About Menachem Begin the thing that I remember most was the way he talked. Begin wouldn’t say that he was born on the eve of the First World War; he’d say, as he did when a group of us from the Wall Street Journal interviewed him in 1981, that he was born “into” the First World War. “He wouldn’t say that his family was living in Poland at the time,” I wrote in an obituary editorial in the Forward. “He would say, as he did, ‘I lay on the battlefield between the Czar’s army and the Kaiser’s army.’” Begin was, the Forward noted, but two or three years old at the time.
Begin’s fastidiousness about the language of leadership, his temptation to vainglory, and his unalloyed heroism are all captured in Avi Shilon’s new biography, Menachem Begin: A Life, published by Yale. It is the most detailed narrative yet of the man who became the sixth prime minister of Israel and led the Jewish state onto the road that is causing such consternation among the desiccated Left today. For those of us who came to love Begin, the book’s welcome reprise comes just as his political heirs, in a new hour of peril from Iran, are being tested against the example he set.
Shilon, a Ph.D. student at Bar Ilan University and the op-ed editor of Israel Hayom, writes at the outset that throughout Begin’s life, “he appears to have borne the hallmarks of manic depression—or bipolar disorder, as it is now known.” Shilon notes that some experts have argued that he suffered from the condition but announces that he has “resisted such speculation,” preferring Begin’s deeds to “any psychological analysis.” It’s a sage strategy for telling the life of a man who so clearly lived for a cause greater than himself.
It is certainly a life that offers more drama than could be cooked up by even the most perfervid psychiatrists. Begin’s mother was murdered by the Nazis in a hospital at Brisk. His father, a Zionist, and his brother, Herzl, were also slain by the Nazis. In Begin’s account, his father warned his killers that a day of retribution would come upon them, before he was gunned down with other Jews and thrown into a river. In the version told by Begin’s sister, their father had snuck out of a holding area in order to give a proper burial to a Jewish elder who’d died a natural death. When challenged by a Nazi officer, their father announced, “This is what I have to do,” and was shot to death.
Begin, in any event, rose quickly through the Betar youth movement. His weapons course was taught by an aide to Avraham Stern. It was, Shilon relates, the only instance in which a firearm was physically touched by the man who would lead a revolt against the British Empire and order some of the most consequential military attacks in history. After Begin met—and fell in behind—the Revisionist prophet Vladimir Jabotinsky, Begin felt, as Shilon puts it, like “Stalin in the power triangle” along with Marx and Lenin, except that Theodor Herzl was Marx and Jabotinsky Lenin. Shilon notes that Begin, who came from a religious home, had a different starting point from that of the liberal and secular Jabotinsky.
When Begin was arrested by the NKVD in 1940—his wife Aliza was standing beside him in their home—he demanded before he was taken away he be permitted to shine his shoes. He argued constantly with his interrogators, no doubt driving them halfway nuts. Eventually Begin was sentenced to seven years in the Soviet camps. He was in Tashkent when learned that his family, save for his sister Rachel, had perished. He made his way to Israel via the Polish force known as Anders' Army and was reunited with Aliza.
We sometimes hear that in pre-state Israel the leadership of the underground simply stepped aside for Begin. Shilon’s account is—as others have been—more nuanced and satisfying. For one thing, Begin refused simply to desert the Anders force, declaring, “I am a soldier in the Polish Army; I cannot desert; I have to be legally discharged.” He stuck to this position until he gained a discharge.
The story of the years of the revolt against the British is well told here, though the narrative of the 1944 assassination of the British minister Lord Moyne contains no mention of his role in Britain’s refusal to allow the sailing to Palestine of the refugee ship Struma, which was then sunk by the Russians, killing 768 persons, a catastrophe for which Moyne was held to account. The assassination of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948 is related with but a glimpse of the mischief the count was concocting. The account of the shelling of the Altalena, though, touches most of the bases.
What is so exciting about this period in Begin’s life is the way in which his defeat and isolation in the post-revolt years and his display of character during his decades in opposition became the seeds of his ultimate credibility. That years in the wilderness can set the stage for glory may be an old story, running from Moses to Churchill to Reagan, to name but a few who have lived it. But rarely has the victory been sweeter than the one enjoyed by Menachem Begin.
All the more bitter his despair at the end. The peacemaking felt good while he was doing it. Begin seemed to savor every hosanna from the left; he went to Oslo to accept the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize even though President Sadat declined. (My own view is that Begin is the one who really deserved the prize. Even though Sadat would later pay with his life, what he delivered was merely a cold peace ending a war that Egypt should never have precipitated and may soon resume.) The peace was followed by the settling of the liberated territories, a process in which Shilon portrays Begin as a centrist tilting slightly to the right, ground then held by Ariel Sharon.
This was also the period in which economic reforms were launched. Shilon portrays Begin as an opponent of socialism with a soft spot for social justice (he favored the minimum wage). “I want social justice without socialism,” he is quoted as saying. I smiled at the line because once, when Shimon Peres was finance minister, he told me he wanted Israelis to make money like capitalists and spend it like socialists. It was under Begin, though, that the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman was brought in as an adviser. This period, no doubt, saw the formation of the strategy that has led to the atrophy of Labor and, at least for the moment, the dominance of Likud.
The 1981 bombing of the Iraq nuclear reactor is related in a chapter dealing with Begin’s larger world view. While editing an announcement of the bombing mission’s success, Shilon says, Begin changed a draft to add, at the end, “We shall not allow our enemies to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.” Writes Shilon, “This declaration became known as the Begin Doctrine, according to which Israel would not allow any Arab nation to acquire nuclear arms.” Was that formulation, one could puzzle, intended to exclude the Persians?
The story of the 1982 Lebanon war is told here in a straightforward way, as is Begin’s precipitous slide and resignation from office after the death of his wife. Aliza died while Begin was in America. When he was told, he locked himself in a bathroom in his hotel room. When he emerged, he wanted to change his tie. His collapse from public life followed quickly but was not entirely a surprise. A little more than a year earlier, he had received a group of Wall Street Journal correspondents. It was an optimistic moment, since it looked at the time as if he would quickly secure his goals in Lebanon. Even then, before all the complications, he talked about how he was hungering to step down from public life.
“Begin on Begin: Soon I Will Retire to Write My Book” is the headline that the Journal’s page one editors put on the dispatch. Begin said he wanted to write a book called “The Generation of Holocaust and Redemption.” How sad that he died too soon. It can be said, with no slight to the author of this brimming biography, that in Jewish libraries there will always be the void where Menachem Begin’s memoir might have stood.
Seth Lipsky, a former foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal, is editor of the New York Sun.
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