The lessons Menachem Begin left us

As Israel prepares for a change in leadership, a new documentary film on one of the country’s founding fathers is a reminder of what his successors can learn from him.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin delivering a speech at the White House in July 1977. Credit: Sa'ar Ya'acov/GPO.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin delivering a speech at the White House in July 1977. Credit: Sa'ar Ya'acov/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The release of a new documentary film about one of Israel’s past prime ministers wasn’t timed to coincide with a historic change in power in Jerusalem. But the coincidence adds to the timeliness of Jonathan Gruber’s “Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin,” which became available this week via virtual theaters for home viewing.

Partisans and detractors of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the duo that will be replacing him—Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid—can no doubt use Begin’s example as ammunition to praise or snipe at the current generation of Israeli leadership. But tempting as that might be, such an exercise is pointless. Much as was the case with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion—Begin’s bitter rival—there is no comparison between the founding generation of Israeli leaders and those who came after them.

In part, that is because both Ben-Gurion and Begin were larger-than-life characters whose life stories were epic journeys that illustrated the history of the Jewish people in the 20th century. But it is also a product of the times. Only one person could, as Ben-Gurion did, found the first sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel in 2,000 years and help it survive a turbulent infancy. And only one person could be, as Begin was, the one responsible for helping Israel take the first steps beyond that infancy of ceaseless strife not only to make peace with its most formidable opponent but also help bring the country together in ways that Ben-Gurion did not.

As historian Daniel Gordis has pointed out in his 2014 biography, what makes Begin so important is the way he embraced Jewish tradition in a way that Ben-Gurion and the Israeli left, who had done so much to build Israel, never could. Rather than transcending the Jewish past, Begin sought to preserve it and the memory of the Holocaust, while also playing a pivotal role in both helping Israel gain independence and then ultimately leading it in a new direction.

A man of profound contradictions, he is associated with great violence as well as peace. He was a much-admired orator and public figure who belatedly reached the pinnacle of success, but also someone vulnerable to deep depression who spent the last years of his life in seclusion after suffering both political and personal losses.

Gruber, a veteran documentarian who has done a number of Jewish and Israeli-themed films, including a particularly poignant one about the life of Entebbe rescuer Yonatan Netanyahu, has given us a largely sympathetic portrait of Begin.

Utilizing archive footage and interviews with those who knew Begin, like Hart Hasten, as well as contemporary commentators such as Gordis, former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and former ambassadors Michael Oren and Ron Dermer, Gruber does a good job of giving his audience a bare outline of his subject’s life and its place in Jewish and Israeli history. But to his credit, he does not ignore the more troubling incidents associated with his career. The result is a film that while unabashedly adulatory still manages to avoid the perils of hagiography.

Born in Poland in 1913, Begin was raised as a traditional Jew but also a devout Zionist. As a young man, he was “conquered” by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist movement that is the ideological ancestor of today’s Likud Party, and became a leader in its Betar youth movement. Jabotinsky’s philosophy combined a strong belief in Jewish self-defense and the need for a Jewish state that would be a liberal haven, and guided Begin the rest of his life.

In Poland, when that country was invaded by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939, Begin wound up being arrested and imprisoned by the latter for the “crime” of being a Zionist. If not for Adolf Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, Begin might have died in the Gulag Archipelago to which he was sentenced. Once the Soviets united with the Allies, he was released, joined the Polish “Anders’ Army” and made his way to British-ruled Palestine, where he soon became the commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the right-wing Zionist resistance movement.

Begin (top center) with his parents, his sister Rachel, and his brother Herzl in Poland, 1932. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It was at this point in his life that the decades-long duel with Ben-Gurion began. In the years preceding Israel’s independence in 1948, Begin led a revolt against the British, who were determined to avoid making good on the promise they had made of establishing a Jewish homeland in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. This put him in conflict with Ben-Gurion and the Jewish establishment in Palestine—and its Haganah defense force—that wavered between accommodation with the British and resistance.

One episode skipped by the film is the way Begin refused to let the Irgun retaliate against the Haganah when it betrayed members of the resistance to the British, thereby avoiding a civil war that might have made independence impossible. He would stick to the same rule in 1948 when Ben-Gurion ordered the fledgling Israel Defense Forces to fire on the Irgun ship Altalena, which was carrying arms and immigrants to Israel, weeks after independence was declared. Ben-Gurion and his Labor Party represented this deplorable action as a defense of democracy; however, it was really an attempt to discredit a future political opponent, who, through the Irgun’s efforts, had played a major role in convincing the British to give up the struggle. Yet, as he did before, Begin refused to let his followers fire back and again prioritized Jewish unity.

