A new biography of Jacob Neusner examines his ‘complicated, colorful, and unappreciated intellectual life’
Reviled as a fascist demagogue by his rival Ben-Gurion, venerated by Israel’s underclass, the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one, Menachem Begin was a complex and controversial figure. A youthful admirer of the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he became a leader within Jabotinsky’s Betar movement in Poland. Imprisoned by the Soviets in 1940, he arrived in Palestine as a soldier in the Free Polish Army in 1942. Joining the underground paramilitary Irgun in 1944, he achieved instant notoriety for the organization’s devastating bombings of British military installations and other violent acts.Begin’s right-leaning Herut political party became a fixture of the opposition to the Labor-dominated governments of Ben-Gurion and his successors, until the surprising victory of his political coalition in 1977 made him prime minister of Israel. Welcoming Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel and co-signing a peace treaty with him on the White House lawn in 1979, Begin accomplished what his predecessors could not. His welcoming of Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese “boat people” was universally admired, and his decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 is now regarded as an act of courageous foresight. But the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to end the PLO’s shelling of Israel’s northern cities, combined with the aftereffects of a debilitating stroke and the death of his wife, led Begin to resign in 1983. At his instructions, Begin was buried not alongside Israel’s prime ministers, but alongside his Irgun comrades who died in the struggle to create the Jewish national home to which he had devoted his life.
Menachem Begin was a fighter. A lifelong Zionist, he advocated—and led—the armed struggle for a Jewish state, fighting British and Arab adversaries alike in the 1940s. And his struggles did not end with Israeli independence: As the head of Israel’s political opposition, he challenged Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the country’s left-leaning leadership for decades. His battles won him many adversaries along the way, inside Israel and elsewhere. Yet, once he became prime minister in 1977, this longtime warrior became Israel’s boldest peacemaker—the thing for which he is now best remembered. In Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, award-winning author Daniel Gordis tries to reconcile these many facets of Begin’s biography with his enduring legacy: “I wanted to understand how someone so polarizing, so controversial, in his own country and abroad,” Gordis writes, “can appear today as the soul not only of Israel’s best self but as a living fusion of Jewish consciousness and national aspiration.”A ZIONIST Begin was born in 1913 in the Polish city of Brest, but his hometown was destroyed in World War I. After the war, Polish nationalism became increasingly popular—and so did Zionism among Poland’s Jews, who were typically excluded from such nationalist movements. “The Zionism that came to shape Begin’s entire life was in many ways enriched and formed by the renaissance of Polish national yearnings,” Gordis writes. As a child, Begin joined the socialist Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, but when he was 13, he switched to Betar, the youth group affiliated with the Revisionist movement headed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It was a move that would define his political future. • The father of Revisionism, Jabotinsky believed “the sole purpose of Zionism should be the establishment of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River—the land promised by God to Abraham in the Bible,” Gordis explains. Begin first heard Jabotinsky speak around the time of his high school graduation, by which point he was already the leader of his local chapter of Betar and a renowned public speaker; when Begin moved to Warsaw to study law, he continued to lecture and work with Jabotinsky, whom he called “my master and teacher.” What impact did this close relationship to Jabotinsky have on Begin’s political beliefs—and vice versa? What, exactly, did Jabotinsky teach Begin? • Jabotinsky and Begin disagreed about whether the Zionists should be fighting the British in the 1930s. Jabotinsky said no, preferring diplomacy on that front; Begin argued that all their energies should be directed toward “a military conquest of the land” in Palestine, even if that meant fighting the British. Looking back on it now, who do you think was right? If Jewish units in Palestine had decided not to use military force against the British, what difference might it have made for Jewish refugees during and after the Holocaust? For the end of the British mandate? The partition of Palestine? Israeli independence? • Begin married in 1939, and then fled Poland with his wife—leaving behind his parents and siblings, none of whom would survive the Holocaust. How did this affect his future decisions about his own life, his political ideals, the importance of Zionism, and his connection to European Jewry? • Jabotinsky died in 1940, when Begin was still a young man. If Jabotinsky had lived, how do you think Begin’s career might have been different? Would he have achieved even more, even sooner, with his “master” by his side? Or would he have been forever overshadowed by his teacher? • In 1940, Begin was arrested by the Soviets in Vilna and sent a labor camp. Under interrogation, he used the analogy of a burning house to explain Zionism as a response to anti-Semitism: “Our house was on fire, and in it our brothers and our children were about