Menachem Begin: A Life

Menachem Begin: A Life, by Avi Shilon, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2012, xii þ 546 pp., ISBN 978-0-300-16235-6

This book is an English translation of Avi Shilon’s biography of Menachem Begin that first appeared in Hebrew in 2007. Although the author is a journalist with academic interests, this popular work is informed and comprehensive – and a far cry from the adulatory hagiographies that appeared in the late 1970s, following Begin’s first election victory. While the author omits references to some important works such as Sasson Sofer’s excellent dissection of Begin’s worldview, and although this biography is clearly different from the academic publications of Arye Naor, Yonathan Shapiro, and Yechiam Weitz, it nonetheless contributes to our understanding of the first Likud Prime Minister.1 In particular, while much has been written about Begin in power after 1977, Shilon provides useful information on topics that have been addressed less extensively such as his life in prewar Poland and in opposition after 1949. Begin’s complex nature, both as a politician and as an individual, is dissected. Indeed Shilon attributes Begin’s highs and lows to a probable bi-polar disorder (p. viii).2 Begin’s father, Ze’ev-Dov, was a Zionist who studied at the yeshiva of the antiZionist Haim Soloveichik in Brest-Litovsk. Moreover he was the head of the local branch of the Marxist-Zionist Hashomer Hatza’ir. Ze’ev-Dov consequently wrote for the Warsaw periodical Haynt. The family was originally well-to-do, but their fortunes took a turn for the worse in the economic crisis of 1924 – yet, for reasons that are not clear, unlike many other Polish Jews they did not decide to emigrate to Palestine, and were therefore not part of the Fourth Aliyah. All of Ze’ev-Dov’s three children joined Betar in 1929 after the Hashomer group in Brest-Litovsk fell apart because of internal disagreements. The killings in Hebron, Safed, and Jerusalem, the illusion of Stalinism, and interwar Polish nationalism all played a catalytic role. Did Begin mirror the move from the left to the right of intellectuals such as Uri Zvi Greenberg and Abba Ahimeir? Probably not – but it is still a question to be answered and one that Shilon passes over. Begin first heard Jabotinsky in 1929 and was forever enthralled.

