Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul

Schocken Books/Nextbook Press  2014


Menachem Begin—maker of peace with Egypt, Nobel Prize winner, welcomer of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel—was shunned by David Ben-Gurion and renounced as a terrorist. In this sympathetic biography, Daniel Gordis, a prominent American-Israeli author and educator, shows Begin to be a bold leader and tireless fighter for klal Yisrael, the entirety of the Jewish people, and, with David Ben-Gurion, “both necessary elements in the creation of a Jewish state.”

A Zionist from his teenage years in Poland, Begin was imbued by Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s concept of hadar, the creation of a confident, proud, just, and faithful Jew, a person to be respected and to respect others, and this concept colored many of Begin’s decisions. In 1942 Begin arrived in Palestine, having made his escape from Poland with his wife, Aliza, in 1939, only to be arrested by the Soviets and imprisoned in Siberia. Released when the Soviets and Poles allied, he joined the Polish Free Army in a unit that eventually made its way to Palestine. Unknown to Begin, his parents and brother were killed by the Nazis during this time. It was this background that shaped Begin’s world view and dedication to Jewish survival.

In this short biography Gordis concentrates on what made Begin, at his death, mourned by tens of thousands in the streets of Jerusalem despite his retreat from public life ten years earlier. Following Begin’s fight for a Jewish state from the moment he set foot in Palestine, Gordis recounts Begin’s unyielding and sometimes brutal attacks on the British that forced him to live underground and earned him the contempt of Ben-Gurion and many Zionists in the United States and Britain. In contrast to Avi Shilon’s recent Menachem Begin, Gordis does not discuss Begin’s involved politics. He focuses on the major events in Begin’s career, with full accounts of the attack at Deir Yassin and the Altalena incident, as well as the bombing of the King David Hotel, balanced by the results of scholarly research.

In 1948 Begin founded the Herut party and was elected to the Knesset. There he remained in the opposition for the next twenty years, slowly building a following until 1977, when his Likud party—an amalgamation of several opposition parties—won a majority, and Begin became prime minister. As prime minister, Begin demonstrated the qualities that revealed his sense of hadar. Among his first acts was the welcoming of Vietnamese refu­gees—turned away by several countries—and the Ethiopian Jews. Always an advocate for the underdog, Begin recognized the demands of the Sephardic Jews, long underserved by the government, and launched urban renewal and housing projects. But Begin’s most unexpected move was his invitation to take up Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, on Sadat’s state­ment that he would go to Israel to make peace. Begin, who had laid his groundwork for this opportunity, greeted Sadat at the airport, and thus began arduous negotiations that ended almost a year later with the Camp David accords and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Begin and Sadat in December 1978.

Begin’s fight to protect Israel climaxed in 1981, when he ordered the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor to head off Saddam Hus­sein’s development of a nuclear bomb and vow to destroy Israel. Once again, unafraid of national and international condemna­tion, Begin took the offensive to protect the Jewish people. This position also led Begin to his last offensive decision—as a response to the constant PLO bombing of Israel along the Lebanese border, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon. The mission started well but soon got beyond Begin’s control, leading to heavy IDF losses and international outrage when, as Israeli troops stood by, Lebanese Christians exacted revenge on Lebanese Muslims for the assassination of the Lebanese president. The ensuing demonstrations and investigation left Begin, frail and mourning his wife, physically and emotionally exhausted. He resigned and left public life.

But even as he left public life, Begin left an indelible mark on Israel. A man of Europe, he was the only Israeli leader who retained his given name; while many Israelis looked to the future, the past was always alive in Begin’s eyes; in an increasingly secular country, Begin insisted on honoring Jewish tradition, banning Saturday flights on El Al. His guide was the Bible, which he often quoted in his impassioned speeches, and the rule of law. Complex and driven, Begin devoted himself to the Jewish people, not to Israelis, but to Jews wherever they were. In this accessible and well-documented biography, Gordis makes Begin’s lifelong mission comprehensible and shows that, after his love for klal Yisrael, Begin was also moved by a deep humanity and con­cern for all people. Bibliography, chronology, illustrations (not seen by reviewer), notes, tables.

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