Menachem Begin served as prime minister of Israel from 1977 until his resignation from office and retreat into private life in 1983. From his beginnings as a hard-line outsider who advocated violence as a political tool, Begin ultimately emerged as a respected world figure and Israeli statesman who led his country to significant accomplishments, most notably, a peace treaty with Egypt. In the first major biography of this complex, driven, and single-minded man, Avi Shilon, an independent journalist and op-ed editor of Israel Hayom, places Begin in the context of his times and examines his legacy.
Shilon follows Begin’s path from his membership in Zionist groups as a teenager in Poland through his years in the underground, his determined political opposition, his upset victory and prime-ministership to his resignation over the war with Lebanon. During the pre-state years, Begin, leader of the guerrilla faction Etzel — or Irgun, as it is often known — was a figure of controversy and hostility, even ridicule, to the establishment, especially David Ben-Gurion, who sought a political avenue to the establishment of the state. Shilon’s account of these turbulent years, which constitutes nearly half the book, offers more detail than readers who are not students of Israeli political history may easily digest. But these were the years, Shilon shows, when Begin developed his political acumen and distinctive style of leadership. Driven by his sense of destiny and the destiny of the Jewish people, Begin devised grand plans, delivered in impassioned speeches. Often, however, Begin left the implementation of his plans to others, leading to consequences he could not control and often regretted.
The Palestine in which Begin found himself in the early 1940s was dominated by settlers who saw themselves as freed from the shackles of the Jewish past. Begin brought a European and Jewish sensibility to Israel. A child of Poland whose parents and brother perished in the Holocaust, Begin saw a world aligned against Jews and in response envisioned an inclusive Jewish nationalism that transcended borders and respected Jewish religious tradition. He reached out to the Mizrachi and won a broad following among them, he granted privileges to the ultra-Orthodox — it was during his premiership that El Al stopped flying on Shabbat — he fought for a biblical Israel and established settlements to ensure it.
Based on extensive interview, archival, and documentary material, Shilon’s biography is largely political, dealing with Begin’s personal life mostly as it touched on his public life. Begin’s temperament, however, marked his political life. A man of great contradictions, both public and private, Begin lived modestly but was given to formal ceremonies and dramatic oratory; despite his guerrilla activities, he placed the law above all other considerations. His colleagues lived with Begin’s physical illnesses and frequent mood swings, shifts that sometimes affected his decisions. But against his personal struggles of mind and body and the background of divisive Israeli politics and key events in Israeli history — the struggle for the state, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the peace treaty with Egypt, the withdrawal from Sinai, the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the war in Lebanon — Menachem Begin stood firm in his lifelong devotion to the Jewish people and the establishment and security of their homeland, dedicating his life to that vision. Bibliography, epilogue, index, notes, photographs.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.