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Jewish Leaders Bookshelf: Remembering Menachem Begin

Reviewing: “Menachem Begin: A Life” by Avi Shilon. Yale University Press; First Edition. 2012. English. Hardcover. 584 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0300162356.

Shavuot, 1981, decades before the advent of cell phones.

I was in yeshiva in Yerushalayim, bleary-eyed, having stayed up all night to learn and daven. My fellow talmidim and I were waiting to make kiddush. And suddenly—how did anyone hear of it in the pre-technology era?—word came that Israel, under the direction of its bold and controversial leader, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, had successfully destroyed the Osirak nuclear weapons facility in Iraq in a stealth mission.

Back then, Iraq, not Iran, was seen as the existential threat to Israel. Begin’s masterstroke was greeted, in our yeshiva and throughout the Jewish world, as an outrageous act of courage and self-preservation. The rest of the world called it a political stunt and even an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Nobody ever said that Begin was universally loved. But no one ever doubted that if he felt the need to act, he would act, regardless of what the world might say.

Looking back on that moment four decades later, the question arises: What’s the difference between a statesman or leader on the one hand and a politician on the other?

Here’s my answer: a politician is true to his own needs, ensuring that he continues to get reelected, no matter what the cost. A moral compass is a questionable and often expendable accessory.

A statesman, by contrast, is someone who knows exactly where he wants to take his nation, and is willing to bear the slings and arrows of indifference, or even outright hatred, in the name of doing what he knows is best.

Begin, for all of his faults—he could be obstinate, he could hector American presidents instead of trying to get along with them—was exactly that kind of man. He knew what he wanted to achieve, which was to ensure a strong and secure State of Israel, and that vision never wavered during the decades he was out of power or in the years when he ran the show.

The best way to get to know Menachem Begin is to read Yale University Press’ recent English translation of “Menachem Begin: A Life” by Avi Shilon, translated by Danielle Zilberberg and Yoram Sharett. Shilon’s Begin is a complex, multi-faceted individual scarred by his Eastern European childhood, mired as it was in antisemitism, and committed to the idea that the Holocaust never be allowed to recur.

During World War II, Shilon relates, Begin laid low in Tel Aviv, a fugitive in the eyes of the British but just a colorless, unassuming figure in his neighborhood who, within a few short years, would drive the British out of what was then Palestine.

Begin was famously, or infamously, responsible for the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in downtown Jerusalem, which killed almost 100 and played a major role in the departure of the British from the Holy Land.

In the first decades of Israel’s existence, the liberal parties were in ascendance and Begin was a part of a vocal conservative minority, stressing security over the belief, nonsensical to him, that peace could be achieved with the Arabs while Israel’s borders were so small.

When he became Prime Minister in Israel five years after the disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War, Begin would stand up to American presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, often lecturing them on Jewish history and survival.

A surprised Reagan would be looking up from his index cards with bullet points outlined, expecting nods and diplomatic smiles, clearly wondering, who is this guy?

One of Begin’s shortcomings was that he possessed perhaps too much admiration for the military, not just Israel’s but any military. This stems from his childhood, where the Polish Army was a source of pride to the young man.

Begin’s over-estimation of the abilities and intelligence of the military may have been a factor in leading him into perhaps his greatest blunder, allowing Ariel Sharon to extend the 1982 Lebanon War and turn it into what many call Israel’s Vietnam.

Would Israel be safe and secure within its borders today had there been no Menachem Begin? It’s a fair question. The one thing we know for certain is that Begin was a true Jewish leader—an individual for whom personal and political calculations came second to the mission, which was securing Israel’s safety at a time when that safety was far from certain.

These days, Israel’s government is in shambles, changing leaders with the frequency of post-war Italy. There are no Begins on the horizon, no individuals who put love of nation above polling data. But that’s normal life. You can always find a politician. But a statesman, or a stateswoman? Rare birds.

And while Begin may have been laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in his beloved Jerusalem several decades ago, his courage, his vision and, yes, even his obstinacy, should never be forgotten.


New York Times bestselling author Michael Levin, a JewishLink columnist, is Publisher at JewishLeadersBooks.com, America’s leading destination for independently published Jewish memoirs and business books.

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