Menachem Begin's legacy and the security of Israel - opinion

His legacy sheds light on Israel’s responsibility as a nation-state to Jews worldwide, particularly in times of crisis.

 FAMILIES OF Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu pose at a news conference in 2018 where they called for the release of the two Israeli civilians from Hamas captivity. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
FAMILIES OF Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu pose at a news conference in 2018 where they called for the release of the two Israeli civilians from Hamas captivity.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

The 73-year-old State of Israel is in the midst of an identity-values clarification process, essential for continued existence as a Jewish and democratic nation-state. When we consider this reality, the legacy of the late Menachem Begin, who died 30 years ago, contains powerful and relevant insights. 

Begin’s love, compassion and uncompromising commitment to the Jewish nation and its security highlight the wisdom of the masses that brought him to power in 1977. It is that wisdom, then and now, which sought and still seeks elected representatives who enable, represent and preserve the dignity of difference; unity, rather than uniformity; and responsibility, in an age of fragmentation and disinformation.

Begin’s conduct reflected his deep commitment to the balance and separation of powers. His 29 years in the opposition are testament to the accountability of parliament as legislator, as well as supervisor of the executive branch, and the imperative to strengthen democracy using all available parliamentary tools.

His legacy serves as an inspiration for challenging paradigms and changing perceptions. He was committed to the pursuit of justice and universal values anchored in particular Jewish identity. Whether in the struggle for Soviet refuseniks or responsibility to our sisters and brothers in Ethiopia, his legacy offers a consistent moral compass for today’s human rights struggles. 

It underscores the imperative to return deceased soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, and civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, held in seven and a half-year violation of international law and human rights. This would uphold the law, morality and values upon which the State of Israel was established and exists.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin (left) sits at the head of the government table in the Knesset plenum in 1983. (credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90) THEN-PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin (left) sits at the head of the government table in the Knesset plenum in 1983. (credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)

Begin understood that Jewish and Israeli security are intertwined and multidimensional, and reflect the resilience of Israeli society internally, as well as relations between world Jewry and Israel’s standing in the international arena. 

This shaped his resolute conduct throughout his life – against British rule; toward the government that gave voice to many who were silenced, including new and seasoned immigrants like himself; in peace agreements with Egypt; in application of Israeli law to Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; in bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq; and in peace negotiations agreement with Egypt.

His legacy sheds light on Israel’s responsibility as a nation-state to Jews worldwide, particularly in times of crisis. The tenets of his legacy are more relevant than ever, in the heated debate over Israel’s commitment to refugees, as war rages in Ukraine. In the imperative to ensure that anyone who has no other place will find one in Israel, as the Vietnamese boat people did in the late 1970s.

It is also imperative to remember that Israel is a Jewish and democratic nation-state, to which Jews, a prototypical indigenous people, returned after millennia of exile and persecution. The country has received millions of refugees since its inception, who have become equal citizens by right and not by grace.

BEGIN’S LEGACY likens Israel’s duties and rights to those of all members of the family of nations. This enables moral clarity, critical to identifying and exposing false moral equations and application of myopic social constructs of racism, white privilege, colonialism, apartheid and other accusations leveled against the Jewish state.

It highlights that selective application of rules undermines the entire infrastructure, enabling and empowering manifestations of antisemitism toward identified Jews – on campuses, digital platforms and streets. It hones the understanding of the weaponization of international law and human rights, from the 1975 “Zionism is racism” UN resolution; to the 2001 Durban Conference “against” racism, an antisemitic hate festival; to the decades of “Israeli Apartheid Week” on campuses; to accusation of Israel as an apartheid state by “human rights” organizations.

These are all an expression of the collapse of a rules-based world order, which in an Orwellian inversion, enables an authoritarian Russian regime that arrests a woman waving a sign; and allows negotiations in Vienna with a genocidal Iranian regime that continues to trample its peoples’ rights, funds and supports terror, and develops ballistic missiles and nuclear capabilities.

We remember not only what Begin did, but who he was, for this is what constitutes a legacy. His moral clarity and actions were consistent throughout his life. That is the source of strength of his legacy, and the magnitude of its contribution, precisely at the intersection represented by his commitment to be a “good, Jewish-style” prime minister.

Begin’s birth on the eve of Shabbat Nachamu, after Tisha Be’av, gave him his name – Menachem (Hebrew for “comfort”). His passing on the eve of Shabbat Zachor, before Purim, find expression in a verse that represents his moral compass, according to which “the eternity of Israel will neither lie nor find comfort, for it is not a human to be comforted.” 

It establishes the inextricable link between consolation and memory, modeled by public service that transcends personal, tribal, geographic or small, intra-Israeli politics. It explains the interwoven thread connecting words and actions, throughout Begin’s journey: From the declarations that “there will be no civil war” aboard the Altalena, to “I am not a Jew with shaky knees”; from painful opposition to reparations for the Holocaust from Germany, to genuine lack of understanding of Dudu Topaz’s derogatory and divisive pre-election speech about “the Chachachim” (riffraff) – because for him: “Ashkenazi? Iraqi? Jews! Brothers! Warriors!” 

He charted a legacy for his successors, with his request to be buried near Jewish underground fighters Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani on the Mount of Olives, without pompous speeches or a royal funeral. All of these testify that consolation can only be found in memory, and that by identifying present trials and tribulations, it is possible to pave a path to a better future.

Begin’s profound wisdom, that there is no inherent contradiction in the liberal-nationalism that guided him, is his legacy. It harbors the potential to continue the journey he began, diagnosing, understanding and addressing challenges facing the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and with necessary modesty and caution, even when the crisis concerns western liberal values.

The author is a lawyer, research fellow and policy and strategy consultant on issues of immigration and integration, Israel-Diaspora relations, and the fight against antisemitism. She served as an MK in Israel’s 23rd Knesset.