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The Early Years of Menachem Begin

I am going to share some insights from the 2014 book by Daniel Gordis: “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.”

As we all know, Begin became Prime Minister in 1977, after being in the opposition for 28 years. He met with President Carter and Anwar Sadat at Camp David for 13 days in Sept. of 1978, resulting in a peace treaty with Egypt. In 1981, he ordered the bombing that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

(Gordis’ book begins with the story that he is on his honeymoon in Hawaii and peeked at a local paper. The headline: “Israel Bombs Iraqi Nuclear Reactor.” He and wife laughed out loud, thinking: People in Hawaii will believe anything! Then they went to their room and were shocked to see it on CNN!)


Begin was born in Brisk, Poland, on Aug. 16, 1913, four days after Tisha B’Av. Because the upcoming parsha was Shabbat Nachamu, his parents named him Menachem. He had an older sister Rachel and an older brother Herzl (named after Theodor).

World War I started in the summer of 1914 and Menachem did not have a normal first few years. His sister said: “Menachem was born into Gone with the Wind! The war tore everything apart… He did not have a childhood like me or my brother…”

Begin’s father had studied in R. Chaim Soloveitchik’s yeshiva, while also being in the wood business. He knew Tanach by heart. But Gordis writes that his father “carved out his own, unique way of religious life—reverence coupled with iconoclasm… Ignoring the traditional Yom Kippur prohibition, for example, Ze’ev Dov instructed his children to brush their teeth before prayer because they were, after all, speaking to God.” When Rachel needed to sign a form at the university on Shabbat, he told her: “Knowledge is like a matter of life and death. So sign.”

Begin’s father idealized Theodor Herzl. In 1904 his father broke down the door of R. Soloveitchik’s shul to conduct a memorial service for Herzl, despite R. Chaim’s insistence that no service be held. (The religious leadership in Brisk did not support Zionism.) Assisting Begin’s father was his friend Mordechai Scheinermann, grandfather of Ariel Sharon.

To illustrate Begin’s traditional background, Gordis points out that Begin never changed his name. Moreover, when testifying before a Knesset committee and asked to state his name, he answered: Menachem ben Dov ve-Chasia Begin.” This answer reflected his traditional Jewish upbringing.

At age 13, in 1926, he joined Betar, the movement headed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. (Prior to that, he and his siblings had been members of Hashomer Hatzair, but Begin’s father decided to switch them from that movement, headed toward socialism, to the more nationalistic one.)

Around the time of his high school graduation, he heard Jabotinsky speak for the first time: “You sit there…and begin to feel in every fiber of your body that you are being lifted up… Have you been won over? No, more than that. You have been consecrated to the ideal, forever.”

In 1939, Begin became the leader of Betar’s Poland division, in charge of all 70,000 members in the country. He met his wife Aliza in 1937 when he stayed with her family after a speech he delivered at the local Betar. They were married in May 1939, both wearing Betar uniforms.

(After his election in 1977, he thanked Aliza. He cited Jer. 2:2 where the prophet referred to Israel’s “ahavat kelulotayich,” following after God in the wilderness in a land that was “lo zeruah” (=not sown). Begin changed it to “a land sown with land mines”!)

In Sept. 1940 he was arrested by the KGB for his Betar work. At the labor camp, he received a message that Aliza went to Eretz Yisrael, and would await him. He was released from the labor camp in Sept. 1941. At some point it was suggested to him that the best way to get to Eretz Yisrael was to join the Polish army, which was dedicated to fighting the Germans in all regions, so he joined.

He arrived in Eretz Yisrael in his Polish army uniform in the spring of 1942, and was able to find Aliza. But he had made a commitment to that army, so he stayed with them for two years, all the while building relations with the Etzel military group and Betar cells in Israel.

He eventually learned what happened to his family (p. 35): “Five hundred Jews were led one day to the banks of the Bug River near Brisk… My father was among them. He started to sing the “song of faith” on the way: “I believe with unbroken faith in the coming of the Messiah.” He also called on the [others] to sing Hatikvah. Everybody sang. The Germans pushed them into the river and opened fire on them. The Bug River reddened with the blood of Jews… My mother was hidden in the hospital by a doctor-friend… One day all the sick were taken from their bed and slaughtered. My mother was among them.” (His older brother was murdered with his father.) But see also p. 258.

Gordis writes: “The Nazis had erased virtually his entire family. What had happened to his father and brother, and then to his mother, no less than the ideas of the Herzl for whom his brother had been named, would shape virtually everything he would do for the rest of his life.”


On Jan. 26, 1944, he received a letter of discharge from the Polish army, and on that same day he announced his acceptance of the post of commander of Etzel.

Five days later he announced the beginning of Etzel’s armed struggle against the British in Palestine:

“The rulers of our land…are still moving forward with their plan: the elimination of national Zionism… No more cease-fire in the land of Israel between the people and the Hebrew youth and the British administration, which hands over our brothers to Hitler.”

Gordis explains: “The decision to cooperate with the British during the war had been taken before the knowledge of the full horror of the Nazi genocide had reached Israel; now that ‘the blood of our people cried out to us from the foreign soil on which it had been shed,’ and the British continued to keep Palestine’s gates shut, Begin felt that the time had come to break the alliance.” (Begin was alluding to Gen. 4:10.)

During those four years of his subsequent military activities against the British (e.g., bombing of the British headquarters at the King David, lashes to many British military officials), he had to go into hiding. First he pretended to be a “Rabbi Sassover” in Tel Aviv. Then he found someone’s passport and became the clean-shaven Dr. Yonah Koenigshoffer.

He did not come out of hiding until April of 1948 when the British finally agreed that they would be leaving. On May 10 he announced his new political party: Herut. When Ben-Gurion and other leaders gathered in Tel Aviv on May 14 for the declaration of the State, he was not invited.

Gordis concludes: “Yes, Ben-Gurion had accepted partition and declared statehood at precisely the right moment. Without him, Israel might not be. But getting the British to leave was more Begin’s accomplishment than Ben-Gurion’s… [I]t was the combination of the approaches of Ben-Gurion and Begin that led to the departure of the British and the creation of the Jewish state.”


There was a time when Begin had open houses on Shabbat afternoons at the Prime Minister’s residence. I was one of the thousands who came and shook his hand in the summer of 1978.

By Mitchell First

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