Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (Jewish Encounters Series)
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Reviled as a fascist by his great rival Ben-Gurion, venerated by Israel’s underclass, the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one, Menachem Begin was both complex and controversial. Born in Poland in 1913, Begin was a youthful admirer of the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky and soon became a leader within Jabotinsky’s Betar movement. A powerful orator and mesmerizing public figure, Begin was imprisoned by the Soviets in 1940, joined the Free Polish Army in 1942, and arrived in Palestine as a Polish soldier shortly thereafter. Joining the underground paramilitary Irgun in 1943, he achieved instant notoriety for the organization’s bombings of British military installations and other violent acts.
Intentionally left out of the new Israeli government, Begin’s right-leaning Herut political party became a fixture of the opposition to the Labor-dominated governments of Ben-Gurion and his successors, until the surprising parliamentary victory of his political coalition in 1977 made him prime minister. Welcoming Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel and cosigning a peace treaty with him on the White House lawn in 1979, Begin accomplished what his predecessors could not. His outreach to Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese “boat people” was universally admired, and his decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 is now regarded as an act of courageous foresight. But the disastrous invasion of Lebanon to end the PLO’s shelling of Israel’s northern cities, combined with his declining health and the death of his wife, led Begin to resign in 1983. He spent the next nine years in virtual seclusion, until his death in 1992. Begin was buried not alongside Israel’s prime ministers, but alongside the Irgun comrades who died in the struggle to create the Jewish national home to which he had devoted his life. Daniel Gordis’s perceptive biography gives us new insight into a remarkable political figure whose influence continues to be felt both within Israel and throughout the world.
This title is part of the Jewish Encounters series.
values for my brothers and me. The three of us were raised in a home rich in Jewish tradition and learning, passionately committed to the Jewish people and to Israel. We spent years in Israel as children, learned to speak the language and to love the land; the fact that Elisheva, our children, and I all live in Israel is thanks in no small measure to the home in which my parents raised us. That they have now joined us in making Jerusalem their home is a fulfillment of their lifelong devotion to
the east and south at approximately 4:30 in the morning, and were immediately targeted by sniper fire from villagers’ homes. A firefight unfolded. Meanwhile, the Lechi truck, driving toward Deir Yassin, got caught in a homemade tank trap and could not get as close to the village as planned. Its loudspeakers blared: “You are being attacked by superior forces … The west exit of Deir Yassin leading to Ein Karim is open for you! Run immediately! Don’t hesitate! Our troops are advancing! Run toward
Henry Kissinger, whose Jewishness was, according to Yehuda Avner, a “source of neurosis,”15 was regularly subjected to Nixon’s anti-Semitic rants. A man who called Israel’s leaders “a sick bunch” and “the world’s worst shits”16 (and who, in the Richard Nixon tapes released in 2010, can be heard advising the president that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern”),17 Kissinger was hardly going to be an advocate for rapid, decisive American support for
Instead, he donned a kippah and recited the Shehechiyanu. Israelis had never witnessed such an act by a high-ranking politician. Ben-Gurion had not even donned a kippah during the Declaration of the State in 1948. Outside Israel, leaders were in shock. In the United Kingdom, Begin remained deeply unpopular. (Even Margaret Thatcher, who was generally positively inclined toward the Jewish state, would later describe Begin as the “most difficult man” with whom she had had to work.39) In the United
national telecast on May 1, 1979, he said, “I am not at liberty to go into details, but I can tell you that we are working in order to bring them all to the land of Israel, and we shall persist in our efforts. We shall not rest, we shall not be silent until all the Jews—both in Syria and in Ethiopia—are with us in our land.” Interestingly, in that same speech, he spoke to Syrian Jews, as well, acknowledging that they, too, were waiting to be rescued by Israel: “I can tell you, my friends, that