by daniel gordis
?schocken, 295 pages, $27.95
In 1981, at the height of his last tumultuous campaign, Menachem Begin was accused of bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor for electoral advantage. Begin reacted with outrage: “You have known me for forty years. . . . Would I, for the sake of elections, send young Jewish men toward certain death, or into captivity, which is worse than death?”
Begin’s fundamental integrity was indeed beyond question, but the man himself was less well known than this question, and his long public career, would suggest. He was itinerant and at times clandestine in the first half of his life. For the next thirty years, he was generally a charismatic has been, a perpetual opposition leader. Even after his election as prime minister, the biographical attention he aroused was highly partisan and consequently shallow and incurious. When he retired two years later, the most reliable account of his life available may have been his own early memoirs, which says something about his honesty but even more about the failure of elites to take him seriously.
Over the past three decades, Israeli scholarship has slowly begun to fill in the gaps in Begin’s life and to provide equal time to the movement he led. Daniel Gordis clearly admires Begin. Nonetheless, his is the first biography that allows the unbiased English reader to size up his remarkable subject.
Begin came of age in the 1930s as a disciple of the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, from whom he learned a nineteenth-century synthesis of liberalism and nationalism. Unlike his mentor, Begin grew up Jewishly literate. He valued religious practice as an integral part of Jewish national culture and never saw reason to look down on devout Jews or to dissociate himself from the rhythms and habits characteristic of traditional Jewish culture. By the late 1930s, Begin, as leader of the Revisionist youth movement in Poland, rejected the pro-English orientation of Jabotinsky and urged armed rebellion against the British mandate.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets sentenced Begin to eight years in Siberia for the crime of Zionism. His family was murdered by the Nazis. Improbably arriving in Palestine with the Free Polish army, Begin took command of the militant Zionist group Irgun and proclaimed revolt. During these underground years, he was at times able to coordinate the Irgun’s activities with those of the more mainstream Zionist group Hagana. At other times, the Hagana withdrew and aided the British hunt for “dissident” Irgun fighters.
The two groups jointly planned the 1946 Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel, the British military and administrative headquarters (which was preceded by several telephone warnings to evacuate the building). Afterward, the bombing was condemned by the socialists who controlled the Hagana. Fellow Jews further demonized the Irgun as terrorists after an attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassin, again coordinated with another organization, turned into a massacre when villagers didn’t hear, or ignored, prior warnings.
The conflict within the Jewish community reached its apex in June 1948, after the Arab invasion that followed independence, when the Irgun boat Altalena attempted to unload a large shipment of arms. With emotions running high and communications garbled, the newly formed Israeli government bombarded and sank the boat, with Begin on board. Then, as during the earlier “hunting seasons,” he ordered his adherents not to react against their fellow Jews. During Begin’s long years of opposition to the Ben-Gurion government, the incident became the subject of bitter debates, with the prime minister implying that the weapons were intended not for Israeli defense but for a military coup.
It was in 1952 that Begin came closest to giving substance to these accusations. The Israeli government proposed to negotiate with West Germany for reparations covering the destruction of Jewish property by the Nazi regime. On the eve of the parliamentary vote, Begin became the spokesman of the anti-reparations camp. (His previous criticism, unmentioned by Gordis, was about the amount rather than the principle of payment itself.) He would return to the underground, he threatened, rather than acquiesce in the shame of Israel accepting money for Jewish suffering. He then proceeded to the Knesset building to repeat the same argument while his inflamed hearers rioted outside. Though Begin never acted on his threats, this affair made it easier for Ben-Gurion to vilify his adversary. Begin and his party were systematically excluded as partners in coalition-building. Under a centralized statist economy, they also faced discrimination in employment, pensions, and housing. This undemocratic and often brutal repression was gradually lifted only after Ben-Gurion’s withdrawal from the premiership in 1963.
The rest of Begin’s story is better knownhis inclusion and statesmanship in the National Unity government of 1967, voters’ growing disillusion with the Labor hegemony, his massive heart attack on the eve of his elevation to government in 1977, and the many physical setbacks that eventually made it impossible for him to continue. Also better known are the international highlights and low points of his tenure: the peace treaty with Egypt, the first tentative steps toward a free-enterprise economy, the elimination of the Iraqi nuclear threat, the costly and eventually futile Lebanese invasion that led to his resignation, and eight years as a widowed recluse.
Gordis’s biography is subtitled “the battle for Israel’s soul,” implying that Begin embodied a vision that continues to vie with an alternative one. In that contest, there are two main points of contention. One is the question of Israel’s place among the nations. Begin understood that the world is a messy place in which the use of force is sometimes necessary for survival, and Gordis sees Begin’s view as more sophisticated than that of his adversaries. Regarding the 1940s, Gordis assumes that the establishment of a Jewish state, rather than a prolongation of British rule, was necessary and that the Irgun’s insurgency was essential in bringing it about.
