This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, agreed upon by Israel’s sixth prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. From the time Israel declared its independence in 1948, and the signing of the treaty in 1979, the two countries had been at war on six separate occasions. At the time, it was nearly inconceivable to think that peace could ever be achieved between the two nations.
But Menachem Begin was a leader like no other.
His early life was marred by the deep antisemitism that he witnessed and lived through. It was these experiences that inspired his political career, which began in the 1930s when Begin decided to take a stand against the hatred that he saw all around him in Warsaw. Although he graduated with a law degree in 1935, Begin never practiced law, instead, devoting all his time and attention to the plight of the Jewish people. During this time, he immersed himself in the Zionist movement, which sought to create the Jewish state in Israel. Begin would eventually lead this Zionist movement from 1977-1983.
Rob Schwartz, the vision behind the upcoming documentary by noted filmmaker Jonathan Gruber about Menachem Begin, was quoted in September by London’s Jewish Telegraph saying, “Every political decision he made was through the prism of his experiences in his native Brest-Litovsk.”
Schwartz added, “His commitment to protect the honor and physical safety of Jews was due to his firsthand witnessing of merciless, humiliating anti-Semitism in Brest.”
The Effects of The Nazi And Soviet Occupations Of Poland
Begin joined Betar, a revisionist Zionist group, and very quickly rose through the ranks to a position of significant influence and prominence, recruiting many others to the cause. As the Nazi party rose in strength in Germany, they soon began pushing and expanding their control into Poland. On the other side of the country, the Soviet Union was also oppressing the Polish people; and it was against those backdrops that Begin developed plans to help save the Jewish people by moving them to Israel, where they could be free of the hate they had endured in Europe and could exist in their historical home.
The Holocaust deeply impacted Menachem Begin. According to Schwartz, “His [Begin’s] father led 600 people out of Brest under Nazi guns, singing Hatikvah where they were marched to a river and all machine gunned to death.”
Begin’s mother and brother were also murdered by the Nazis.
These indelible marks are the driving forces behind what drove Begin to protect his fellow Jews against the present dangers they would face, as well as against any and all future threats that they would be met with as they moved towards the formation of a nation state in Israel. It is also what drew him to sign the Camp David Accords in 1978, the precursor to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. Begin was ultimately the first prime minister of Israel to enter a formal peace treaty with an enemy Arab state, and the largest.
Although he was vilified in the media by many right-wing Israeli citizens and Zionists alike for relinquishing property that Israel had won during the 1967 war, others regard it as a move necessary to achieve peace with a neighboring enemy – a peace, which still holds today.
According to Schwartz, “Every Jew and Christian should know the sacrifices that this man made and the courage he displayed to protect the Jewish people and to assure that there would be a nation and a homeland.”
Coupled with the documentary that Schwartz is producing, along with major Jewish philanthropist Phil Rosen and former U.S. Senator, Joe Lieberman, Schwartz hopes “to educate all Jews, particularly young Jews, about the history of Israel and that of Begin.”
“What anti-Semites are doing, is using social media and other forms of communication to distort and lie about history and that needs to be confronted. It’s my belief that he [Begin] would endorse this documentary because he would feel that students on college campuses need to be educated and informed, and unless they are educated and informed it’s difficult to defend a position, whether it’s the State of Israel or your own faith and ability to practice without being bullied and intimidated.”
To achieve peace when tensions and hostilities were at all-time highs was truly an incredible feat. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat reached out to each other before US President, Jimmy Carter was even made aware of the situation; according to Schwartz, the first time Carter knew anything was when Sadat arrived at the Jerusalem airport.
“Carter was totally shocked,” Schwartz said.
But to have peace, he added, “you need to have leaders willing to take political risk, which Sadat and Begin did. And you need to have a willingness to trust each other. Those are preconditions for any kind of peace effort in this day and age.”