The First Word: The Rosh Hashana of Sabra and Shatilla

Defiantly, prime minister Begin walked out of synagogue and faced the baying crowd.

September 21, 2006 12:24
menachem begin 88

menachem begin 88. (photo credit: )


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Menachem Begin stood in the hallway of his residence with a face like stone. Contemptuously, he snapped, "Host du gehert aza meisa?" - have you heard of such a thing? "Christians have murdered Muslims, and they're blaming the Jews. I heard of it on the BBC. I contacted our people right away and they assured me they had put a stop to the killing." The prime minister, who was recovering from a broken hip, grasped his cane, gripped my arm, handed me his tallit bag and, cosseted by his guards, began limping the few blocks to the Great Synagogue for Rosh Hashana's second day of prayers. On the way, this unusual man of the people in the seat of power wished people of Jerusalem coming his way a warm Shana Tova - a happy New Year - and, in between, told me of the horrible thing that had happened in Beirut. Lebanon's Christian president, Bashir Jemayel, had been blasted to death by a Muslim bomb and, in revenge, Phalange (Christian) militia had gone on a rampage, massacring hundreds of civilians at Sabra and Shatilla, two Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut. IT WAS BEYOND Begin's comprehension. Lebanon was bleeding to death. An infernal civil war had been ravishing the country since 1975. Yasser Arafat occupied the south, fortifying a PLO state within a state, bombarding Galilee. The IDF launched Operation Peace for Galilee to expunge Arafat's Katyushas and expel him and his minions to Tunis. And now, on that Rosh Hashana of 1982, as the prime minister limped to shul, there lay scattered among the remains of Bashir Jemayel's body in Beirut the fragments of an initial draft treaty with Lebanon which lived a brief shimmering day, and expired with his assassination. Many Israelis came to regard that war in Lebanon without confidence and remained in it without faith. Rent by passion as the IDF penetrated deeper and deeper into the forbidding and grim terrain, winding up in the capital itself, and with casualties mounting by the day, Israel plunged into one of its intermittent internal commotions. Begin charged that the Labor Opposition was more interested in pulling down pillars than pondering the rights and wrongs of his operation. And the man the opposition wanted to bring down most, (as, indeed, did some of Begin's own cabinet), was defense minister Ariel Sharon. TO HIS ENEMIES, Sharon's purposes were as clear as that of a fox in a hen coop. The media treated him with malice. The warrior who had long earned a reputation for boldness, decisiveness and tactical skill was now being depicted as a satanic, militaristic defense minister, breathing ruthlessness and malignancy. So for Menachem Begin, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue on that Rosh Hashana morning was a sanctuary of solace. He prayed with quiet passion, reading in the soft Ashkenazi intonations of his Warsaw youth from a cherished, tattered mahzor given him as a bar mitzva gift. And when the cantor and choir reached a pinnacle of the service in chanting the mournful Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom ki hu nora ve-ayom - Let us tell how utterly holy is this day, for it is awesome and terrible - his eyes glistened and he swayed back and forth with the congregants. "Ubeshofar hagadol yitaka vekol dmama yishama... " - The great shofar is sounded and a still small voice is heard - chanted the cantor, his voice pitched in florid imitation of a ram's horn. And then, slowly and sorrowfully he worked into the wrenching and brokenhearted liturgical cantata "Berosh Hashana yikoteivun, uvyom tzom kippur yeihateimun... " - On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away, and how many shall be born. Who shall live and who shall die... . The cantor's voice swelled in an agony of reverence and love of God, his eyes closed, his body swaying, his hands stretched out and up: "Who shall perish by the sword, and who by wild beast. Who by famine and who by thirst... Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued. Who shall be at rest and who tormented." Many sighs and sobs came from the throats of the Jews in those pews where Begin stood, for so many had endured the torment of the Holocaust and the bereavement of Israeli wars. "Who shall be exalted, and who shall be brought low. Who shall become wealthy, and who shall be impoverished." In answer to the suspended verdict of the dirge, the cantor, rising on his toes in a finale of trembling and exulted conviction, cried out at the top of his voice, in thunderous unison with the whole vast congregation: "Uteshuva utefilla utzadaka maavirin et roa hagzeira - but repentance, prayer and charity shall avert the severe decree." Whereupon I felt a tap