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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