on March 23, 2014
The history of Israel has largely been written from a secular Labor-Zionist or a Palestinian perspective. In those histories Menachem Begin has either been air-brushed out or vilified as a terrorist by Jew and Arab alike. Daniel Gordis a rabbi from a family of rabbis and vice president of Shalem College in Israel makes a huge contribution in correcting the historical record. Simply put, although Menachem Begin was not the George Washington of Israel, he certainly was a founding father and was it not for him the State of Israel might not have been brought into being.
Begin was born in 1913 in the town of Brisk (now Brest in Belarus) under grey Polish skies compared to the sunny Mediterranean skies most of the early Zionist leadership who were either born in then Palestine or arrived there when very young. As a result Begin stood out as Polish formal compared to Israeli casual. Begin did not arrive in Palestine until he was 30. As an aside his birth was midwifed by Ariel Sharon's grandmother. Begin learned his Zionism from his father and the everyday Polish anti-Semitism he witnessed while growing up. He also, unlike the Zionists in Palestine, grows up religious and very knowledgeable in the biblical texts. In time he would become, according to Gordis, the most Jewish of Israeli prime ministers. As a teenager he became a convert to the Revisionist Zionism of the charismatic Vladimir Jabotinsky and quickly became a leader of its Betar youth group. Revisionist Zionism differed from Labor Zionism in that it was more clear-eyed about the fate of the Jews, in Europe, market oriented versus socialist, and was pessimistic about the prospect of peaceful coexistence with the Arab population living in Palestine.
Imprisoned by the Russians in 1940 he is released after the German invasion and finds his way to Palestine in 1943 where almost immediately assumes the leadership of the Irgun. It here where Menachem Begin enters history. He adopts "an eye for an eye" policy with respect to the British. For every Irgun member executed by the British, a British soldier would be kidnapped and executed. He plots along with the more establishment Haganah the 1946 bombing of the King David hotel, the headquarters of the British Army. In too many histories it is the Irgun alone who were responsible for the bombing. It was Begin's "terror" campaign that forced the Britsh out. Prior to the imposition a temporary cease fire in Israel's War for Independence the Atalena, an Irgun arms carrying ship was fired upon by Haganah troops just outside of Tel Aviv. The government under Ben Gurion wanted to show that Israel would support the U.N. cease fire ordered the attack. The columnist Tom Friedman has cited this as an important step in establishing the credibility of the new government. However, the historical record is murkier, because the government was told by Begin that the ship was coming after the cease fire was put in place. Begin made attempts at compromise, but Ben Gurion fearing Begin as a rival, opened fire. Twenty years later Ben Gurion reconsidered.
By most histories Begin is blamed for the 1948 massacre of Deir Yassin, an Arab village near Jeruslaem. Yes, there was a massacre, but the nascent state was struggling to keep the road to Jerusalem open. Moreover the entire operation was being run by the Haganah. Thus there is plenty of blame to go around, but to most histories the blame falls fully on Begin.
With the labor Zionists fully in control Begin spends the next 30 years in all but political exile. To be sure he is a member of the Knesset, but he doesn't enter the government until the 1967 war. He leaves it soon thereafter. However a political revolution is brewing under the surface. The population is becoming more Sephardic population and became restive under the more elitist labor Zionist Ashkenazim, corruption was growing, and the early failures of the Israeli Army during the 1973 War highlighted military unpreparedness. Thus in 1977 a political revolution took place brought Menachem Begin to the prime ministership with his Likud coalition. One of his acts is to admit and make full citizens of 66 Vietnamese boat people who were picked up by an Israeli freighter in the South China Sea. No Asian country wanted to take them in; Israel did.
Begin is most well known for making peace with Egypt's Anwar Sadat. He won the Nobel Peace Prize with Sadat in 1979 for the Camp David Accords which established peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai to Egyptian control. In the Sinai he showed no hesitation in removing the Jewish settlements there. This would not be the case for the West Bank. Recall the Sinai was never part of biblical Israel.
Begin made the big call in June 1981 when he ordered the Israeli Air Force to take out the Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction at Osirak. His action was condemned by most of the world, but in the light of history it represented one of the most clear eyed acts statesmanship of the 20th Century.
Perhaps the biggest stain on Begin was his delegating too much authority to Ariel Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon War. There is a straight line from that delegation to the massacre by Christian phalangists of the Arab towns of Sabra and Shatila. Begin resigned over this. Not only was the Lebanon War a political disaster, it was also a moral one.
Begin died in 1992. He lived his life under the precept of hadar (Dignity). Gordis brings this to life.
on March 28, 2014
For some time now, I have been an avid reader of publications of Dr. Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
Dr Gordis' recent publication "Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul",
although essentially a biography of Menachem Begin, reads like an exciting adventure, facilitating rapid reading.
Gordis' writing style is flowing, at once concise, lyrical, and often poetical, as he recounts the life of Israel's first Likud Prime Minister, clearly one of Gordis' heroes of the State of Israel.
