Begin’s Prisoner’s Dilemma

IN WHITE NIGHTS, Menachem Begin’s memoir of Soviet captivity, the late prime minister described his struggle to remove the word “guilty” from a declaration of Zionist activities which his interrogators demanded he sign. In that episode, one can learn almost all one needs to know about Menachem Begin and what made him great.
The declaration was actually an accurate transcription of an interrogation conducted of Begin by agents of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. It concluded with the following statement:
“I admit I am guilty of having been the chairman of the Betar organization in Poland and being responsible for the Betar work and calling upon the Jewish youth to join the ranks of Betar.”
When, in the middle of the night, after months of interrogation and sleep deprivation, Begin was asked to “please sign” with promises of a real trial and perhaps freedom, Begin refused.
Betar, of course, was the Zionist youth movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin’s “teacher and rabbi.” The first organization to evacuate European Jews and illegally smuggle them into then-Palestine, Betar believed all of Palestine was the Jewish homeland and in the need for Jewish self-defense/military training. It was Betar alumni, those who escaped Europe, who filled the Irgun’s ranks and whom Begin would later lead to force the British out of then-Palestine enabling the rise of the State of Israel.
Like many young Polish Jews, when Begin heard Jabotinsky speak for the first time, he immediately joined Betar. Eventually Begin rose to head the Polish chapter of Betar, representing tens of thousands. It was for his role in Betar that Begin had been arrested.
Begin readily admitted that the interrogator “wrote everything down very exactly and of course I will sign it.” But Begin added, “I would ask that you make one change . . . instead of ‘I admit my guilt in being . . .’ would you please write ‘I admit that I was . . .”
This request triggered demands and threats from the interrogator. But the interrogator did in fact change the wording to “I confess to being . . .” instead of “I am guilty of having been . . .”
That may not have been exactly what Begin requested, but at that point, given the dangers, any normal person would have signed.
Begin, however, was not an average person, and he rejected that too. Miraculously, the interrogators changed the statement to “I admit I was chairman of Betar . . .” Finally, a “confession” Menachem Begin could put his name to.
Why did Begin risk so much over a semantic dispute? Practically, the wording could not affect Begin’s fortune. The interrogators admitted there would be no trial where the confession might be used. Until the publication of White Nights, the transcript was probably never even read.
Still, Begin considered it “the hour of trial . . .[m]aybe the decisive test.” “If I do not pass it,” he thought, “there will be no point in living. Confess my guilt in having been head of the Betar? No, no under no circumstances! Let him do what he likes, I will not sign.” He prayed to God for strength for in that declaration Begin saw the assault on the Jewish People which continues until today.
The interrogator called Begin a traitor to the revolution – an agent of British imperialism. He rejected Zionism as the stealing of Arab land and the siphoning of the Jewish youth away from the true Communist solution to minority problems.
A confession of guilt here meant the Jewish People were guilty for merely existing as a distinct people and not as another mass of workers or humanity. It meant guilt for fighting for Eretz Yisrael, the homeland of the Jewish People, and not for the Revolution, the homeland of the workers. It meant guilt for stealing someone else’s country.
In that interrogation room, it was Herzl pitted against Marx.
So even imprisoned by Communist interrogators, who specialized in breaking their prisoners psychologically, in social isolation, where no one would hear of his stand and where it was safest to just obey, Begin could not put his name to such a lie. He could not betray all he believed by stating that fighting for the Jewish People and the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael was a crime to be guilty of.
LIKE SO MANY of Begin’s deeds, there is much that we as a nation can learn and draw lessons from even today.
In that prison, Begin faced immense pressure to admit his guilt for Zionism. Similarly, the State of Israel and its prime ministers are pressured daily by an angry Arab world, an anti-Semitic Europe, an Arabist US Statement Department and even President, to admit our guilt at having stolen Arab land – whether in 1967 or 1948. They are willing to admit that the Jews deserve a state, but not here, not in Palestine.
They demand Israel rectify the crime of Zionism by signing away Jewish rights to disputed territories such as Judea, Samaria, Gaza and even Jerusalem, by creating a Palestinian state.
So many Prime Ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, have publicly warned of the dangers posed by a Palestinian state and withdrawals from the disputed territories. Yet they each wound up endorsing a Palestinian state (though in fairness, Rabin actually did not go that far).
It was not that the dangers had changed. In fact, the threat from Hamas in Gaza since the Disengagement, the general exponential growth in Palestinian terrorism since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the threat of popular Islamic takeovers in Arab states – all of these continue to prove the dangers inherent in creating a Palestinian state. Clearly, the immense pressure placed on these leaders and on Israel itself took its toll.
In contrast, Menachem Begin, like the Prophets of Old, found greatness in his commitment to truth despite great pressure to endorse lies or merely remain silent. That truth was that the Jewish People have a right to the Land of Israel. It is not a gift from the West or stolen Arab land. It is simply our country.
The above is an excerpt from a speech at Likud Anglos'' first annual Memorial for Menachem Begin at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, held Sunday, March 27th. Daniel Tauber can be reached at