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Menachem Begin: A New Life

In Menachem Begin: A Life, a new biography of one of Israel’s more multifaceted leaders, Avi Shilon succeeds in portraying a fervent and uncompromising Zionist whose political brilliance usually compensated for his lack of military experience.  Shilon shows that for Begin, anti-Semitism was at the root of everything.  It was Begin’s realization of the threat that posed by anti-Semitism that motivated his actions and led to his political career.  When the Holocaust destroyed the Polish-Jewish world from which he had emerged, the need for Jewish independence became clearer to him than ever before.  Ensuring that another Holocaust would never take place was his paramount concern, even when he was Prime Minister of Israel, pursuing Yasir Arafat in the PLO leader’s Beirut bunker.  While many of Begin’s critics have deplored the ways in which this frame of mind led him to take what they consider politically inappropriate actions, Shilon’s biography focuses not on criticizing the man in this respect but in showing the reader where Begin “came from.” 

Shilon also shows just how important symbolism was to Begin.  In the 1940s, when he was the leader of the underground Etzel, an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization, his operations against the British rulers of Palestine always included symbolic elements that stressed the importance of Jewish sovereignty and self-determination.  For example, Etzel’s “Operation Wall” was a response to a British prohibition against blowing a shofar at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur.  This action, Shilon observes, “was not the most important in the history of Etzel, but it emphasized Begin’s main approach in the organization’s initial operations: symbolic declarative acts, not necessarily with any real military content.” 

Begin had a gift not only for symbols but for words.  According to Shilon, his oratorical skills were in part responsible for his emergence as Jabotinsky’s successor.  The Revisionists, the members of Jabotinsky’s movement, were captivated by Begin’s ability to express their ideology and deeply impressed by his honesty and integrity.  Yet “more than anything else,” Shilon rightly observes, Begin “will be remembered for putting his stamp on the Jewish character of the Israeli state.”  He “saw himself as part of the Jewish nation across the ages, a kind of new modern prophet, a link in a chain stretching across the generations whose hard-line view were inspired by the Jewish Holocaust and who restored to the public debate images and views from the Diaspora.” 

Begin’s Diaspora experience imbued him with a profound sense of Jewish solidarity.  Even when the Haganah was hunting down his rebel forces and turning them over to the British, he would not lash out against his fellow Jews.  We did not teach our fighters, he wrote in The Revolt, “to hate our political opponents,” for “mutual hatred brings almost certain civil war.” Subsequently, during Israel’s War of Independence, when the Israeli Army attacked the Altalena, an Etzel ship carrying weapons to the new state in apparent defiance of Ben-Gurion’s orders, Begin defused the threat of civil strife.  “I call on my brothers not to open fire,” he declared.  “There will be no fraternal war. . . .  The enemy is at the gate.”  At the time, some of Begin’s Etzel comrades regarded the response as cowardly.  Only much later, Shilon notes, did Begin receive due credit for it.

After becoming Prime Minister of Israel in 1977, Begin similarly defied accusations of cowardice from some of his associates.  He had his own misgivings about paying a high territorial price for a peace treaty with Egypt, but he overcame them for the sake of what he considered to be the greater good.  And no one accused him of cowardice when he dared to order the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.

If Begin wasn’t a coward, neither was he a warmonger.  The war in Lebanon in 1982 was something that had been thrust upon him, and it broke him.  As Shilon makes clear, Begin “knew that he had not led his government properly and that he had become embroiled in a war he did not desire, and he knew it was his responsibility.  Furthermore, he knew that those around him had witnessed his deterioration, yet none of them had dared say a word and actually had helped him to retire with dignity.”

Shilon’s comprehensive biography of one the most important Zionists and leaders of the State of Israel elucidates the whole course of Begin’s life, from his youth in Poland, when he was afflicted by a sense of powerlessness, to his performance in positions of power in the Jewish state.  It helps us understand the greatness of the man, his very real and sometimes surprising achievements, and the factors that led to his demise.  Shilon provides a clear picture of a leader whose steadfastness can serve as an example to all of us, even those who do not share every one of Menachem Begin’s commitments.

Asaf Romirowsky, a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.

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rami tal on May 3, 2013 at 10:40 pm (Reply)
Most of what Mr. Shilon writes about Begin is accurate, but he omits the critical fact that Begin left Israel much weaker - from political military, economic and other aspects - than the state he received.
Even his one and only achievement - the peace with Egypt - was due to a basic misunderstanding on his side: he thought the peace would give him unlimited freedom in other occupied territories, namely the West Bank and the Golan. As a matter of fact, the peace accord he signed only created a precedent - that in order to have peace, Israel must give up every inch which had been conquered in the 6 day war.
It's true that his intentions were good, but as has happened in the past (and most likely will happen in the future), these good intentions led Israel astray and created grave problems, some of which have not been solved to this day. 2 examples: the Hezbollah is a direct consequence of the Israeli invasion to Lebanon in 1982. 2. The "lost 5 years" of the Israeli economy, 1978-82, in which inflation reached 600% a year.
Al Sheeber on May 10, 2013 at 12:19 am (Reply)
Both the comment and the article have many valid points, however I would like to not, that Begin, who was besotted during his entire life by the Biblical military heroes, "Matzbi Leoumi", was completely run over by Moshe Dayan (Secretary of Foreign Affairs), Arik Sharon (the genius who took Israel over the Litnai River, Lebanon, 1982, whose undeniable prowess were proven beyond any imagination during the crossing into Africa, 10/1973, and by Ezer Weitzman, who pioneered the IAF. Arik took the poor man for a ride into Lebanon which shattered Mr. Begin, whose health was on the edge, I happen to have known him from the early 50's, not to mention Aliza's breathing condition which at times was deafening, one could hear he chocking, coughing next door, and his absence, when she passed away-while he was on a mission to Los Angeles, completed the task, overnight he became a gonner. Sadly, as much as one has reason to admire his integrity, decency (lacking from most Israeli politicos), his clunsiest flaw and most awful mistake is not the departure from the Sinai, but the breathless expansion of the settlements which began under the Socialist Golda meir and her tin pot crew of useless expansionistas, namely the recycled Palmachnik Yigaal Alon and a whole bunch of losers who were behind the shattering and reprehensible "flick in the poonim" from October 1973, the Labor got the show on the road to hell and ever since Israel has been putting its top dollars into this parking meter from hell, the road to which is paved with sanctimonious intentions, and my dear neighbor, has to accept a good part of the blame, even though he is not available to explain himself.
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