June 22, 2024
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New Documentary Highlights Menachem Begin’s Legacy

Reviewing: “Upheaval,” directed by Jonathan Gruber. At-home cinema release by Abramorama. 2021. 87 Minutes. Available for purchase at www.upheavalfilm.com/watch.

A new documentary highlights the life and times of Menachem Begin (1913-1992), Israel’s sixth prime minister. In “Upheaval,” filmmaker Jonathan Gruber presents a fully realized picture of a man who will no doubt go down in history as one of the most important Jewish leaders.

Gruber made a bold decision to begin the film with newsreel footage of modern antisemitism. From harassment on the streets of Paris to the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting, and even the recent Chanukah stabbing in Monsey, viewers are greeted with the stark reminder of the ever-present hatred of Jews. Immediately after are sound clips of Begin talking about Jewish determination and the need for Jews to defend themselves. “Brace yourselves and strengthen your spirits,” he shouts in Hebrew. “Nobody is going to bring Israel to her knees … the Jews do not kneel, but to God.”

This is definitely the prevailing theme throughout the documentary—how Begin, who left office in 1983, still speaks to our current moment in time. “He believed in the need for Jews to seize their own future,” said former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, who appears in the film.

“Upheaval” is an even-handed movie, taking an impressively unbiased approach to covering a figure many in the mainstream view as controversial. The documentary is a study in nuance, as was Begin.

“As we see in society today, the gray is often erased in favor of more partisan and oversimplified stances,” said Gruber. “Begin fiercely advocated for Arab Israeli citizenship, but was deemed a radical right-winger for his role in fighting for Israel’s independence as well as expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He elevated North African and Middle Eastern Jews in Israeli society, helping to counter the discrimination they were facing, and he also oversaw the rescue of Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese refugees, welcoming them as immigrants. He sought and achieved peace with Egypt—but also led a tragic and unsuccessful war in Lebanon.”

Possibly the most arresting moment in the film is a segment that asks random Israelis their thoughts on the man. Everyone among the diverse faces has something nice to say. “People are looking back and missing him,” said a lady on the beach. “He is very different from my political views, but I think he is one of the greatest leaders that Israel ever had,” remarked a tattooed shuk bartender.

Although the movie features many talking heads, including journalist Lahav Harkov Hart, Senator Joseph Lieberman, activist Avital Sharansky and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the story is narrated by Begin himself through the use of archival recordings. Presenting Begin’s story in his own words is a clever tactic. We hear him talk about his upbringing in Europe; his time in the Soviet gulag and then as leader of the Irgun militia; and what he learned from Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

The personal anecdotes are very interesting, especially the ones relating to Begin’s loving relationship with his wife, Aliza, but the film really shines when politics and history are discussed. Even Israel buffs will learn something.

There are really fascinating tidbits here, including the many fake identities Begin had to take on when he was wanted by the British; the way in which the Holocaust shaped him; Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s personal vendetta against him; an extended discussion on how a historic peace deal with Egypt was achieved despite President Carter’s complicated influence; and a firsthand account from Begin’s secretary about the night Likud was victorious after decades of being the opposition.

Begin continues to shape Israeli politics and culture, not just with his party’s continued dominance, but also on a personal level. In a touching moment, Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold a seat in the Knesset, speaks about how Begin made her immigrant family feel welcome in the country and how much that inspired her.

In a time where anti-Israel media run rampant, this powerful documentary is certainly refreshing. I’d recommend renting “Upheaval” as soon as you can.


Elazar Abrahams is an intern at The Jewish Link and the incoming student council president of Yeshiva University’s men’s campus.

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