Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

Present at the Creation

Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, by Daniel Gordis (Schocken, 320 pp., $27.95)

On May 17, 1977, to the surprise of Israeli voters and pundits alike, Menachem Begin’s Likud party won Israel’s elections, ending close to 30 years of continuous rule by the socialist Labor party and other political parties of the Israeli secular Left. Begin’s election as Israel’s sixth prime minister marked a dramatic upheaval in Israeli politics: Begin, the leader of the underground paramilitary Irgun group before and during Israel’s War of Independence, had long been reviled as a terrorist by David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, and other Labor-party leaders; he had now defeated Peres to become the country’s political leader.

In this immensely thoughtful and nuanced new biography, Daniel Gordis, the senior vice president of Jerusalem’s Shalem College and one of Israel’s most important public intellectuals, reflects on Begin’s enduring contribution to the State of Israel, and on why he should be considered one of the greatest of Israel’s statesmen.

Like all of Israel’s founding fathers, Menachem Begin was born in Eastern Europe: in the Polish city of Brisk, in 1913. He was a youthful follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement, which militantly believed that a Jewish state should exist on both sides of the Jordan River, and which rejected the socialist ideology of the mainstream Zionist leadership.

Begin arrived in Palestine, then governed by the British, in 1942. The following year, he assumed command of the Irgun in Palestine and achieved instant notoriety for the Irgun’s devastating bombings of British installations, including the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, which had served as the British mandatory government’s military and administrative headquarters since 1938, and for other acts of violence against the British. While Begin’s participation in the King David Hotel bombing established his reputation as an anti-British “terrorist,” that bombing was considered by many a historic turning point in the British decision to leave Palestine: Within seven months, the British announced their intention to depart. Nine months after that, the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state.

In his very balanced discussion of Begin’s involvement in the King David bombing and other controversial military actions against the British, Gordis analyzes the emerging political rivalry between Begin and David Ben-Gurion, the political leader of Israel’s pre-independence Jewish Agency for Palestine, who would, in 1948, become Israel’s first prime minister. On July 1, 1946, the head of the Haganah, the Jewish Agency’s paramilitary arm, sent Begin, with Ben-Gurion’s approval, “a secret note authorizing the bombing of the King David.” And yet, in the aftermath of the attack, which resulted in the deaths of 92 people, Ben-Gurion, “under fire, denied any involvement,” while Begin assumed full responsibility. It was “an astonishing display of nobility” on Begin’s part, writes Gordis, “given Ben-Gurion’s obvious mendacity.”

As Gordis persuasively documents, Ben-Gurion’s mendacity — as well as his desire to destroy Begin politically — was also apparent in the controversy over the Irgun’s involvement in the 1948 attack on Deir Yassin, an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in which numerous innocent Arab civilians were killed. The attack had been approved by Ben-Gurion and the Haganah, but, Gordis writes, they subsequently “libelously denied that the Haganah had approved the operation” and called the attack “a premeditated act which had as its intention slaughter and murder only.”

In the first parliamentary elections of January 1949, Israel’s right-leaning Herut (Freedom) party, which Begin had founded to oppose Ben-Gurion’s socialist-labor Mapai party, won only 14 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. With this election, however, Begin’s party became a fixture of the parliamentary opposition to the Labor-dominated governments of the next three decades. Its successor was the Likud party formed by Begin in 1973.

During his 29 years in opposition, and his five as prime minister, Begin became the spokesman for the Sephardim of Israel, the impoverished Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, who constituted close to 50 percent of the Israeli electorate. These Sephardic voters, whose economic plight and political interests had long been ignored by Labor’s socialist elite, became the key electoral component of the new conservative majority that brought Begin’s right-of-center coalition to power. Greeting Begin’s election with exuberance, celebrating in the streets with shouts of “Begin, King of Israel,” they recognized Begin’s electoral triumph as the dawn of a new era in which Israel would no longer be a one-party socialist state. During his tenure as prime minister, Sephardim for the first time were appointed to cabinet positions, and their prominence is an enduring aspect of Begin’s legacy.

#page#Perhaps Begin’s greatest achievement as prime minister was negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt. He became prime minister just four years after the Yom Kippur War and, writes Gordis, “made it clear that he was willing to negotiate with Egypt” — a willingness no Labor prime minister had shown. 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 Labor-party predecessors could not. He is, to this day, one of only two Israeli prime ministers to have succeeded in negotiating a peace treaty with an Arab nation. For this, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize, an achievement his great political rival Ben-Gurion could never boast. (As Gordis reminds us, Begin’s leftist critics, both outside and within the Jewish state, begrudged his receiving the Nobel.)

His decision to send Israeli jet planes to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in June 1981 was once a subject of controversy but is now regarded as an act of courageous foresight. Amid international condemnation, Israel’s prime minister issued a statement that would become known as the Begin Doctrine, which held that “Israel would not countenance any of its mortal enemies seeking to develop or acquire a nuclear weapon.” Israel would not wait to be attacked first. Gordis points out that the Begin Doctrine “would endure long after Begin himself was gone from the political arena.” It “was reasserted in 2007 when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to destroy the nuclear reactor that Syria was building, and was powerfully invoked, some 30 years after Begin destroyed Osirak, when Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that if the international community did not prevent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran from going nuclear, Israel would do it alone.”

One of Begin’s most important legacies is that he recognized and invoked the greatness of the American Revolution in justification of — and as precedent for — the revolutionary Zionist enterprise that created the democratic State of Israel. More than any other Israeli political leader, Begin admired America’s founders and recognized in the American Revolution and America’s founding era a precedent and model for the Zionist movement’s fight for political independence from England and for the new State of Israel’s evolving democracy in the years following independence. For Begin, the American Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale was a model for the freedom fighters of the Irgun, who played an instrumental role in bringing about the new Jewish state. So, too, was George Washington: As Gordis reminds us, “an American brigade [that] volunteered to join the Irgun was named the ‘George Washington Legion.’”

Given these parallels, asks Gordis, why is it that “Jewish Americans bow their heads in respect to Nathan Hale, but whine in shame” at the mention of Begin and the other freedom fighters of the Irgun “who sought precisely what it was that Hale died for? Why is George Washington, who conducted a violent, fierce, and bloody campaign against the British, a hero” while, for many Jews, Begin — who helped rid Palestine of the British — “remains a villain or, at the very least, a Jewish leader with a compromised background”? Part of the answer, Gordis points out, is that Begin’s reputation has been unjustly tarnished “by David Ben-Gurion’s refusal to acknowledge his own participation in some of the events for which Begin is vilified.” In his concluding chapter, Gordis convincingly refutes the version of Begin’s career presented by Ben-Gurion and other political rivals and critics.

This book is beautifully written and insightful, and demonstrates conclusively that Menachem Begin was, together with Ben-Gurion, one of the two most important and influential of Israel’s founders, without whom the State of Israel might well not have come into being. It is an important contribution to contemporary scholarship about the political history of the modern Jewish state.

– Mr. Dalin, a rabbi and a professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, is the author or co-author of eleven books.

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