to be burnt to death. Could we wait? Let us suppose that the Revolution was a sort of fire brigade for the Jews who were being persecuted by anti-Semitism in Poland or in Germany, or in any other place; but we could not wait for it to come. What if it came too late, as often happened with fire brigades? We had to try and save them, and that is what Herzl did, that is what Jabotinsky did, that is what we all did.” Do you think his analogy was a useful one? Was he referring to the Holocaust specifically as the fire threatening European Jews, or to anti-Semitism more broadly? Is such an analogy still useful today—and if so, where, and for whom? A FIGHTER Begin arrived in Palestine in 1942, and within two years he was head of Etzel, a Jewish military force also known as the Irgun. He came into conflict almost immediately with David Ben-Gurion, the left-wing Zionist leader (and later, Israel’s first prime minister) who oversaw the Haganah, another Jewish military force. That conflict would endure in various forms for decades to come, in particular during the “Hunting Season” of 1944-45, when the Haganah turned against Etzel; and around the Altalena affair during Israel’s War of Independence, when Ben-Gurion ordered an attack on a ship carrying weapons to Etzel fighters. • Within days of taking command of Etzel in 1944, Begin announced armed struggle against the British, in addition to the Arabs: “No more cease-fire in the land of Israel between the people and the Hebrew youth and the British administration, which hands over our brothers to Hitler,” he proclaimed. Etzel had avoided attacking the British before, as they were allied against the Nazis, but now Etzel knew that the British had closed the gates to refugees seeking to enter Palestine, even after they knew what was happening to Europe’s Jews. Do you think Etzel was right to turn against the British while they were still fighting the Nazis? • In 1945, now that the war against the Nazis was over and immigration was the main issue for Jews hoping to come to Palestine, Haganah and Etzel—as well as a more extreme group, Lechi—joined forces in the United Resistance Movement. But Etzel’s 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, where British headquarters were located, brought that alliance to an early end. Begin’s involvement in the bombing, which killed 92, made him “nothing more than a terrorist” in many people’s minds, Gordis notes. But in 1947, he adds, when “the British announced their intention to depart Palestine, there was little doubt in the minds of many that the King David attack had been a turning point.” So, if the attack hastened the end of British occupation, even as it split the Jewish resistance, was it worth it from a strategic point of view? If the operation had gone as planned, without a large death toll, how would it be remembered today? • As part of the battle for Jerusalem in 1948, the Arab village of Deir Yassin was attacked by Etzel forces, resulting in a massacre that claimed more than a hundred villagers’ lives. Begin bore the brunt of the blame for what was dubbed the “Deir Yassin massacre.” How did the incident affect Begin’s reputation among Israelis, Palestinians, and others? How does the attack on Deir Yassin continue to affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? • Begin and Ben-Gurion “saw the Jewish world through profoundly different lenses,” writes Gordis: While Ben-Gurion “harbored no romantic memory for the Jewish world that had been lost” in Europe, Begin “could never disparage all that it had been” and thus kept the memory of Poland—and anti-Semitism—in his mind at all times. There were also political differences, personal animosities, and specific events—the Hunting Season, the Altalena, the battle over German reparations (which Begin opposed)—that kept the two men at odds. Is it possible, in retrospect, to admire both men? Or does their rivalry mean that most people see one as a hero and the other as a villain? If the roles had been reversed, and Begin had led the state from the beginning with Ben-Gurion as the leader of the opposition, how might Israel’s history have unfolded differently? • Gordis calls Begin “a moderate tarnished by extremes.” What does he mean by this phrase? Do you think this description is accurate? A POLITICIAN Begin founded the Herut party in 1949 and served in the Knesset, but was outflanked by Ben-Gurion’s left-wing parties for decades; even though he joined forces with other parties to form coalitions, and continued to gain seats in the Knesset, Begin’s party lost eight consecutive elections. When a national unity government formed in 1967, right before the Six-Day War, Begin became part of the cabinet for the first time. In 1973, he merged several parties into the new Likud party, which he helmed, and in 1977, following the resignation of Yitzhak Rabin, Likud won the election and Begin became prime minister. • Begin ultimately rose to power by building coalitions between various smaller parties. In today’s Knesset, the parties that once dominated—Likud and Labor—have been reduced to far smaller blocs, while the religious parties have gained numbers and various other parties come and go every few election cycles. Do you think Begin would be able to stitch together a winning coalition if he were alive today? If Begin were still in charge of Likud, how might Israeli politics look different, in terms of settlements, peace talks, international boycotts, and relations with the Arab world? • Gordis calls Begin “prime minister of the Jews,” noting that “the vast majority of Begin’s speeches are remarkably devoid of reference to ‘Israelis’; rather it is Jews, ‘brothers,’ and ‘brethren’ to whom he refers.” He explains it by