any such thing. The Begin whom they accused of “racial superiority” was the same Begin who argued for the end of military rule over Israel’s Arabs, whose first act as prime minister was to welcome the Vietnamese boat people as Israeli citizens, who initiated the project of bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and who gave up Sinai to make peace with Egypt.
That Einstein and Arendt, both immigrants to America who had found in the US freedom that they would never have been afforded in their native Germany, could not – or would not – see the similarities between the American and Zionist revolutions is astounding. They saw the American colonists as harbingers of freedom who created the world’s greatest democracy, a land of unlimited opportunity for those who came to its shores, but Begin and the Irgun as “terrorists” worthy only of shame and denigration.
Why? Part of the problem was that Begin’s Jewish worldview was, in many ways, infinitely more sophisticated than that of his detractors. He understood that life is a messy enterprise, and that great things cannot be accomplished in the pristine conditions of the laboratory.
Were he alive today, he would be perplexed by those American Jews who are despondent about the conditions of Arabs living under Israeli rule, but who rarely so much as mention the horrific conditions of Native Americans – whom those very same heroic American colonists cheated, deported and murdered.
He would in no way have condoned the treatment of Native Americans, of course; he was far too great a humanist for that. Indeed, he might well have identified with them, considering himself indigenous to Israel. What would have saddened him beyond measure was the Jewish people’s ability to be so intolerant of the messiness of life in its own unfolding history, yet so understanding of that messiness in the actions of others.
Begin was nuanced in other ways that make his worldview difficult for many to appreciate. His was a Judaism in which one could harbor both deeply humanist convictions and a passionate allegiance to one’s own people. A particularism that comes at the expense of broader humanism is inevitably narrow, and will likely become ugly, he would have said. But a commitment to humanity at large that does not put one’s own people first and center, Begin believed and made clear time and again, is a human life devoid of identity. He understood that to love all of humanity equally is to love no one intensively. Such unabashed yet nuanced particularism, even tribalism, was and remains difficult for many contemporary Jews, who see in Western universalist culture an ethos utterly at odds with the peoplehood that has always fueled passionate Jewish life.
To be sure, it is impossible to read about the results of the Deir Yassin battle, the hanging of the two British sergeants that Begin ordered or the horrific human toll in the King David Hotel bombing without pausing to reflect on the great loss of life, without at least wondering – if only momentarily – whether there might not have been another way. Begin himself acknowledged that some of the means were extreme.
But Jews were dying in Europe. And no one cared. Not Britain’s Winston Churchill, not America’s Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not even American Jews, for the most part. The British had sealed the shores of Palestine.
The US sealed its own shores. American Jewish life continued apace without huge disruptions; American Jews did not mass around Capitol Hill or the White House time and again, exerting pressure until FDR dropped at least one bomb on one track to one camp. As thousands upon thousands of Polish Jews went up smokestacks at Auschwitz, American Jews celebrated bar mitzvas almost as if nothing was awry. The world knew, Begin understood, but still reacted with silence. There were ships filled with Jews, roaming the globe, searching for a place to drop anchor, but no one would have them.
Someone needed to carve out a home for those Jews whom no one else would have. Someone needed to stand up for the Jews that even Jews had abandoned.
Begin had survived his flight from the Nazis. He had endured Soviet prison.
He had made it to Palestine as a Jew in the Polish Free Army. How on earth, he would have asked, could anyone not believe that something had to be done to make one small space for the Jews? His life was about doing something. Those who continue to dismiss him repudiate his tactics, yet take for granted the existence of the state that he helped create.
When famed columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “What made Begin...
dangerous was that his fantasies about power were combined with a self-perception of being a victim ... Begin always reminded me of Bernhard Goetz, the white Manhattanite who shot four black youths he thought were about to mug him on the New York subway.
. . [Begin] was Bernhard Goetz with an F-15,” Friedman failed to understand that the issue was not “fantasy.” Begin was opposed to fantasy: Why should Jews buy into some fantasy that they had no power, when they finally did? Why should they imagine that they could not once again become victims, when others were clearly plotting their destruction? How was destroying Iraq’s Osirak reactor (which he did in June 1981), when leader Saddam Hussein had explicitly stated that he was going to destroy Israel, indicative of a fantasy or of a power fetish? Thankfully , Einstein, Arendt and Friedman were not the only perspectives voiced about Begin, even during his life. Abba Hillel Silver, the American Reform rabbi and Zionist leader, had said, “The Irgun will go down in history as a factor without which the State of Israel would not have come into being.”
Silver was right. Jewish sovereignty did not happen by chance, nor simply through negotiation. It came about through determination, grit, courage and blood. It was wrought not only by Ben-Gurion and those he invited to that memorable afternoon in Tel Aviv when he declared independence, but also, to paraphrase Moses, by “those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day.” Despite the venomous animosity that divided them almost all their working lives, Ben-Gurion and Begin were both necessary elements of the creation of a Jewish state. Without either one, Israel might well not have come into being.
Begin’s complex life was a study in the possibilities of “both/and,” rather than “either/or.” Born into war, he never gave up the hope for peace.
Forced into hiding upon declaring the revolt, his greatest moments were in public, in front of adoring crowds. Animated and energized by the citizens who rallied behind him, he spent the last decade of his life out of their sight, ending his life in Israel as he had begun it in Palestine – in hiding. Hunted by the British as “Terrorist No. 1,” he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He made peace with Egypt, but attacked Iraq and invaded Lebanon. Capable of great emotional highs, he was also dogged by periods of great lows. Willing to use force to expel the British, he was also among the chief protectors of the rule of law in the Jewish state.
Fiercely and uniquely devoted to the Jews, he gave refuge to Vietnamese boat people and urged the end of military rule over Israel’s Arabs. Having avoided civil war over the Altalena, he threatened it with reparations and brought Israel to the brink of it, once again, when he ordered the evacuation of Yamit. By no means punctiliously observant, he both loved and honored Jewish tradition. Begin taught the Jews that love of their tradition was by no means exclusively the province of the ritually observant, that the religious- secular distinction in Israeli life could be rendered meaningless by people with a profound knowledge of and love for Jewish texts and rituals.
Yet despite this “both/and” tendency, Begin’s life had, at its core, an unwavering constant, a guiding principle that shaped everything. It was a life of selfless devotion to his people. That devotion fashioned a life in which determination eradicated fear, hope overcame despondency, love overcame hate, and devotion to both Jews and human beings everywhere coexisted with ease and grace. It was a life of great loyalty – to the people into which he was born, to the woman he loved from the moment he met her, and to the state that he helped create.
That is a legacy infinitely greater than most are able to bequeath. In an era in which many Jews are increasingly dubious about the legitimacy of love for a specific people or devotion to its ancestral homeland, the life and commitments of Begin urge us to look again at what he did and what he stood for, and to imagine – if we dare – the glory of a Jewish people recommitted to the principles that shaped his very being.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His forthcoming biography of Menachem Begin, from which this column is adapted, is titled Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, and will be published by Nextbook in March.