on my shoulder and came back to earth. It was Zabush, chief of the prime minister's security detail. "There's an ugly demonstration building up outside," he whispered. "Mr. Begin will have to leave by the back door." Discreetly I transmitted this to the prime minister, who was sitting in the row in front. He did not take his eyes off his mahzor. At the service's end congregants milled around him and he beamingly shook every palm he could reach. When he took my arm to go I followed Zabush toward the rear exit. "Where are you taking me?" Begin asked, halting mid-stride. Zabush explained. "No, I shall not slink out," he angrily insisted. "I shall leave the way I entered - through the front door." SPITTLE, clenched fists, and cries of "Begin - murderer!" raped the sanctity of the day as he emerged from shul to face a horde of demonstrators trying to crush in upon him on every side. Instantly, anxious guards and policemen pushed, kicked, muscled, and elbowed the baying crowd, cutting a channel through the crush and forming a close cordon around us. The prime minister's bespectacled, bony features showed nothing but defiance, the corners of his mouth lifting into a sarcastic smile. But the wrath was wreathing inside him. I could feel it in the sharp nip of his fingers pinching my arm as he leaned on me, walking at an artificially slow pace that made my every nerve shudder. "Begin - murderer!" they yelled over and over again, surging ahead to join the pickets encamped across the street from Begin's home, where the casualty toll of the day was prominently displayed. And he, having finally walked safely into his house, was yelled at to come out again. "Come outside, man of blood," they roared. SUCH WAS the murderous public atmosphere after the massacre of Sabra and Shatilla. All the frustration over the long Lebanon war exploded. Even though everyone knew that in years past Lebanese Arab Muslims and Lebanese Arab Christians had committed far more terrible slaughters of each other, it was impossible to ignore. People clamored for an official inquiry. More than a 100,000 joined a mass rally in Tel Aviv. Ultimately, a state commission of inquiry composed of persons of high repute - the Kahan Commission - planted themselves solemnly on a raised platform and subjected those in front of them to a most minute, though always polite, cross examination. The commission issued its now-famous report in February 1983. It concluded that Sharon, as minister of defense, carried an "indirect responsibility" for what had occurred. The cabinet sat in three consecutive sessions to determine its position regarding the findings. Sharon champed in impatience at the "green baize routine" stipulating that every minister must speak in turn. Interminably, the heavy deliberation plodded on, and the vote, when it came, was 16 to one against him. In the controversy which critics and partisans were to weave for years afterwards over the true nature of the relationship between Begin and Sharon, everyone has pronounced his own version of what went on in the premier's soul. What is undisputable is that amid dry-throated silence, and with a face the color of ashes and eyes of tragedy, Begin accepted Arik Sharon's resignation as defense minister, though retaining him in the cabinet. SUBSEQUENTLY, as if confirming his fixation that somewhere, always, someone was building ovens for the Jews, cold anger drove the prime minister's pen across a sheet of paper in response to a letter from a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, Senator Allan Cranston. His sentences were lucid, unmarked by the slightest erasure or second thought: "The whole campaign of blaming Israel for the massacre, of placing moral responsibility on Israel," he wrote, "seems to me, an old man who has seen so much in his lifetime, to be almost unbelievable, fantastic and utterly despicable. "After the September 14 assassination of president-elect Bashir Jemayel we decided to move the IDF into West Beirut to prevent a Christian revenge on the Muslim population. It never occurred to anyone dealing with the Lebanese military units which subsequently entered the Sabra and Shatilla camps that they would perpetrate a massacre. "The first horrific truth is that Arabs murdered Arabs. The second truth is that Israeli soldiers stopped the carnage. And the third truth is that if the current libelous campaign against Israel should go on without a reaction of outrage by decent men - yes, outrage - then within a matter of weeks or months everyone everywhere will have gotten the impression that it was an Israeli military unit which perpetrated the horrible killings." How right Begin was. Surf the Internet and see. Contemplate, too, the furor in the aftermath of Lebanon War II in light of the consequences of Lebanon War I. The ironies abound. The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.

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