Men­achem Begin: A Life

Avi Shilon; Danielle Zil­ber­berg and Yoram Sharett, trans.
  • Review
By – April 20, 2012

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.

Discussion Questions