Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul is a pleasure to read. The author, Daniel Gordis, a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, has a gift for clearly summarizing complex events, including key incidents about which much nonsense has been written.
Begin was born in the Polish town of Brisk in 1913. His most important early influence was his father Ze’ev Dov Begin, a deeply religious man who helped organize Jewish self-defense.
Fatefully, Ze’ev Dov switched Menachem, then age 13, out of what he considered the overly socialist Hashomer Hatzair youth group and into Betar, a competing Zionist youth organization and the brainchild of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky. Gordis notes, correctly, that, “There is no understanding Begin without understanding Jabotinsky.”
Jabotinsky butted heads with the other Zionist leaders, disagreeing with their accommodating policies toward the British, who were backing away from their commitment to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine.
When Begin heard Jabotinsky speak for the first time, he was overwhelmed: “You sit there, down below, and begin to feel in every fiber of your body that you are being lifted up, borne aloft, up, up … Have you been won over? No, more than that. You have been consecrated to the idea, forever.” It was thanks to Begin’s own oratorical skills that he quickly rose in the ranks of Betar.
During WWII, Begin made his way to Palestine and in January 1944 became head of the underground Irgun, or Etzel, as it was also called. Gordis neatly sums up the difference in philosophy of the Etzel and the competing Haganah by the way they opened their radio addresses. For the Haganah, it was: “Thou shall not kill.” For Etzel: “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
It was during this period that Begin earned the right to be considered a founding father of Israel. For without the Etzel, it is unlikely the state would have come into being. It is also here that Gordis shines, offering a fair account of events badly misrepresented at the time and, indeed, still widely misconstrued. These include the King David Hotel bombing, the Altalena affair, and Deir Yassin.
Take the King David Hotel Bombing. Etzel warnings phoned into the hotel were ignored and 92 died. It was a joint operation approved by the Haganah during a period of cooperation between the underground groups. Yet David Ben-Gurion denied any involvement. “Begin assumed full responsibility, an astonishing display of nobility given Ben-Gurion’s obvious mendacity,” Gordis writes.
Deir Yassin followed the same pattern. Etzel fighters took this Arab village as part of an operation approved by Ben-Gurion. The plan went awry as a truck with loudspeakers meant to warn the Arabs became stuck in a tank trap. The Jews came under fire. Five died and 31 were wounded. The number of Arabs killed is contested, but estimates today put it at 107. “The episode was quickly dubbed the ‘Deir Yassin massacre,’ the name that it retains in most accounts to this day,” Gordis observes. Ben-Gurion again denied involvement, and used the opportunity to vilify Begin and Etzel.
The incident that by far puts Ben-Gurion in the worst light is the Altalena Affair. The Altalena was a ship loaded with arms collected by Etzel members in Europe. As it made its way to Palestine, Begin dutifully informed the government led by Ben-Gurion and they agreed to a deal to split the arms. Ben-Gurion, “whose hatred for Begin knew few bounds,” as Gordis writes, reneged.
As the Etzel unloaded the arms, Haganah forces showed up on the beach and demanded they surrender, then opened fire. The Altalena pulled anchor and moved to Tel Aviv. Here the Haganah again opened fire, this time with a cannon, and sunk the ship. Its valuable store of arms—which may have well turned the tide in the battle for Jerusalem—went up in smoke. Begin, who was on the ship, narrowly escaped death.
In a false summary to his Cabinet, Ben-Gurion never mentioned the prior agreement with Etzel, and presented the event as if it were an attempted coup. Ben-Gurion concluded, “Blessed be the cannon that blasted that ship.”
The one subject where Gordis fails to depart from the conventional wisdom, and as a result comes up short, is the treaty with Egypt. Today, there exists an almost universal belief that this was Begin’s greatest achievement. While Gordis avoids waxing lyrical about the treaty, he does not analyze its glaring failings. As Moshe Sharon, who was Begin’s adviser on Arab affairs and took part in the Egypt-Israel negotiations, put it recently, “The peace with Egypt is nothing more than a prolonged armistice with ambassadors.”
Gordis writes of the contrast that President Jimmy Carter and his administration made between Sadat the visionary and Begin the pettifogging legalist. But he fails to point out that, ironically, it was Begin who was the true visionary, determined to create friendly and normal relationships between Israel and Egypt. He was anxious to dot every “i” and cross every “t” to make sure the new era of relations would have a firm legal foundation. Gordis omits all reference to the 50 detailed agreements Egypt signed on everything from joint agricultural research to cultural programs and exchanges, agreements Begin saw as the nuts and bolts of the new era of relations he believed he was establishing.
Sadat had a simple goal: Get back the Sinai “to the last grain of sand.” He did not need to worry about legalistic details because he had no intention of transforming relations. Those 50 agreements (outside of eight, which were published in the 1980s), gather dust in the archives of the Israeli foreign office. Central to Begin was ending the “teaching of contempt.” The promise “to abstain from hostile propaganda” was put into the text of the peace treaty itself. Yet Egypt continued to be a hotbed for inciting hatred for Israel and Jews.
Gordis does point out Carter’s cluelessness about what made Begin tick. “His public protestation of Christian piety notwithstanding, Carter had none of the biblical sensibilities or knowledge that were central to who Begin was,” Gordis says. This ignorance continues today. Kerry blames Israel for the failure in negotiations without any idea of Jewish history, of the difficulties Israel faces, and of the nature of the enmity against it, rooted in Islam and the absolute refusal to accept a Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic world.
Begin’s Jewishness is a running theme in the book. Begin was, the author notes, the “most Jewish of Israel’s prime ministers.”
Begin’s sense of Jewish history accounts for what is otherwise surprising: How he wanted to be remembered. “After my death I hope that I will be remembered, above all, as someone who prevented civil war,” he said.
Here was a man who helped drive the British from Palestine, ordered the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, and signed a treaty with Egypt. What he was saying was that he considered the Altalena affair his finest moment. Recalling the internal wars among Jews at the time of their destruction by the Romans, Begin had resisted the temptation to strike back. Through that supreme act of self-abnegation and self-control, Begin earned the right to be remembered as he wished.
He prevented civil war.