Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
In Jewish terms, what is it to be born great? Menachem Begin’s family certainly had distinction in the Jewish community of Brest-Litovsk, known as Brisk in Yiddish.
His mother had rabbis in her bloodline, his father was a pillar of the community and an early committed Zionist. Their son knew great tragedy in his life, and even in those years when the world acknowledged his greatness, there was a constant shadow lurking within him. Though I began this column with a quotation from Shakespeare, perhaps one a bit shopworn, in truth Begin could rather have been the hero of Greek tragedy, the victim of a tragic flaw or flaws in his character.
But all this for later columns. Here I begin with Yehiel Kadishai, Begin’s faithful, competent and modest assistant for decades.
It was shortly after the elections of 1977 which brought Begin into the Prime Minister’s Office. Kadishai strolls through my neighborhood on a sunny Shabbat afternoon.
We exchange a few pleasantries. Then I say, with a smile, “Yehiel, you know that you are speaking to the only honest man in Israel.”
“Really? Why?” “Because,” I explain, “I did not arrive on the Altalena and my father was not secretary to Jabotinsky.” (To remind you, the Altalena was an Irgun ship carrying arms and men to the country in 1948.) Kadishai laughed heartily. Suddenly, after the elections, anyone in public service, or whoever had such ambitions, conveniently found a connection to the pre-State Revisionist party or to its founder.
In truth, and I have never mentioned this until today, I broke a taboo in the Prime Minister’s Office of David Ben-Gurion. In the early 1960s I helped the American Jewish Congress hold the first Israeli-American Jewry dialogues in Jerusalem. B-G had made Begin an object for sharp personal attacks in the Knesset. He had decreed that he would establish wide-embracing government coalitions, but always, “without Communists and without Herut (the party Begin founded after 1948). Thus he pronounced Begin beyond the pale.
Nonetheless, without asking permission, I invited Begin, on official PMO letterhead, to address one of the Dialogue meetings. I felt that if the American Jewish Congress asked, I was acting on its behalf as well.
I was amazed at his response. It was written in the most correct Hebrew style I had ever seen. Confirming his acceptance, Menachem Begin wrote me in the third person. “In response to His letter (normally one would say “your’ letter)...” Today, in the year 2014, no one could possibly write in this style, and probably it would be misunderstood by 99 percent of Hebrew readers.
Is this nobility, this formality? Is it an expression of the teachings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky regarding hadar, a way of behaving he wished the members of his youth movement Betar to adopt: a mixture of self-respect, decency and a noble bearing? I think so, and it is what also made Begin a great parliamentarian. He spoke impeccable Hebrew with a grave formality and often strong irony and made his oratorical points with power and eloquence while never crossing the line of impoliteness.
In my opinion, the Begin victory of 1977 even took him by surprise. A few weeks earlier, I was asked to introduce him at a dinner for a small group of visiting United Jewish Appeal leaders from Canada. I did not think he would win the election against Shimon Peres, then leading the Labor Alignment.
But, to make conversation, I asked as we chatted at the dinner table, “Do you have plans prepared for governing if you win the election?” He responded in a kind of empty oratorical, “Indeed!” – (Vadai in Hebrew).
We both knew that this was the answer of a political leader who was not at all sure of his victory.
To exemplify the extent to which he was held in fear by many ordinary, intelligent Israelis, let me recount my experience the day after his victory. I was teaching a very large class at Bar-Ilan University. It was a required course on the US political system, and as a requirement brought at least 150 young students into a large auditorium, where I spoke from a stage through a microphone. To me such a large class is an abomination: It is extremely hard to create personal contact and interaction with the students. Nonetheless, perhaps I had somewhat managed to break through.
The auditorium fills. In place of the normal buzz, an abnormal silence. I wait until the last students enter, young men wearing kippot, young women in normal street clothes. Many are religious, I could not tell, many may not be. A strange silence, which weighs on me, but I force myself to begin a sentence on American constitutional amendments. From the back, a young woman stands up.
“Excuse me. What will happen now, after the elections? What will be?” I understood the question. What she meant was, forget the US right now. We are frightened. Daddy Labor has been deposed.
A dangerous man has become leader of our country. What will happen to Israel now and what should we expect? Heads nodded, a murmur of assent, of relief ran across the hall. Perhaps they knew, or most of them, that I had been in the offices of David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol.
Now the familiar was gone after almost 30 years in power.
And so out of my deep belief that personal political views should be held beyond the gates of academe, I stood and reassured these young women and men, most of whom had just been in the army, that our democracy was safe in the hands of Menachem Begin, and that the majority had decided to transfer power to a different camp. And that was the essence of the democratic system. I also explained the strong stress on personal freedom and individual rights in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s writings. Rights that Begin espoused and defended.
He was a man who strove within himself and the system to behave with nobility. It is a standard worth using to measure a prime minister.Avraham Avi-hai had many occasions to observe Menachem Begin at close quarters. This is the first of series on the maligned man who made history, and was broken by firstname.lastname@example.org