Books: Rediscovering Begin

Avi Shilon’s book is a welcome addition to the paucity of literature about the country’s sixth prime minister.

Begin and Sadat 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Begin and Sadat 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
In 1949, when Israel had its first election, the right-wing Herut Party led by Menachem Begin came in fourth with only 14 Knesset seats. It was a depressing disappointment for the former underground commander and his many followers.
However, when the big winner of the election, David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party, sat down to analyze the results, it found a disturbing phenomenon.
“In 10 neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv in which most of the residents were Sephardim, 2,500 of 3,300 voters voted for Herut.”
The Sephardim chose Begin because the Left had neglected them; Mapai’s secretary-general called them a “cancer.”
Blocked from joining the kibbutzim, where the Left’s power base was, and blocked from employment at all but the most menial jobs at the major companies owned by the Histadrut, such as Solel Boneh and Hamashbir, they saw in Begin – a diminutive Polish- born Ashkenazi – a path to power.
But in 1949 the Sephardim were a minority in the country. What would happen when hundreds of thousands of them were able to immigrate from the surrounding Arab countries? It would take almost 30 years for the trend, first noticed in 1949, that played itself out in several poor neighborhoods in Tel Aviv to make a mark on the country. But when it made that mark, its effect would forever change the political map.
Avi Shilon’s Menachem Begin is a welcome addition to the paucity of biographies of one of Israel’s most important figures, the country’s sixth prime minister.
The Hebrew edition was initially published in 2007 and contained several errors that were pointed out by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. This English edition appears to have corrected those errors. Due to the translation, the book suffers from a slight rigidity, but it is still very accessible. It focuses primarily on the political life of Begin after the creation of the state and does not delve deeply into his ideology.
However, the author doesn’t shrink from judging Begin on his love of ceremonies, his “devotion to semantics” and his speeches “characterized by pomposity, exaggerations and poetic phrases.”
Menachem Begin was born in the town of Brest-Litovsk in what was then the Russian Empire. His father had an intense admiration for the Germans, while Menachem received a traditional Jewish upbringing. Begin was a promising young leader in Betar, a youth group within Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement. But his life took a dramatic turn when his family was murdered by the Nazis and he ended up in the Soviet Gulag. Released to join a Polish military unit, he found himself in Palestine almost by chance, was reunited with his wife and became leader of the Jewish underground known as the Irgun Zva’i Leumi.
The sheer weight of Begin’s policies and the core beliefs he fought for after the creation of state are not well known either in Israel or among those interested in the history of Israel. For instance, one of his first acts upon being elected prime minister in 1977 was to order the admittance of Vietnamese refugees into the country because he believed that the Holocaust demanded respect for those seeking refuge.
He sought to eliminate the intrusions on civil rights by Israel’s security services.
When he first met with the head of the Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency, he ordered that torture never be used in interrogations. In the 1950s he demanded the end of government censorship of the press and an end to the military emergency regulations under which Arabs were kept under curfew and people could be detained permanently for “security offenses.” He noted that “these are laws that grant the new government dictatorial powers… eliminate human rights and civil rights.” He demanded that the Shin Bet be eliminated because of its employment of “informants, provocateurs and sadists.” When agents visited his Knesset office to demand information, he sent them away, saying, “In a democratic country, the secret services have no right to supervise the government.”
After 1967 he was the only government minister to suggest giving the Palestinians in the West Bank citizenship should Israel choose to annex what became known as Judea and Samaria.
He sought to make Israel a more inclusive society toward Orthodox and Sephardi Jews. He invited the ultra- Orthodox parties into his coalition.
Unlike his predecessors, he quoted verses from the Bible and argued that the national airline should not fly on Shabbat. When, in 1952, the government attempted to keep Moroccan Jews out of the country, Begin spoke up, demanding that all Jews be allowed to immigrate regardless of economic strain or any other excuses the government might have.
Begin had a novel approach to the immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Informed by the Mossad chief that the US should be encouraged to restrict Soviet Jewish immigration so that Soviet Jews would be funneled to Israel instead, Begin was adamantly against it. When approached about Ethiopian Jewry, he was the first Israeli prime minister to order the government to facilitate their immigration. “He offered Mengistu Haile-Mariam, the Ethiopian military dictator at the time, considerable arms in return for allowing [the Ethiopian Jews] to come to Israel.” Both of these choices point to an important revelation.
On one hand, he believed that Jews should be allowed to make a free choice in coming to Israel rather than having various groups work clandestinely in the background to force them to come to Israel. At the same time, he believed in an inclusive state.
The importance of Shilon’s volume is not primarily in examining the years that Begin served as prime minister, but in revealing the way in which he led the democratic opposition in his years in the wilderness when the country was, for all intents and purposes, a oneparty state run by what is now the Labor Party. Another interesting issue that is revealed in this volume is the degree to which family connections have influenced Israeli political history; how so many of today’s well-known politicians, such as Ehud Olmert and Avram Burg, all had fathers, brothers, aunts or grandparents who played a role in the early years of the state and how old rivalries and traditions play themselves out to this day.
The Israel of today is still very much living in the wake of the 1977 “reversal” that brought the Likud to power.