One may concur with Gordis on both counts without concluding that Begin’s opponents were less sophisticated than he. Surely men such as Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin were not given to naive optimism about Israel’s situation. It is telling that after Ben-Gurion’s retirement, many if not most of his adherents who appreciated shrewd, decisive leadership gravitated to Begin’s camp.
Where Begin differed from them was in his greater readiness to take risks, his imperviousness to condemnation, and the emphasis he placed on political rhetoric and symbolism. These made him a dramatic figure and served him well when, with small manpower, he stood up to the British empire, when he welcomed Sadat to Jerusalem, and when he acted to stop Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. But when he invaded Lebanon, he badly underestimated the messiness of the region while overestimating the ability of well-intentioned leaders to predict the results of military action and to control their subordinates. Presumably, then, Gordis’s remarks about Begin’s sophistication and realism are meant to contrast him with bien-pensant critics of Israeli power and not with his political peers.
The other component of Begin’s ideological bid for Israel’s soul was his refusal to distance himself from his own Jewishness. Labor Zionism was not culturally monolithic, but its most forceful and imperious members resented the piety and powerlessness in their Jewish backgrounds. They strove to create an Israeli identity that grounded itself in the topography of the Bible and the ethos of Joshua and Isaiah rather than in the religious and legal rigors of Talmudic Judaism, which they associated with the shame of exile. Often they attempted to recast elements of Jewish tradition, such as the Passover seder, to conform to secular socialist or nationalist ideologies. In the name of nation-building, they boosted “good human material” and deplored its opposite: Agricultural settlement was progressive, petit-bourgeois occupations were not; European Jews were good, while Jews from Muslim countries were “primitive.” There was pressure to symbolize the discontinuity between old Judaism and the new Israeli man by exchanging European names for Hebrew ones: Ben-Gurion (born Green) personally selected the surname Sharon for the impressive young officer Ariel Scheinerman.
Begin did not change his name, nor did he disdain the faith and lifestyle of his exilic forebears. Except for his impulse toward assertive self-defense, he had no quarrel with the Jewish past. The Orthodox and, even more so, the almost 50 percent of Israel’s population that fled persecution in Arab countries recognized in him, despite his middle-class Polish mannerisms, their voice and their champion. These are the people who finally brought him to power; these are the people who still cherish his memory.
In the battle for Israel’s soul, the once dominant ideology of transformative socialism is defunct. Meanwhile, a beleaguered militant nationalism, obsessed with survival, lacks positive human contentwhether it portrays itself in secularist terms, as was the case with some of Begin’s right-wing colleagues whom he laboriously sidelined, or arrays itself in messianic fervor. Against these alternatives, Gordis extols Begin as a model of proud, assertive, yet humane Judaism.
It rightly matters for Gordis that Begin’s self-image as a Jewish nationalist, while militant, contained strong elements of universal concern. He makes much of Begin’s first act as prime minister, inviting a hundred Vietnamese refugees to settle in Israel, and of his efforts to rescue Ethiopian Jewry. For Gordis, these good intentions translate into generous and humane gestures that counterbalance the harsh exigencies of survival under difficult circumstances.
How is Begin’s mixture of ethical grandeur, Jewish warmth, and hard political calculation to be transmitted in the absence of thorough Jewish education and normative commitment? On one page, Gordis lauds Begin’s father for telling his daughter to write on the Sabbath because getting an education, in his opinion, was a matter of life and death and justified violating the sanctity of the day. On the next, Gordis praises the future prime minister for refusing to take an exam on the Sabbath. Both actions, it would seem, exhibit the proud Jewish spirit. But does a Jewishness anchored in gestures of self-respect rather than in religious obedience amount to anything more than a magnificent aesthetic performance?
I am sometimes tempted to compare Begin to the Irish leader Éamon de Valera. Both men gained their first renown as resourceful anti-British rebels and then devoted many decades to the art of political leadership while continuing to identify with old underground comrades. Both were noted for their legalistic bent and austere stubbornness in negotiation, and both placed great faith in the power of rhetoric. Both skillfully controlled their party machinery and cultivated relations with the representatives of organized religion. Both were populists whose penchant for an old-fashioned formality was foreign and yet paradoxically attractive to the multitudes who cheered them.
But then the differences: Under enormous provocation, Begin averted a civil war; de Valera did not. When, in 1940, de Valera was offered the chance of achieving the unity of Ireland, he chose not to undertake the venture. Begin knew that a treaty with Egypt posed great risks and would alienate many of his most loyal supporters, but he seized the opportunity.
Begin’s stature owes much to these two courageous and responsible achievements. The first required the courage of self-control, the other the courage to face the unforeseen. Yet the limits of his vision, his reliance on subordinates, and, in the end, his sheer physical exhaustion make Begin’s story not only heroic but also hauntingly tragic.
Shalom Carmy is co-chair of the Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.