The journey to Jewish pride, beginning with Begin

Jewish pride is a good place to start when explaining just why Begin is the ideal figure around whom to build this project.

STROLLING IN Camp David, northern Maryland: (left to right) Prime minister Menachem Begin; foreign minister Moshe Dayan; Aharon Barak, then a legal expert with the Israeli delegation and a future president of the Supreme Court; and Yehiel Kadishai (on bicycle), Begin’s longtime aide. (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
STROLLING IN Camp David, northern Maryland: (left to right) Prime minister Menachem Begin; foreign minister Moshe Dayan; Aharon Barak, then a legal expert with the Israeli delegation and a future president of the Supreme Court; and Yehiel Kadishai (on bicycle), Begin’s longtime aide.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Former United States senator Joe Lieberman relates an experience he had last year at a conference, where a young woman in the audience expressed her concern at the apathy of Jewish students on American campuses.
He asked her, “Why do you think that is?”
She replied, “I don’t think they understand or know about Jewish history. They know there was a Holocaust but, honestly, they don’t know about anything else.”
He tells this story by way of explanation for his support of a new initiative, inspired by Menachem Begin, called the Hidden Light Institute. The centerpiece of the work of the institute will be the first documentary film in English about Israel’s sixth prime minister, with a premiere screening in Jerusalem at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, and then subsequently at film festivals across North America and the world.
In addition to the film, an educational curriculum will be developed for distribution worldwide to high school and university students. The curriculum will utilize the values and legacy of Menachem Begin to inspire and educate young Jews, encouraging them to actively identify as proud Jews and to be activists against antisemitism.
Jewish pride is a good place to start when explaining just why Begin is the ideal figure around whom to build this project. His will was unshakable. He was a follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who insisted that the Jews are an ancient and proud people, with the right to sovereignty in their ancient homeland, and the right (and duty) to defend themselves from the unique hatred directed against them.
As prime minister, he distinguished himself from his predecessors – all avowedly secular – by identifying first and foremost as a Jew. When asked by a television news reporter after his shock election win in 1977 how he intended to govern, he replied simply, “as a good Jew.”
In 1981, he established what has come to be known as the “Begin Doctrine,” which states that Israel will never allow a state with the intention of destroying Israel to develop the means to do so. The occasion was Israel’s bombing of the nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq.
It was a move condemned across the world, including by Israel closest ally, the United States. (The US had reason to be grateful for Israel’s action a decade later, when it was itself at war with Saddam Hussein over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Would Washington have been willing to confront a nuclear-armed aggressor?)
The Begin Doctrine would be employed again in 2007, when Israeli aircraft destroyed a nuclear reactor that North Korea were building for the murderous Assad regime in Syria.
Menachem Begin grew up part of the three million-strong Jewish community of Poland, before the Second World War, the largest outside of the United States. His parents and his brother were among the 90% of that population that would not survive humanity’s darkest chapter. His determination was total that never again would such a crime against the Jewish people be permitted; that antisemitism must be fought at every turn.
ALLIED TO this Jewish pride was his devotion to Jewish unity. Every attempt to explain his election as prime minister after almost 30 years in the parliamentary opposition must point to the significance of his capturing of the Sephardi vote. After years of marginalization by Israel’s secular European founders, Jews from North Africa and the Middle East finally had a champion. The clearly Ashkenazi Begin, with his European manners and ubiquitous suit and white shirt, nevertheless spoke the language of Am Yisrael – of one united Jewish people – and shared the same reverence for Jewish tradition as his Sephardi devotees.
This had important significance outside of Israel. Diaspora Jews, accustomed to Israeli leaders who regarded the Jews “in exile” as principally a source of political and financial support, encountered a very different prime minister in Begin.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler was one of the most prominent American Jewish leaders at the time, not only the head of the Reform movement in the US, but chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. When he met Begin for the first time, he was expecting to disapprove of the man labeled an “extremist” by the Israeli Left. Instead, in his words, “He was the first Israeli leader I’d met for whom it was more important to be a Jew than an Israeli... he really cared about us.” Begin saw Diaspora Jews as family, part of the tribe of Israel.
Real leaders lead. It sounds obvious, but we live in an age when political leaders often choose the popular policy, the one the focus groups and opinion polls indicate will help him or her win re-election. Begin was a real leader. He was a man of deep convictions, but he also saw the grand historical picture, and was capable of working pragmatically to seize the moment, most importantly when he made peace with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1979.
He made the painful compromise of giving up the Sinai and the Jewish settlements there. It was unpopular with a large portion of his base, and with many of his closest and oldest political confidants who attacked his decision to relinquish territory and evacuate Jews from their homes. These breaks with former brothers-in-arms were incredibly painful for Begin, but he understood that compromises had to be made and – no less importantly – he knew where his red lines were, and on those, he would not bend.
Joe Lieberman and the founders of the Hidden Light Institute understand that Begin offers a profound example to young Jews: the example of unapologetic Jewish pride; zero tolerance of antisemitism or anti-Zionism; a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people; and leadership based on values and principle, not political expediency or choosing the path of least resistance. In both Israel and the Diaspora, Menachem Begin sets a standard to which we may aspire.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. To learn more about the documentary project or to support the film, please visit hiddenlightinstitute.org.