In memory of Menachem Begin: A salute to the second giant of Zionism 25 years after his death

As the Hebrew month of Adar wanes, it behooves us to recall that 25 years ago, on the fifth day of this month, Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of the Jewish state and the second giant of Zionism, passed away.

It is more than telling about the state of political discourse in Israel today that the 25th yartzeit of the man who contributed so mightily to establishing our national political narrative passed with nary a reference.

Menachem Begin commanded the etzel in pre-State Palestine.  His underground military organization drove the British Imperialists from our homeland making it possible for David Ben-Gurion, the first giant of Zionism, to declare the establishment of the sovereign Jewish State in the Land of Israel, which for some reason Ben-Gurion named the State of Israel – Medinat Yisrael – instead of the State of the Jews – Medinat HaYehudim.

After the establishment of the State which Ben-Gurion christened the State of Israel, Menachem Begin served as the leader of the loyal opposition in the national parliament for almost thirty years.  Begin turned this meaningless post into what the Americans call “a bully pulpit.”  He transformed his formal status as the leader of the parliamentary opposition into the role of protector and defender of bourgeois democracy in the new Jewish state.

From behind the lectern at the head of the Knesset, just to the right of the seat occupied by the Speaker, Menachem Begin taught David Ben-Gurion and the semi-autocratic Israel Labor Party which he led, that in the State of Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, democracy and the rule of law is more important than socialism and kibbutz cronyism.

Most compellingly, and on numerous occasions, Menachem Begin excoriated David Ben-Gurion and the egalitarian elitists of the Israeli left for using military service in the IDF as a tool for discriminating against the Arab citizens of the sovereign Jewish State.  As he put it, “the Arabs of Israel do not serve in the army of the Jewish State because you do not allow them to do so.  “As such, you cannot penalize them for their failure to serve.”

Menachem Begin believed that in the nation-state of the Jewish people, even non-Jews must be treated as loyal citizens of the State.

By the grace of God, Menachem Begin lived to implement his political vision.

In 1977 — 15 years before his death and exactly 40 years ago — Menachem Begin was elected prime minister of the Jewish state.  For the first time in 2,000 years, the sovereign authority of the Jewish people would be exercised by a God-fearing Jew with a greater affinity for Moshe Rabbeinu then for Karl Marx.

Not surprisingly, we the people were the immediate beneficiaries of this change in our fortune.

Once in office, Menachem Begin quickly crafted Israel’s first peace treaty.  With the help of the Americans, and in exchange for a dismantling a few misplaced settlements, Begin established the Jewish state’s first internationally recognized territorial boundary line.  This boundary line would from now on separate the sovereign territory our nation-state from the sovereign territory of the United Arab Republic, the nation-state of the Egyptian people.

By so doing, Menachem Begin slaughtered one of David Ben-Gurion’s most precious golden calves.

During his many years in office, David Ben-Gurion steadfastly refused to establish firm and secure territorial boundary lines for the State of Israel.  Instead, he surrounded the State with porous armistice lines despite the fact that such lines facilitated conflict rather than reconciliation with our Arab neighbors.

Apparently, Ben-Gurion was convinced that by defining our struggle with the Arabs as one of settlements and security rather than sovereignty and peace, he would avoid, among many other matters, having to explain why he deleted the word Jewish from the name of the State which he declared.

For this reason Ben-Gurion constructed Israel as a sui generous hybrid – a genuine political democracy with an oppressive socialist economy.  The citizens of Ben-Gurion’s Hebrew speaking State of Israel were to be as alienated from the capitalist democracies of the west as from the totalitarian communists of the east.

By thoroughly isolating the Hebrew speaking citizens of his borderless State from the rest of the nations of the world, David Ben-Gurion was certain that we would be so busy defending our lives that we would have no time to contemplate the meaning of being a citizen of the sovereign Jewish state and especially to consider why he deleted the word Jewish from the name of our national state.

But Menachem Begin did not partake in any part of David Ben-Gurion’s secular socialist ideology.  And when he signed the Camp David Accords he was certain that he had liberated the Jewish state, and all of its citizens, from the isolationist shackles which Ben-Gurion had designed.

In exchange for dismantling a few settlements in the occupied Sinai dessert, Menachem Begin gained international recognition of the territorial boundary line, drawn along its biblical coordinates, which demarcated the southern expanse of the sovereign territory of the Jewish State.

By substituting our biblical heritage for Ben-Gurion’s socialism, Menachem Begin transformed our conflict with the Arabs from an endless and probably insoluble military struggle into an easily resolvable political struggle.  All that we need to do is forfeit our pariah status as the only nation-state in the world without clearly defined territorial boundary lines, and we will be cordially welcomed to our rightful place among the nations.

Sadly, Menachem Begin failed to move the Camp David Accords forward and establish the rest of Israel’s territorial boundary lines according to their Biblical coordinates.

But so what!  His accomplishments serve as a mighty precedent for extending the sovereignty of the Jewish state over all of Judea and Samaria and for imposing Israeli citizenship on the indigenous Arab population, precisely as he intended.  As he taught us, setting the territorial boundary lines of the Jewish state is not a matter of demography and housing but of justice and sovereignty.

The time is at hand for our current devotees of Greater Israel to give up the ghost of David Ben Gurion and the discredited ideals of his thoroughly secular and semi-autocratic socialist Zionism and embrace the legacy of Menachem Begin.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY