עברי, גם באוני, בן-שר”
“Every Jew, even in poverty, is a prince.”
It’s difficult to render the Hebrew word hadar (הדר) into English. The closest approximation would be an amalgam of dignity, honor, pride, strength, courage, splendor, and distinguished beauty. The character of a person, or of a people, that sustains and inspires. An intense, irreducible spirit that survives destruction, that perseveres in hardship, that draws strength from adversity.
No human being embodied this spirit better than Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister and, to date, its most eloquent and effective exponent of bold, proud, vibrant Jewish action. Begin lived a life of hadar in every personal, professional, and political sense, never losing faith—even, many times, in the face of despair—that Jewish honor would ultimately triumph.
And nobody promoted this concept better than Begin, endlessly expostulating on Jewish dignity, immersing his political and policy decisions in matters of pride and honor, inspiring countless Jews and gentiles with his notions of integrity and righteousness. Mostly for better, but occasionally for worse, Begin’s deep-seated belief in (some might say obsession with) hadar shaped his every move and inflected his every utterance.
Begin, of course, did not originate this concept, or even its modern incarnation. The term hadar appears throughout the Jewish Bible and rabbinic texts, but Ze’ev Jabotinsky is most responsible for its contemporary revival. The anthem of Betar—the Zionist movement Jabotinsky founded, which Begin would later command and lead out of the Israeli electoral wilderness—singles out hadar as the hallmark of even the most oppressed and impoverished among the Jews.
Begin imbibed this nectar of Jewish honor as a child in Poland. His father, according to biographer Avi Shilon, “taught his family to be proud of their Judaism during times when they were forced to conceal it, a stance that highlighted his tendency to be defiant; such defiance was characteristic of Begin as a leader.” In the words of Daniel Gordis, another biographer who recent wrote the excellent Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Nextbook, 298 pp.), “this insistence on Jewish pride would shape virtually everything about Menachem’s life.”
The Nazis’ assault on Jewish dignity affected Begin nearly as deeply as their attack on Jewish life. He witnessed these same indignities everywhere in pre-Independence Palestine, after escaping Europe, where he had led the Polish wing of Betar, and assuming leadership of the Irgun camp.
For instance, in 1946, British mandatory forces flogged a captured Irgun fighter 18 times, sparking a furious denunciation by Begin and reprisals by his loyalists. “Despite our public warning,” Begin thundered, “the Nazo-British General Barker authorized the humiliating flogging punishment that was imposed on the Hebrew soldier…We now warn: if the oppressors dare to injure the body, or the personal or national honor of young Hebrews, we will not respond with the whip: we will respond with fire.”
Israel Eldad, a leader of Lehi, a rival nationalist group, and critic of Begin, would later note that “the significance of national pride was deeply rooted in [Begin], as it was in Jabotinsky. The flogging was an insult to our honor; what could be more offensive than that?”
Happily, the Jewish people vindicated its honor a few years later. Begin’s impassioned speech the night after Independence Day in 1948 announcing Jewish sovereignty for the first time in millennia amplified this trope of Jewish heroism and pride:
This event has occurred after seventy generations of dispersion and unending wandering of an unarmed people and after a period of almost total destruction of the Jew as Jew…We shall go on our way into battle, soldiers of the Lord of Hosts, inspired by the spirit of our ancient heroes, from the conquerors of Canaan to the Rebels of Judah.
Likewise, for Begin, reunifying Jerusalem in 1967 was about far more than conquest or capture. Indeed, on the eve of the decisive battle for the city, Begin cautioned the cabinet to abjure the word “capture” in favor of “liberate,” or failing that, to “simply state that the Old City of Jerusalem, the City of David, is in the hands of the IDF”—language perfectly captured, so to speak, in the now-famous announcement the next day that “Har HaBayit beyadenu”: the Temple Mount is in our hands.
Having the holy city in Israeli hands, in turn, meant far more than a battlefield triumph. “If we do enter the Old City,” Begin urged Levi Eshkol, “the prime ministers and the members of the government, with the two Chief Rabbis, should go to the Western Wall and say shehechiyanu and ‘when the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,’” i.e. Psalm 126. For Begin, unifying Jerusalem transcended military victory and instead marked restoration and renewal, a revival of the Jewish body, a resuscitation of the Jewish heart, in both national and geographic terms.
