The quintessential Jew

In tribute to Menachem Begin on the centenary of his birth.

Menachem begin giving speech 370 (photo credit: gpo)
Menachem begin giving speech 370
(photo credit: gpo)
I t was Menachem Begin’s first day in office as prime minister – Tuesday, June 21, 1977 – and I was unexpectedly summoned into his presence. As I walked through the door, he glanced up sharply through his thick, black-rimmed spectacles, dwarfed by the gigantic mahogany desk behind which he sat.
The signs of a recent heart attack were still upon him. His face was sallow, his cheekbones pronounced, his semi-bald crown thrown into prominence. Yet he was impeccably neat and imperious, like a patrician, a man to be addressed by title, not by name.
In a voice so formal it sounded like an official pronouncement, he declared, “I have this day received a letter of invitation to Washington from the president of the United States of America, Mr. Jimmy Carter, and I wish you to look it over with a view to preparing a reply.”
I was taken aback. That he, the leader of a just-elected, power-hungry party, many of whose stalwarts had fought under him in the underground and had stood by him through thick and thin during his decades in the political wilderness – that he should ask me, not one of his party loyalists, to help compose a letter to the president of the United States made me sit up with the ramrod posture of a new recruit. All I could do was nod, and croak for permission to retire in order to draft a response, as was my wont with his predecessors.
But he, in a tone that was just a shade supercilious, said there was no need for that any more. He wrote his own English letters and speeches. What he needed was someone to touch them up. “I will prepare the reply, and you will Shakespearize it,” he said with an encouraging smile. And then, in English, by way of explanation.
“Polish my Polish English. Stylize it. Give it a touch of Shakespeare.”
I was quick to learn that the new prime minister delighted in inventing neologisms – creating new words or new meanings for established words. He had just invented one now.
The telephone buzzed.
The prime minister had two telephones on his desk, one cream-colored – a regular push-button line – and the second a red point-to-point military set, linked directly to the defense people in Tel Aviv. He stared at the buzzing red mechanism as if he had an aversion to it. Tightening his lips, he delicately picked up the receiver and gravely said, “Hello?” It was Ezer Weizman, his new defense minister. From what was being said, I gathered that there had been two PLO Katyusha attacks from southern Lebanon into northern Israel, albeit with no casualties or damage. Also, overnight, Muslim militia had slaughtered the inhabitants of a Christian village.
Austerely, his expression pained, the prime minister said into the phone that the PLO attack might well be a deliberate test of his will on this, his first day in office. He therefore suggested a commensurate response.
“And as for the Muslim attack on the Christians,” he added in a tone that was sharp, stubborn and dogged, “the policy of our new government is clear. It is our moral duty as a Jewish state to come to the aid of the Lebanese Christian minority.
We shall come to the aid of any persecuted minority in the Middle East. The Christian world has abandoned the Maronites. We shall not abandon them.”
I sat dumbfounded. Begin had just turned Israel’s Lebanese doctrine on its head.
Yitzhak Rabin, his predecessor, had never permitted Israeli forces to become so directly entangled in the Lebanese blood bath for fear of being sucked into its infernal civil wars.
I was still searching for something to say when Begin’s eyes focused on the door through which the buoyant Yechiel Kadishai, his closest aide and confidant, had just popped his head to announce that Reb Raphael was on the line.
“Put him on,” said the prime minister, slouching back in his chair, crossing his legs, and cuddling his cream receiver to his ear.
“Aha, Reb Raphael, how are you?” he purred with fond intimacy. “I have been thinking much of your dear father of blessed memory on this day. We shall remain faithful to his legacy of Eretz Yisrael, I promise you.”
Reb Raphael was a name I knew. His late father was the widely adored and saintly Reb Aryeh Levine, a legend in his lifetime. When the British ruled Palestine, Reb Aryeh toiled to render aid and comfort to captured Irgun fighters, many of whom were condemned to long terms of imprisonment. Some were sentenced to death and hanged. Their last embrace at the foot of the gallows was invariably Reb Aryeh’s. Now his son ran the small Jerusalem yeshiva his father had founded.
