In December 1948, Menachem Begin first visited the United States in an attempt to gather support for his newly established political party, Herut. In response to his arrival, various prominent figures from the Jewish intellectual elite published a joint letter in The New York Times criticizing him and his party. The members of this group, which included Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, warned the readers of the Times that Begin’s party was “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”
History has shown that their analysis fell way short of the mark. The Herut Party became a principal voice for democracy and liberty in Israeli politics. It was Herut that was one of the leading opponents of the martial law that had been imposed on Israel’s Arab population until 1966. This opposition was consistent with Begin’s principled belief in equal rights for all of the country’s citizens.
The party also played a major role in defending freedom of the press, even in cases where media outlets were on the opposite side of the political map. (For example HaOlam HaZeh, a far-left weekly magazine that David Ben-Gurion had threatened to shut down.) It is noteworthy that during the more than 40 years of complete dominance of the Zionist, and then Israeli, establishment by Mapai and its successors, Begin insisted on keeping his opposition and protests within the democratic framework and playing by the rules of the game, even though it seemed as though he would never get the chance to win an election.
Almost certainly the group that wrote the Times letter was influenced by prejudiced information and propaganda provided by Begin’s political adversaries. Unlike these noted academics, modern scholars have had more than 30 years to study Begin and his policies since he left office. Along with the plethora of information concerning his goals and achievements that has been evident since then, these scholars also have had the benefit of chronological distance, being able to emotionally and ideologically detach themselves from his term in office, in order to arrive at unbiased conclusions. Historian Milton Viorst, writing in 2016, however, seems to have reverted back to the prejudice and ignorance of those letter writers in 1948.
Viorst discusses his most recent book, “Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal,” in a Times of Israel article on July 7, and expresses exactly the same politically motivated, inaccurate assessment that was written in the letter by Einstein and his colleagues. For example, Viorst says that “Israel, since Begin became prime minister, has concentrated on one main idea: becoming a powerful military force that could dominate all of its neighbors.” But of course Begin’s signature achievement as prime minister was negotiating Israel’s first ever peace agreement with its most important, and hitherto most hostile, Arab neighbor, Egypt.
Contrary to Viorst’s assertion that Begin was somehow the instigator of a new anti-peace Israel, when Begin agreed to hand over the Sinai Peninsula to Anwar Sadat, he demonstrated his commitment to peace as an ideal, even at the cost of giving up a key territorial asset. This can be placed in contrast to the famous statement from the previous Labour government that: “Better to have Sharm al-Sheikh without peace, than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh”.
While comparing Begin to his mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Viorst claimed that “Jabotinsky had respect for Arabs and their nationalistic feelings. Begin never had that.” Again, the agreement signed by Begin and Sadat proves this wrong. While the previous left-wing governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin never addressed the question of the Palestinians in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, it was Begin, who saw these areas as inseparable parts of the Jewish homeland, who attempted to provide for Palestinian autonomy in the first part of the framework agreement with Egypt. Unlike Golda Meir, who had famously stated “there is no Palestinian people,” Begin was the first prime minister to recognize that the Arab inhabitants of the territories liberated in 1967 had legitimate individual rights.
Finally, Viorst’s assertion that Begin signified the end of “traditional Zionism” deserves closer examination. What is “traditional Zionism” after all? If he means the classic Herzlian idea of creating a Jewish state in which all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, enjoy full civic equality then Begin was the man to restore traditional Zionism, not to end it. He liberated the Israeli economy from state control and ended the authoritarian grip over almost every aspect of Israeli government and society by one party which had existed since 1948.
In a special booklet produced by the Israel Democracy Institute, Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, the former chairman of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, declared Begin as “a democrat and a liberal par excellence, one who consistently upheld human rights even when he felt that they conflicted with national security.” Professor Aharon Barak, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a hero of Israel’s human rights community, lauded Begin as the Israeli prime minister most committed to the supremacy of law and human rights.
I would have expected a scholar of Milton Viorst’s standing to pay more attention to the facts, and less to his own prejudices.
Moshe Fuksman Shal is the vice president of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and a doctoral student in history at the Tel Aviv University.