Heroic revival often gave way, at least temporarily, to the prosaic duties of administering a struggling young state. Yet Begin’s unremitting focus on Jewish dignity intensified during the heated debate over German reparations, which convulsed the young Jewish state in the early 1950’s. While Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Begin’s longtime foil, sought to recoup from Germany a small measure of monetary compensation for the costs of resettling Holocaust survivors, Begin blasted the agreement, a bit hyperbolically, as “the most shameful event that has ever occurred in the history of our people.”
On the Knesset floor, Begin continued to inveigh against the government’s scheme:
“The Gentiles did not just hate us, they did not just murder us, they did not just incinerate us, they were not just jealous of us—most important, they belittled us. And in this generation that we call he last generation of submission and the first generation of redemption—in this generation in which we attained a measure of respect, in which we have moved from slavery to redemption—you are coming…to rob us of the little respect that we have managed to obtain.”
Begin’s focus on the evils of the Gentiles’ acts of belittlement—more important, in his view, than the Nazis’ murderous acts—underscored his insistence that the Jews not belittle ourselves.
At the same time, Begin was unafraid to note the continuity between the Jewish people’s struggle in the camps and their battle for sovereignty just a few years later. “That blood, the holy and sanctified blood,” he asserted, “taught us to fight and led us onto the enemy’s battlefield.”
Ultimately, Begin’s hadar-centered opposition withered, and the reparations bill passed. But, as confidant Harry Hurwitz noted in his own biography, “Begin felt that honor was at least partly redeemed, and that history would record that ‘this shameful decision,’ as he described it, had been taken only in the teeth of strong opposition.” For Begin, often, sometimes too often, there was honor and dignity even in defeat.
Begin’s focus on hadar recurred during the so-called Soblen Affair, when an American Jew convicted of espionage sought refuge in Israel. When Ben-Gurion shipped Soblen, without so much as a hearing, off to Britain for eventual extradition to the United States, Begin railed against this perfidy, arguing that “a government that respects law and justice” would have prosecuted its case against Soblen in court “with heads held high, a pure heart, and clean hands”—an explicit reference to Psalm 24. Justice equals purity equals dignity, Begin argued, and the government’s actions in this instance betrayed all three concepts.
But Begin’s notion of hadar extended beyond heroism and humiliation, and even beyond the Jewish people itself. In arguing for passage of a constitution, Begin contended that the government’s function is “to provide the people with a constitution and issue legislative guarantees of civil liberties and national liberty…For the nation will then be free—above all, free of fear, free of hunger, free of the fear of starvation. That day will come.” Dignity infused even the quotidian work of legislation.
Begin’s secular universalism has never received nearly as much airtime as his Jewish particularism. Yet from early on, as Gordis puts it, Begin championed the proposition that “nothing about passionate Jewish particularism or devotion to Jewish nationalism was in any way in conflict with commitments to humanity at large.”
And for all the importance Begin placed on the dignity of the Jewish people, he also powerfully extolled the same for other nations. “Should war break out,” Begin said on the Knesset floor during a 1962 debate over the rights of all Israelis, “we would not want one Arab citizen to face the harsh human test that our own people had experienced for generations…We believe that in the Jewish state, there must be and will be equal rights for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, nation, or origin.”
Note his subtle but pointed language: equal rights and human dignity attach to citizens of the Jewish state. These rights and privileges extend even to non-Jews not despite the country’s Jewish identity but because of it.
That same spirit animated his vigorous promotion of equal treatment for Sephardi Jews, who wound up forming a core constituency in his 1977 election as prime minister and a key component of his governing coalition. Shilon observes that the Sephardim “began to support his rigid principles on national affairs in the hopes that he would bring about changes that would grant them pride and dignity—on a national as well as a personal level.”
According to Eva Illouz, a leftist Hebrew University Professor and prominent Mizrachi intellectual, Begin deserves credit for sparking a renewal of Sephardi pride and self-regard. “Begin should be praised by any true liberal who cares about equality,” Illouz wrote in Haaretz a few years ago, “for having done what the Black Panthers did not succeed in doing in 1971—namely, to make the Mizrachim an independent voting group, aware of its rights and of its cultural status and dignity.”
But Begin didn’t just flatter Sephardi pretentions; he also strove to better their conditions. Begin focused much of his first term domestic agenda on Project Renewal, an effort to eradicate slums and raise the standard of living for the relatively impoverished Sephardi/Mizrachi population.
Endangered Jews in foreign lands also found themselves on the receiving end of Begin’s generous hadar-pursuing impulses. In rescuing the imperiled remnant of the Syrian Jewish community in 1979, Begin noted that “we have not forgotten our brethren, some four thousand souls of an ancient Jewish community which made a prodigious contribution to Jewish knowledge and wisdom over the course of hundreds of generations and thousands of years.”
