Friday, March 7, 2014

The Misunderstood Menachem Begin

"We were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers, at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization, nearly four thousand years ago. For that right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unexampled in the annals of the nations."--Menachem Begin

In 1977, Time magazine dismissed newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with this snide explanation of how to pronounce his name: "Begin, rhymes with Fagin." That one liner drips with contempt, if not outright antisemitism, but it is sadly typical of how the media treats Begin--and that is a shame, because Begin is the greatest Prime Minister in Israeli history, a Holocaust survivor, a freedom fighter and a peace-loving statesman who understood that peace-seeking democracies must be ever vigilant and ever strong when confronting tyrannical and despotic regimes.

In "Menachem Begin: His legacy a century after his birth," Daniel Gordis describes the gap between perception and reality regarding Begin:

...Begin is still disparaged by many of the very same Jews who see in the American revolution a cause for genuine pride.

Begin himself seemed to sense the irony, so he spoke time and again about the American revolution. In an article commemorating the 35th anniversary of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's death, he combined two passages from Thomas Jefferson's letters to fellow statesmen--one to James Madison and another to William Stephens Smith. "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical," Begin quoted Jefferson, adding the American revolutionary's sobering observation that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Gordis, whose book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul will be published this month, explains the prominent role that David Ben-Gurion--Israel's first Prime Minister--had in smearing Begin's good name:

...Begin's reputation was also scarred by David Ben-Gurion's refusal to acknowledge his own participation in some of the events for which Begin is vilified. Ben-Gurion consistently denied having had anything to do with operations that did not go as planned, while Begin stood ready to take responsibility. The Hagana's David Shaltiel had approved the now infamous Deir Yassin operation, but when it went tragically and horribly awry and many innocent people died, Ben-Gurion painted Begin as a violent thug, pretending that his organization had had nothing to do with it. The Hagana was also intimately involved in the approval and planning of the King David bombing (for Ben-Gurion had come to see that Begin was right, that the British needed to be dislodged), but when civilians were killed because the British refused to heed the Irgun's warnings to leave the building, Ben-Gurion assailed Begin, pretending that he and his men had known nothing of the plan.

Ben-Gurion was one of the greatest Jewish leaders ever to have lived, and the Jewish state might well not have come to be were it not for him. But his greatness notwithstanding, he was unfair to Begin-- consistently and mercilessly.

Gordis is correct that Ben-Gurion played a pivotal role in Israel's creation but an honest reading of the historical record shows that it was more important to Ben-Gurion to win his political/ideological struggle with Begin than it was to save Jewish lives and create a Jewish State. The deplorable Altalena Affair, during which Ben-Gurion's forces opened fire on Begin's forces (including Begin himself) on the Altalena ship in the middle of Israel's War of Independence, illustrates the vast difference in character between Begin and Ben-Gurion; Ben-Gurion declared, "Blessed be the cannon that bombed that ship"--a cannon fired at Ben-Gurion's orders and that killed his fellow Jewish freedom fighters, albeit freedom fighters who had different political views than his--but Begin would not permit his forces to fight against fellow Jews. Begin prevented the outbreak of a civil war that could have destroyed the young Jewish State. Shmuel Katz later wrote that Ben-Gurion ordered the attack knowing full well that Begin was aboard the ship because Ben-Gurion wanted to kill Begin, who was a potential rival for leadership of the young state. Remarkably, the two men formed a rapprochement near the end of Ben-Gurion's life. One can question Begin's policies but one can never question that his motives were always pure and that his foremost concern was the safety and well being of the Jewish people--if only the same could be truthfully said of most of the other Israeli Prime Ministers!

In an article titled "Menachem Begin Will Live Again," Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik described the "familial loyalty to the people of Israel" that Begin consistently displayed:

He was the first prime minister to truly bridge the social gap between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Jewish state, famously declaring yehudim anachnu, we are all Jews. It was he who first set in motion the return of the Ethiopian Jews to the land for which they had longed. It was he who left as his last will and testament that he be buried not on Mount Herzl, in the manner of some of his predecessors, but rather on the Mount of Olives, near the graves of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardi, who had died in a British prison in each other's arms, and who together embodied for Begin the bond between all Jews that made the State of Israel possible after two thousand years of Exile. It was he who, unlike any other Israeli leader before him, made the case for the public Jewish character of Israel, drawing not on Jewish law, but on familial love. Honoring the values of Jewish generations past, he told the Knesset, was incumbent on all Israelis who believed in the ethical obligation declared at Sinai: "honor your father and mother." This commandment, he further suggested, was all the more potent when those parents were no longer among the living. Heim einam od, he said, our parents are here no longer. It is we, their children, who must honor the beliefs for which they bled and perished.

Gordis concludes:

Jewish sovereignty did not happen by chance, nor simply through negotiation. It came about through determination, grit, courage and blood. It was wrought not only by Ben-Gurion and those he invited to that memorable afternoon in Tel Aviv when he declared independence, but also, to paraphrase Moses, by "those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day." Despite the venomous animosity that divided them almost all their working lives, Ben-Gurion and Begin were both necessary elements of the creation of a Jewish state. Without either one, Israel might well not have come into being...

...Begin's life had, at its core, an unwavering constant, a guiding principle that shaped everything. It was a life of selfless devotion to his people. That devotion fashioned a life in which determination eradicated fear, hope overcame despondency, love overcame hate, and devotion to both Jews and human beings everywhere coexisted with ease and grace. It was a life of great loyalty--to the people into which he was born, to the woman he loved from the moment he met her, and to the state that he helped create.

That is a legacy infinitely greater than most are able to bequeath. In an era in which many Jews are increasingly dubious about the legitimacy of love for a specific people or devotion to its ancestral homeland, the life and commitments of Begin urge us to look again at what he did and what he stood for, and to imagine--if we dare--the glory of a Jewish people recommitted to the principles that shaped his very being.

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