He enrolled in the Law School of the University of Warsaw in the summer of 1931. Polish nationalism undoubtedly formed a crucial part in Begin’s political evolution. In White Nights, he quotes from Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, in particular Almanzor’s revenge against the Spanish occupiers. Begin also admired and was influenced by Garibaldi and the Risorgimento. Begin delighted in the spectacle of military ritual and discipline within Betar. He quickly imbibed Jabotinsky’s teachings and in a pamphlet, published in 1934, Begin spoke out against the class war and wrote about “red poison” (p. 14). While the author has researched Begin’s life in prewar Poland, he does not mention Begin’s admiration for Abba Ahimeir and the maximalist wing of Jabotinsky’s Revisionists. The maximalists preferred the doctrine of military Zionism – the armed struggle rather than negotiations with perfidious Albion. Betar, they argued, should be the conduit for the Irgun and its members, participants in a national liberation movement. Indeed Begin signed an early maximalist attack on Jabotinsky’s policies in 1933. Moreover, Begin strongly opposed the diplomatic endeavors of the official Revisionists. Ahimeir and many of his supporters identified with Italian fascism before the anti-Jewish laws of 1938. Begin is not known to have been one of them. Begin never referred to himself as a Revisionist, but only as an adherent of “the Jabotinsky movement.” For all this, he idolized and idealized Jabotinsky – for his inspiration, his leadership, and his analysis of the Jewish condition in interwar Europe. Nevertheless there were significant differences between them which were papered over after Jabotinsky’s death in 1940. While Jabotinsky’s teachings were selectively chosen to be handed down to the faithful, the complexity of the real Jabotinsky was lost in the mists of time. Significantly Shilon argues that Jabotinsky delayed in anointing Begin as head of Polish Betar in early 1939 because he deeply disagreed with his position but eventually had to accept the reality that Begin spoke for a majority of its members (p. 21). Shilon paints a sensitive portrait of Begin the man which is credible to the reader. Begin was shy with women and often distanced himself from relationships with individuals. He believed that the nation came before the individual, but that individual freedom was paramount. He was famously keen on ceremony and well known for disengaging from practical solutions to problems. Begin, according to Shilon, psychologically needed an audience to exist, which explained his theatrical manner and the drama of his political proclamations. He was driven by a compulsion to act – isolation was disastrous for him (p. 435). Although he was profoundly interested in ideas, Begin cared little for intellectuals, as Jabotinsky’s adherents discovered in Herut in the early 1950s. They left the movement in droves. He identified the intelligentsia with the left and with an ideological softness. As intellectuals, they asked questions and analyzed opinions and situations. They could therefore answer back – they could respond in kind – an ability that Begin did not care for. Different internal challengers – Hillel Kook, Shmuel Tamir, Ehud Olmert, Ezer Weizmann, and many others all wished to steal the crown, but were themselves either marginalized or expelled. Although the Likud did eventually develop the accoutrements of democratic behavior, Herut was originally a one-man show based on the leader principle. The acceptance of this by his unquestioning followers from the Irgun days until his premiership in the late 1970s was the basis of his power. When occasionally challenged, he brought out emotional blackmail and rhetorical pathos as effective weapons in his political arsenal. He fought an unheard-of nine elections before becoming prime minister in 1977 – probably a record for political longevity in opposition in the democratic world. Begin transformed the Irgun into Herut and it won 14 seats in the first election in January 1949. The official Revisionist party had to dissolve itself after an abysmal electoral showing. With his potential rivals – Jabotinsky, Raziel, Stern – all dead and buried, Begin initially projected himself as the in-touch leader of a militant tendency which would lead Israel in a different direction, an opposition that starkly contrasted with the aspirations of Mapai’s social democrats and Mapam’s Marxists. Begin astutely cultivated other parties, compromising on much except the claim to the West Bank and a Greater Israel. First he courted the Liberals, which resulted in the formation of Gahal in 1965, and then took advantage of the schisms within the Labor Party to attract its dissenters and thereby to establish the Likud in 1973 as a political umbrella for all to shelter under. Labor’s failure in war, indolence in government, and the ignorance of Israeli history amongst first-time voters did the rest. In part the Labor Party had only itself to blame because Mapai as early as 1961 did not follow BenGurion’s advice to include non-socialist parties in government. Instead, an alignment of socialist parties was preferred. Thus the Liberals were cut adrift and became prey for a more restrained, responsible Begin and a sophisticated act of seduction. Begin was ruthless in pursuing his policy of amalgamating with other parties but with Herut at the core and himself at the helm. He was willing to ditch Amihai Paglin, his chief of operations in the Irgun, and Yohanan Bader, his longtime comrade from Poland, to create the space for new allies. He also had his fair share of political luck, from his lack of association with Ahimeir’s pro-Italian sympathies in the 1930s to his decision to resign from Golda Meir’s government in 1970, thus avoiding a share in collective responsibility for the reversals and losses during the Yom Kippur war. Indeed, at the beginning of 1967 Gahal was in imminent danger of disintegration, following the disastrous 1965 election. A few months later, the crisis in the run-up to the Six Day war suddenly ensured that Gahal was in Eshkol’s coalition government.3 Begin was very interested in the flow of modern history and the attempts of the Jews to swim in its current. His references in Knesset speeches to obscure historical events or biblical passages often merit further investigation, which Shilon occasionally carries through. As a traditionalist who was happy to listen to the BBC on Shabbat, he regarded the historical continuum as stretching from the Tanakh to “The Jewish State.” For Begin, Avraham avinu was as real as Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.4 Shilon also explains Begin’s willingness to give up Sinai – since he regarded it as not being part of the Land of Israel – as opposed to his determination to hold on to the West Bank, which, as Judea and Samaria, was indeed part and parcel of the historic Land. On the one hand, this differentiation allowed him to pose as being flexible in making territorial concessions and to create the illusion of giving up the West Bank as well at some point in the future. On the other, it caused concern among the far right and the hard core within Herut that he was becoming ideologically soft in his old age by giving up territory – and that the West Bank would be next. In fact neither perspective was true, but it allowed the astute Begin to play one off against the other. While Shilon’s book covers familiar ground in the period when Begin was in power between 1977 and 1983, it makes an important contribution to understanding Begin’s sojourn in opposition between 1949 and 1967. The stories behind Begin’s “resignation” in 1951 and the march on the Knesset due to the prospect of negotiations with Adenauer’s government over reparations are informative and revelatory. The same applies to Begin’s life after the death of his wife and his dramatic exit from political life in 1983. Shilon is not served well by those who facilitated the transliterations of names and terms into English. Tedi Frois should be Teddy Preuss. Yonatan Ratosh inexplicably becomes Jonathan Ratosh. The mahapakh of the election of 1977 is more conventionally referred to as “the earthquake” rather than as “the great reversal.” Unfortunately there are quite a few such manglings and inconsistencies. Like Jabotinsky, the real Begin has been mythologized – and not only by his loyal followers. During the 1992 election campaign, even Labor supporters spoke reverentially about him – part of the great game to get Yitzhak Rabin elected. So this is a timely, well-rounded account of Begin’s odyssey from Brest-Litovsk to the Prime Minister’s Office – and beyond. It adds color to our understanding of the man behind the public mask.

Journal of Israeli History: Politics, Society, Culture 20 August 2014

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.