Earlier in the 70’s, Begin unabashedly labeled the Soviet refuseniks “the bravest of all of those fighting for human freedom and dignity…We bow our heads before you, our brothers, heroes of the revival.”
And one leader of the Israeli Ethiopian community would later say of Begin’s bold effort to rescue his people that “before Begin, nobody wanted to hear from us. He didn’t care about skin color. For him it was clear that all Jews should be in Israel.”
This conception of the dignity of people of color carried over into other aspects of Begin’s life. While he visited apartheid South Africa, he reportedly refused to speak in any lecture hall that banned blacks or to be drawn in a rickshaw pulled by a black man. He also granted asylum to dozens of Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970’s, noting that “we have never forgotten the lot of our people, persecuted, humiliated, ultimately physically destroyed. Therefore, it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
Respectful treatment of gentiles derived from principles of Jewish integrity because, for Begin, hadar always started and ended with the Jewish people. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Begin, citing the prophets Isaiah and Micah, noted that “the ancient Jewish people gave the world the vision of eternal peace, of universal disarmament, of abolishing the teaching and learning of war.”
But in Oslo, Begin championed a concept of peace inextricably bound up with dignity. During the Holocaust, he intoned, “those who were doomed, deprived of their human dignity, starved, humiliated, led away and ultimately turned into ashes, cried out for rescue – but in vain.”
Yet thankfully, the Jewish people drew strength from their humiliation and rose from the ashes:
“At such a time, unheard of since the first generation, the hour struck to rise and fight – for the dignity of man, for survival, for liberty, for every value of the human image a man has been endowed with by his Creator, for every known inalienable right he stands for and lives for. Indeed, there are days when to fight for a cause so absolutely just is the highest human command.… Only in honoring that command comes the regeneration of the concept of peace. You rise, you struggle, you make sacrifices to achieve and guarantee the prospect and hope of living in peace – for you and your people, for your children and their children.”
Here, Begin explicitly invoked his mentor Jabotinsky, but in many ways his “peace through dignity” remarks prefigured Ronald Reagan’s notion of “peace through strength.” Indeed, both leaders—men of the right, believers in a strong national defense, and ultimately successful diplomats who concluded key agreements with their enemies—came to power around the same time and with many of the same ideals of restoring national pride. “If through your efforts and sacrifices you win liberty and with it the prospect of peace,” Begin said during the Nobel ceremony, “then work for peace because there is no mission in life more sacred.”
But occasionally, an undue focus on hadar led Begin astray. Enough ink has been spilled about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to flood the Corniche Beirut, and partisans to this day debate whether or not the Lebanese operation was wise or well-executed. But Begin unquestionably believed it was justified, and that Israeli lives, and Jewish dignity, were in peril.
“We will be nobody’s cowering Jew,” Begin told Dr. Yosef Burg, the head of the National Religious Party on the eve of the invasion. “We won’t wait for the Americans or the United Nations to save us. Those days are over. We have to defend ourselves. Without readiness for self-sacrifice, there will be another Auschwitz.”
Begin’s effort to couch his justification for the operation in dignity terms—“nobody’s cowering Jew”—illuminates his unwavering approach: seemingly all problems the Jewish people faced could be reduced to matters of honor and pride.
This approach reappeared in Begin’s now-infamous initial response to the Sabra and Shatila massacre: “Have you heard of such a thing? Christians massacre Muslims, and the goyim blame the Jews.” In this tragic instance, Begin’s unyielding commitment to hadar, his unstinting belief in the integrity and honor of the Jewish people, blinded him to the possibility that, at times, his people fail to live up to those ideals—a failure that would haunt Begin for his remaining years in office, and on Earth.
And yet even his most scathing critics tacitly acknowledged the righteousness of his framework, as they measured the performance and morality of Israel’s soldiers explicitly in terms of dignity, honor, and uprightness. For instance, in a famous letter to Begin, a grieving Israeli father wrote soon after his son perished in Lebanon that “you have discontinued a Jewish chain of age-old suffering generations which no persecutor had succeeded in severing. The history of our ancient, wise, and racked people will judge you and punish you with whips and scorpions.”
Thus, even in his lowest moments, Begin still found himself engrossed in hadar, striving to live up to its noblest imperatives. By rousing Israelis, diaspora Jews, and gentiles alike to do the same, Begin bequeathed the world a truly proud, honorable, and dignified legacy.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org