saying Begin “was a person whose Jewish soul dictated virtually everything he said.” What does this say about how Begin conceived of Israel’s relationship to Judaism—and where did it leave Israelis who aren’t Jewish, and Jews who aren’t Israeli? • Begin would prove instrumental in bringing Ethiopian and Soviet Jews to Israel, but his first official act after taking office in 1977 was to take in the Vietnamese Boat People. Why did he feel it was Israel’s duty to take in these non-Jewish refugees? What lessons had he learned from the Holocaust that made him see this as a Jewish duty? Do you agree that Israel should have taken in the Vietnamese—and do you feel the same way today about other non-Jewish refugees in Israel, such as the Sudanese? • In 1981, Begin ordered an attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. The pre-emptive strike was widely condemned by other countries and the United Nations. Gordis asks: “Had he just made the world safer, or had he recklessly endangered it?” What do you think is the answer? How might Operation Desert Storm (when Iraq fired Scud missiles on Tel Aviv) or the second Gulf War have gone differently if Osirak hadn’t been destroyed? What lessons do you think today’s Israeli leaders—and other world leaders—can draw from the Osirak strike when considering Iran’s current nuclear program? • The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 succeeded in driving Yassir Arafat and the PLO out of Beirut, but the massacre by Christian Phalangists of hundreds of Palestinians at two nearby refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, brought international condemnation—and ultimately, Begin’s resignation in 1983. Ariel Sharon, who took primary responsibility for Sabra and Shatila, soon returned to politics and became prime minister himself; Begin stayed out of the public spotlight, and out of politics, until his death in 1992. Why couldn’t Begin revive his political career the way Sharon did? A PEACEMAKER Begin’s greatest accomplishment in his years as prime minister was the peace treaty with Egypt. Within just months of taking office in 1977, he reached out to Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat to see if the two adversaries could reach a peace agreement. By 1979, a treaty was signed, and Begin and Sadat both received the Nobel Peace Prize. • As a right-wing politician with a long record as a fighter, was Begin uniquely positioned to negotiate peace in a way that his Labor counterparts (Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres) weren’t? If he had remained in office longer, do you think he might have reached peace agreements with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or the Palestinians? • Sadat came to Jerusalem to address the Knesset in person, and later negotiated a peace treaty with Begin (with President Carter) at Camp David. Egypt became a pariah in the Arab world, and Sadat himself was assassinated; Israel gave up the Sinai and uprooted settlements. Do you think the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty created a positive precedent for other Arab-Israeli negotiations? Or did the price paid by both sides make it more difficult for Israel and her enemies to sign similar deals afterward? • Gordis notes that Begin was willing to give up the Sinai, even evacuating the settlement in Yamit, because it wasn’t part of the Biblical Land of Israel—but Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem were in a different category. If Begin had been in power decades later, when his own Likud Party pulled out of Gaza and agreed in principle to giving up much of the West Bank, do you think Begin would have maintained his initial red lines? • The treaty with Egypt raised the issue of Palestinian autonomy, but left it unresolved, essentially kicking the can down the road. Do you think a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achievable in the 1970s? Or would attempting to include a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made the treaty with Egypt itself unachievable? • Begin’s record as a warrior-turned-peacemaker is long and controversial—from the King David Hotel and Deir Yassin to Camp David. What legacy did Begin ultimately leave Israelis? Palestinians? Arab countries? The peace process? What lessons from Begin’s career might be applied to Israeli peace talks today?
“Begin’s complex life was a study in the possibilities of ‘both/and,’ rather than ‘either/or.’ Born into war, he never gave up the hope for peace.” Continue reading
“In Menachem Begin, Gordis manages to capture, in clean clear prose, the heart of Israel’s founding and formative years: the soaring idealism and bare-knuckle pragmatism, the shows of Jewish unity and the bitter feuds, the inspiring stories of survival and the depressing anecdote of violence. It’s a good place to start for the contemporary reader curious about one small but central clump of the tangled roots of the Middle East's current turmoil.” Continue reading
“A pair of events, neither of which occurred at a chronological midpoint in Israel’s history, nevertheless divide that history in two. The first was the Six Day War of 1967. The second was Menachem Begin's electoral victory of 1977. Both came unexpectedly, both launched Israel on unforeseen trajectories and both had immense consequences that the country is still struggling to cope with.” Continue reading
DANIEL GORDIS is the author of five previous books, including the award-winning Saving Israel. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post, and has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine. … Continue reading
A new biography of Jacob Neusner examines his ‘complicated, colorful, and unappreciated intellectual life’