After the War of Independence, Begin became the leader of the country’s democratic opposition to Labor, a role in which he would languish for 29 long years.

During this period, he repeatedly clashed with Ben-Gurion, most memorably over the question of accepting reparations from Germany. The film adequately represents the two positions, and both men were essentially right. Begin was correct to be offended at the notion that Germany could buy re-entry to the civilized world by paying blood money for the millions of Jews it had murdered. And yet Israel needed the money in its first years as a poverty-stricken country attempting to first resettle hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and then another 800,000 Jews who were forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim worlds after 1948. Ben-Gurion was also right to think that those who murdered and robbed Jews should help pay for this.

Left out of the film is the fact that Begin actually incited a march on the Knesset that led to a riot.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a Joint Session of Congress when U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords, Sept. 18, 1978. Credit: Warren K. Leffler of U.S. News & World Report, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

That incident aside, Begin’s principled parliamentary actions did, as the film asserts and in contradiction to the Labor slur that he was a “fascist,” help ensure that Israel remained a democracy.

Just as important, it was Begin’s outreach to Mizrachi Jews left out and discriminated against by the Labor establishment that helped unify Israel. He was a believer in Jewish multiculturalism and respect for all Jews, as well as someone who had a strong respect for the rights of Israeli Arabs. And it was support from Middle Eastern Jews that, along with Labor corruption and incompetence, created the mahapach or “upheaval” of the film’s title when, in 1977, Begin was finally elected prime minister.

Once in power, Begin stuck to his belief in Jewish nationalism and that Jews should bend their knees to no one but God. That led him to establish what is now known as the “Begin doctrine,” in which Israel reserves the right to take action to forestall threats against its existence. Deeply influenced by the memory of the Holocaust in which he had lost most of his family, Prime Minister Begin would not shy away from flexing Israel’s military power to that end with the 1981 airstrike against Iraq’s nuclear facility being the most important of such actions.

To the chagrin of his opponents, he was also the man who was able to sign Israel’s first peace deal after Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat accepted his invitation to come to Jerusalem. It’s not clear that anyone else, and certainly no one without Begin’s credibility on security issues, would have been strong enough to withdraw completely from the Sinai in order to secure that peace deal. Though many thought it would not last, that pact, which has in recent years become warmer after decades of “cold” peace, is the foundation of Israel’s security equation.

That the man of peace was also the man who accelerated Israel’s efforts to secure Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which Begin rightly referred to as “Judea and Samaria,” was a puzzle to his opponents. But a belief that peace was vital was not a contradiction of his belief that the Jewish state must both defend itself and its rights to the heart of its ancient homeland. As Jabotinsky taught, peace will only come when the Arabs are reconciled to the irreversibility of Zionism.

Begin’s last years were marked by tragedy because he took to heart his responsibility for the country’s blunders in the 1982 Lebanon War, even if those mistakes were largely those of his Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Grief for the many soldiers lost in that war, along with that for his wife, Aliza, who died in 1982, was Begin’s undoing. He resigned the following year, leaving the political stage entirely and living in seclusion until his death in 1992.

Where does that leave his legacy today?

Deeply controversial in his own lifetime, Begin’s modest lifestyle and principled politics, coupled with his punctilious observance of both political and legal norms, now not only looks good in retrospect but inspires admiration from even those who are on the left.

Menachem Begin addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in September 1978. Credit: Milner Moshe/GPO.

As “Upheaval” is at pains to point out, at a time of rising anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel, Begin’s brand of stiff-necked Jewish identity and belief in assertive self-defense also makes more sense than ever.

Moreover, his embrace of traditional Jewish beliefs and emphasis on uniting all branches of the Jewish people is equally relevant, especially in Diaspora communities like the United States, where the faith in Jewish peoplehood is on the decline.

Both outgoing and incoming Israeli leaders can learn a lot not only from his life but, as the film points out, from his death as well.

Rather than choosing to be buried among Israel’s great heroes on Mount Herzl, Begin chose the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. While his constant refrain that he was just “a simple Jew” was always somewhat disingenuous since he was such a complex person, the modesty of his request and his manner of living stands as an example of selfless leadership. Begin thought of himself as a servant of a Jewish people, whose history, faith and diverse communities deserved respect. Moreover, he was not burdened with the notion that he was an indispensable man for whom rules and political principles were flexible and could be broken with impunity. That’s a lesson that all politicians should heed.

As such, Gruber’s film stands as a timely reminder of a style of leadership that is—regardless of one’s ideological leanings—exactly what all democracies need in turbulent times.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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