The book also serves as a detailed history of the State of Israel and is heavily referenced, often with direct quotations.
The quotations of Begin's addresses capture the essence of Begin's oratorical skills, often sending chills down this reader's spine.
The text further provides convincing refutation of many of the terrorist allegations often ascribed to Begin in connection with E.G. bombing of the King David Hotel; hanging of British officers; the Altalena affair.
Begin's devotion to Jewish values, to the Jewish People, and to the State of Israel is well captured by the Pentateuchal quotations Gordis provides in the headings of each chapter. Numerous examples of Begin's traditional `Jewishness' abound. In one instance, Begin urged that on recapture of the Old City, the Israeli cabinet accompanied by the two Chief Rabbis go to the Western Wall to recite the `Shehechiyanu'.
Especially well presented are: 1) the peace treaty with Egypt and the accompanying Nobel Prize Begin shared with Anwar Sadat; 2) Begin's (then) controversial decision to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor (Osirak); 3) Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, to rout the PLO.
Lastly, Gordis' sense of frustration re. the present state of Israel and its leaders (compared to Begin), quoted here from:
` ... In Israel, it is rare to find leaders who couple such profound Israel, it is rare to find leaders who couple such profound conviction to such generosity of spirit and nimbleness of mind. But Israel's leadership no longer thinks of itself so consciously and unabashedly in biblical terms; Israel no longer produces people with the authority of biblical fluency, let alone conviction, at the core of their
“The state begins in violence. However lofty the ideals of a new country or a new regime, if it encounters opposition, as most new regimes and countries do, it must fight. If it loses, its ideals join the long catalogue of unfulfilled aspirations.”
Richard Brookhiser wrote those words at the outset of Founding Father, his study of George Washington. I thought of them often as I read Menachem Begin, Daniel Gordis’ new book on the life and character of Israel’s sixth prime minister.
The history of few states has been attended by such perpetual violence as has that of Israel. Its founding Zionist ideal was a response to anti-Semitic violence, at least in part. (The other part was the millennia-long Jewish hope of return to Jerusalem.) Its independence was gained through terrorism against the British Mandate and battles with invading Arab armies. Its history has been beset by life-and-death wars against neighboring Arab countries, not to mention constant conflict with Palestinians. And then there are the fractious relationships among Israelis. (“Two Israelis, three political parties” is a joke I heard decades ago.) The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God,” but the wrestling has been with humans too.
Menachem Begin participated in many of those struggles. He was born on August 16, 1913, in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, to Zionist parents. At age 13, he embraced the distinctive Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, who advocated the establishment of the Jewish State in Israel—by force, if necessary. He entered his twenties with the Nazis taking power in Germany, and fled Poland after Germany invaded on September 1, 1939. He would eventually lose his parents and brothers in the Holocaust. He was arrested by the Soviets in Vilna and detained there for a year for anti-Soviet, anti-Communist activities. Released in September 1941, he and his wife Aliza made their way to Palestine by spring of the next year.
There, he quickly assumed command of Etzel, an acronym for Irgun Tzvai-Leumi, the “National Military Organization.” This Jabotinsky-inspired paramilitary group used violence to drive the British out of Palestine. Controversially, Begin gave the orders to hang two British sergeants as retaliation for the hanging of two Etzel fighters. He gave the orders to bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British Mandatory government. And his organization, together with the more radical organization Lehi (aka, Stern Gang), was responsible for the massacre at Deir Yassin, in which 107 Arab residents were killed. The mainstream Haganah both foreknew and approved of the King David and Deir Yassin operations, though they denied it at the time, a denial that permanently blackened Begin’s reputation.
When the British evacuated Palestine, the war for independence and against the Arabs began in earnest. Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi combined to form the Israeli Defense Forces, though conflicts among those organizations led to the Altalena affair, in which Haganah forces (including Yitzhak Rabin) fired on a supply ship being unloaded by Etzel personnel (including Menachem Begin). The pre-independence conflicts led to the formation of rival political parties after 1948. For 29 years—from 1948 to 1977—Begin led the opposition. Then, on the verge of wanting to retire, he became Israel’s prime minister.
Those years saw highs and lows. Under Begin, Israel gave refuge to Vietnamese boat people. It began to receive an influx of Soviet Jews. It began to airlift Felasha Jews out of Ethiopia. Most importantly, Begin negotiated peace with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt, the first Arab country to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. (And, it should be noticed, the peace has held till now.)
More controversially, under Begin, Israel expanded the Settlement Movement that had begun under the previous government. (Israel had captured the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai Peninsula during the Six Day War, and had begun building settlements not long afterward.) Most controversially, with Ariel Sharon as Begin’s defense minister, Israel invaded Lebanon, and its Lebanese Christian allies massacred Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians in the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut near the Shatilla refugee camp.