The prime minister inquired about the yeshiva’s welfare, and as he listened, his features became compassionate. “ Azoy ,” he sighed. “I’m so sorry to hear things are so difficult. I shall speak to one or two friends to help. Meanwhile, send the electricity, water and telephone bills to Yechiel. I shall see to them personally. It’s a mitzva I want to do.”
And then, pumping encouragement back into his voice, he reassured Reb Raphael that all would be well.
“Don’t fret, Reb Raphael. Your task is to sit and learn and teach. We shall perfect, responded by thanking him profusely for his expressions of goodwill. Then, with a roguish glint in the eye, he asked, “So tell me, Sir Isaac, the British press, do they have a good word to say about me on my first day in office? Or am I still their favorite fiend?” Whatever Sir Isaac’s answer was, it wiped the impish look from the premier’s face. Little by little, it darkened into displeasure. He clucked his tongue, wagged his head, and in a tone huffy with disdain, shot back, “So The Times is at it again, preaching Middle East appeasement just as it preached German appeasement in the ’30s. That’s the newspaper, remember, which dismissed the atrocities of Hitler’s Brown Shirts as mere ‘revolutionary exuberance.’ Bah! What do they want of me now? Another Munich? Give up Judea and Samaria like Neville Chamberlain forced Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland? What are we supposed to do, commit suicide like Czechoslovakia?” Sir Isaac reported other things that made Begin plainly upset. In a tone of resignation, he lamented, “So there are people who still think of me as the ex- terrorist, eh? After all these years, they are still blinded by their prejudices. But you know the truth, Sir Isaac.
You know we were never terrorists.”
Abruptly he rose to his feet, his shoulders squared, his voice stiffened: “We were freedom fighters.
We fought bravely, fair and square, man-to-man, soldier-to-soldier, against the British. Never did we deliberately hurt civilians. And you tell me there are still people there in Britain who call me a terrorist and Yasser Arafat a freedom fighter? I have nothing but contempt for them.”
His tone went raw: “That so-called Palestine Liberation Organization – ‘Liberation,’ bah! – that murderous Nazi organization led by that war criminal Yasser Arafat, they target civilians exclusively – children, women, and men.
So I say to you, Sir Isaac: Justice will win the day!” He trumpeted this final sentence like a peroration of an oration at a rally. And having thus let off steam, he lowered himself back into his chair, and in an unruffled, winning fashion spent the next few minutes expanding on the actual purpose of his call. This he wrapped up with an appeal that came from the heart: “Sir Isaac, I would not be troubling you now did I not sincerely believe that saving Reb Raphael’s yeshiva is a mitzva – a sacred and noble deed. And knowing your generosity, I thought you might want to have a share in it.”
The philanthropist’s response was so generous it brought a blush of pleasure into the prime minister’s cheeks, and over and over again he cooed into the telephone, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Had a stranger happened to overhear how Menachem Begin opened his heart to Reb Raphael and to Sir Isaac Wolfson, he might have gone away thinking that a prime minister’s job in Jerusalem was some sort of yeshiva drive punctuated by affairs of state. Just to watch him handle in one and the same breath and with equal zeal a presidential letter from the White House, a military flare- up in Lebanon and a yeshiva appeal in Jerusalem was a heady and spellbinding experience.
For the first time, the Jewish state had at its head a prime minister who was a companion of the old school. No other premier before – or since – possessed his cozy acknowledgment of God, his deep reverence for the Jewish heritage, his innate sense of Jewish kinship, and his familiarity with the ancient customs.
None had his infectious common touch that made Jews everywhere feel they really mattered. Politics aside, Jews in the Diaspora bonded with him in spirited spontaneity, and under his tutelage the Jewish state became more Jewish than ever it was before.
Menachem Begin’s memory shall forever be venerated as the epitome of the quintessential Jew.
The writer, a veteran diplomat and prime ministerial aide, is the author of the best-selling The Prime Ministers (Toby Press), and now a major documentary (Moriah Films).