The POSTman Knocks Twice: Menachem Begin’s black dog

What did Menachem Begin have in common with Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln?

December 25, 2014 22:31
4 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin upon his arrival at the Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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What did Menachem Begin have in common with Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln? Begin certainly had his detractors and enemies, but he is so universally respected, even canonized by some authors, that I could not begin this column without that question.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Lincoln are authoritatively described as bipolar. In older parlance, the ugly term was “mania-depression,” the two poles between immense highs and deep troughs of mood. It is a disorder quite common in creative people and leaders, and should carry no stigma. It exists in many families, and lucky are those who can identify it and treat it early on.

Churchill called depression the “black dog,” which he writes about candidly. Psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr notes about Churchill’s bipolar personality: “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished.”

A broad 2014 Swedish academic study established that bipolar disorder can be an indication of leadership abilities. I saw Menachem Begin first-hand in one of his greatest “up” moods. He was prime minister, had a broken leg, and walked into the King David leaning heavily on a cane. As chairman of World UIA-Keren Hayesod, I was his host, and greeted him at the entrance to the King David Hotel where he was to address a group of our leaders at dinner.

The hotel had laid down a red carpet, and roped it off with decorative yellow braid. The tourists in the hotel applauded as Begin entered, leaning arm-in-arm on me. He blossomed with the applause and acknowledged it with waves and huge smiles as we limped toward the main dining hall of the stately hotel.

Begin delivered an awe-inspiring speech. I of course in a nonpolitical role listened intently as I looked up at him, not agreeing with much, but enjoying the rhetoric and giving the respect due to a prime minister. He was wearing a heavy wool suit. His trademark unconscious readjustment of the spectacles on his nose with his thumb and middle finger punctuated the speech. His oratory, gestures, inner conviction and internal fire left him lathered in sweat which almost leaked through onto the suit jacket.

On the way out, a huge crowd of tourists lined the braid alongside the carpet. This time, leaning most of his weight on me, he veered from side to side on the carpet, shaking hands outstretched in a frenzy of adulation.

He could not get enough, and the crowd could not get enough, Later in life I recognized this as a manic high that charismatic politicians are blessed with. It finally explained to me the demagoguery of his opposition days. In front of a huge crowd, he said that the UJA had sent amounts to Israel which then averaged $10,000 per citizen. The money of course was spent on transporting immigrants, sometimes paying off governments for permission to leave, their initial six months in Israel, Hebrew classes and housing.

Begin, carried away by his own rhetoric, turned to the massed audience, mainly immigrants from Arab countries, and in his ringing rising intonation, asked: “Did you get $10,000?” And then a mantra repeated many times, as he faced different parts of the crowd, “Did you get $10,000? Did you?” Turning, pointing, “Did you? Did you?” The Polish gentleman unpredictably became the champion and hero of the non-Ashkenazi masses.

At the time, I would not have recognized it as a manic high, just as I did not recognize the King David Hotel speech at the time. I was tipped off by a rugged and often revered veteran of most Israeli cabinets. Beyond Begin’s historic peace-making, his record as a PM-CEO responsible for a multi-billion business called the State of Israel was – to say the least – undistinguished. The economy was a mess, ministers ran their own fiefdoms, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman (ministers both) had pushed for the peace with Egypt. Later Ariel Sharon and Raful Eitan (defense minister and chief of staff, respectively) ran rife into Lebanon and explained that this was a military contingency, leading to the casualty rate Begin could not accept.

I asked the minister, whom I had known almost from my first day in Israel, “How is Begin at the cabinet meetings?” Truthfully, but with a bit of the politician’s cynicism, he said, “It depends on how many pills he took that day.” That triggered my belated recognition of his highs, and then made my memory pull in references to Begin’s lows.

All this has not lessened my respect for Begin. On the contrary. He has been called “the most Jewish of Israeli prime ministers.” I don’t know how to measure that. By the number of quotations from Bible, Ben-Gurion wins. By the multitude of expressions culled from the general Hebrew and Yiddish tradition, Eshkol is tops. But for the title of “the most human of Israeli prime ministers” Begin ranks high, if not highest, Sadly, he ended his life as a recluse, depressed, betrayed by people he trusted, seen only by his dearest and closest. Churchill died of Alzheimer’s; Begin of what romantic writers would call his black dog: a broken heart. We call it depression.

Avraham Avi-hai holds a doctoral degree in political science, and worked in conjunction with most of Israel’s prime ministers. He is the author of a political study of David Ben-Gurion, of an analysis of the Jewish people toward the end of the 20th century and a more recent novel published by Gefen, Jerusalem.

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