So, how does one assess the legacy of Menachem Begin? Should one emphasize the hanging of two British sergeants, the King David Hotel bombing, the Deir Yassin massacre, the Settlement Movement, and the Sabra and Shatilla massacre and decide that Begin was a terrorist and a tyrant?
Or, should one assess his legacy focusing on his struggle to establish the Jewish state as a refuge from anti-Semitism; his government’s benevolence to Vietnamese boat people and Ethiopian and Soviet Jews; and especially his Nobel Peace price-winning negotiations with Egypt and decide that he was a great statesman and man of peace?
Daniel Gordis’ biography makes a compelling case for the latter, one that I find, in the main, convincing. Begin’s Zionist ideals, precisely because of his lifetime of Zionist efforts, will not join the list of unfulfilled aspirations any time soon. By the same token, however, we can never forget that precisely because all states begin in violence, none of them—including Israel—are entirely beyond reproach.
on April 16, 2015
This short book not only provides insight into Begin's character and deeds but serves as a guide to the significant events in the brief history of the Israeli state. Although the author is not unfavorable to Begin, he makes clear that Begin was hindered by clinging to a belief in the manifest destiny of the Israeli state.
on February 2, 2016
Since I enjoyed this book, I was curious to read the 1 star reviews. Almost all of them were written by Jew hating revisionists, the same people Begin spent his life fighting against. These are people who have so little good in their hearts and lives, and so much anger because of their own inadequacies, they try to find an outlet in a once-easy target. If it wasn't for Jews, these people would be angry at anything, like pizza that tastes like cardboard.
Gordis provides a deluge of Begin quotes, most of which I passed over in the initial chapters. Then I began to realize Gordis point...that everything Begin did was because he was a Jew, and the thinking of Begin (and subsequently those around him) were because of Begin's Jewish identity. As Gordis goes further into this point, Begin's motivations and decisions are clear.
For me, Gordis booked turned a man with a funny name into an inspiration.
on December 18, 2014
This man who battled for the land of Israel against overwhelming odds was the leader who also stood for peace. He also was the single individual who prevented civil war. The State of Israel could not have been achieved without him. No one was more prescient about what had to be done. He had much to do about establishing the dignity of Jews everywhere. His legacy had reason and reasoning consistently.
on February 3, 2015
Gordis tackled a difficult task with grace and insight. Begin has not received much favorable press especially in the U.S., but Gordis exposes his courage, devotion and at times brilliance. Very much worth reading, especially by those who have strong negative feelings about Mr. Begin.
on November 30, 2014
This is a book which would benefit the Israel bashers who abound today. Begin was a complex man whose arrogance bothered many Westerners, particularly Jimmy Carter. His intelligence, courage and iron will were, however, the perfect ingredients to secure peace with Egypt without threatening the existence of Israel. Many people, particularly American Jews, want Israel's leaders to be soft spoken, conciliatory diplomats, but what they ignore is the existential threat this tiny nation lives under. Begin was the ideal leader for his country and his people. Gordis writes clearly and his book his highly readable.
on July 8, 2014
An eye-opener. The most interesting passages were on Begin's inspiration, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and the political ferment that existed among Jews in Eastern Europe during the early 20th century. Having grown up in a staunchly Labor Zionist household, I was raised to believe Jabotinsky was the devil, something like a Jewish Hitler ... on the other hand, I visited Israel in 1969, when it was essentially a socialist state, and again in 1981, and the difference under Begin was spectacular. My only quibble with this book was that it did not pay sufficient attention to the economic changes instituted by this Prime Minister. He encouraged private enterprise, did away with many obnoxious nanny-state regulations installed by Ben-Gurion and other Labor leaders (Israelis in the 60s had to wait months, if not years, to get a telephone, and color TV was not allowed), and brought the country out of the ideological swamp of failed leftest policies into the modern world.
This biography placed a great deal of emphasis on Begin's religious faith. Although not overtly Orthodox, he was a firm believer, and his faith served him well. I recommend this book to anyone curious about Israeli politics.
on January 3, 2016
Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, by Daniel Gordis. Reading Gordis’ newest book put me on a highway of modern Israeli history books. His descriptions of Begin’s path made me want to see the formation of the State of Israel from many perspectives, so I subsequently read The Prime Ministers (Avner), The Revolt (Begin), White Nights (Begin), Fear No Evil (Sharansky), The Case for Democracy (Sharansky), and also several books about the formation of the government in the United States. After that, I read Garry Kasparov’s new book, Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped to get a greater appreciation for the importance of democracy in the world. (I also interviewed Kasparov on The Goldstein On Gelt Show, which was a great opportunity to ask him questions about his book.) Though I recommend reading all of these books, if you only have time for one, then Gordis’ overview will give you a solid understanding of one of the most important figures in Israel’s rebirth, and also allow you to see the extent of Begin’s personal sacrifice that allowed millions of Jews to live safely and happily in their homeland.