Elchanan Poupko

Menachem Begin’s Jewish Life and Legacy

Begin and Shamir — on dry land. (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

“Peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of a just cause”. (Menachem Begin, Nobel acceptance speech)

It is impossible to understand anything about Israeli society, law, modern Jewish identity, or government without understanding who Menachem Begin was. Despite only serving as Israeli PM for less than five years, his impact on the Jewish people is profound. From being the first person to demand Kosher meals in the White House to insisting on the Aliya of Ethiopian Jews to how we remember the Holocaust or stand up to antisemitism, Menachem Begin defied what it means to be a Jew.

While so much is inspiring about Menachem Begin, speaking about him honestly is like ripping off a bandage that will cause bleeding—but it is the only way to heal. Conversations about Menachem Begin include discussions about how we should have treated Germany in the post-Holocaust years, how Mizrachi Jews were mistreated in the early days of the state of Israel, and the tensions between religion and non-religious Jews. These conversations are painful but must be had.

Let us first take a look at Begin’s childhood. Unlike Ben Gurion, Herzel, and other great Zionist leaders whose childhood is not essential to understand their leadership, Begin’s youth is critical to understanding who he is as a grown-up. Begin was born in 1913 in the Eastern European town of Brisk to a family with a long rabbinic history. At the Shabbat table, his father would test young Menachem and his siblings on Tanach and is deeply engaged in the Zionist movement. Begin’s brother’s name was Herzel, a small testimony to what kind of house he grew up in.

As a child, Begin attended both a Cheder and a modern orthodox school; later, he attended the general gymnasium. Both of these systems left a lasting impact on him. During WWI, like most Jews of Brisk, the Begins fled, lived in forests for a year, and eventually returned to Brisk. This time of homelessness and poverty would shape Begin’s view to be far more humble, compassionate, and desire to help those suffering from dire poverty.

After returning to Brisk at 13, Begin heard the great Revisionist Zionist leader, Zev Jabotinsky, speak in his town—a speech that would transform who he was. Begin decided to join Jabotinsky’s Baitar movement and climb up its ranks. Unlike others, Baitar’s ideology does not tie Zionism to socialism, believes in the whole land of Israel on both sides of the Jordan, and is convinced that Jewish statehood would only be achieved by force.

As Menachem went to high school and attended a Polish gymnasium, he experienced antisemitism in ways that would shape him for life. One day, Polish kids caught Begin, nailed him down, and spread pork fat on their lips so that he ate it and violated Jewish law. When it was time to take state exams, young Begin got punished for not taking those on Shabbat. This would shape Begins’s approach to religion and would be part of why he supported orthodoxy in Israel, even in ways that he himself did not practice. In high-school school, young Menachem organized Jewish self-defense, leadership, and Jewish pride that would characterize him throughout his life. He would not stand by idly as Jews were being beaten up.

Since 1929, leading the Beitar branch in Brisk, Begin climbed the ranks until he became the head of Beitar in 1939. In 1935 while addressing Jabotinsky, Begin debated him and reminded him that Ben Gurion called him Vladimir Hitler, but Jabotinsky maintained he believed that leaders of labor Zionism were essentially trusted brothers with some ideological differences.

The most significant difference between Begin and Jabotinsky was how religious their Zionism was. Jabotinsky believed in a historically based Zionism that would build an iron wall around the Jewish state, and Begin believed in the God-given right of the Jewish people to the land. Begin was part of the maximalist branch of revisionist Zionism with the goal of a country on both sides of the Jordan that can be achieved only by force. He coined the term “military Zionism,” believing that was the way to achieve statehood. In 1937 Begin organized a protest in front of the British embassy and was arrested for six months and imprisoned among criminals.

In 1931 Begin went to study law in Warsaw. Knowing Begin was a lawyer is essential to understanding Begin. He was deeply concerned with the law, legality, and equality before the law. Much of this drove Jimmy Carter crazy during the peace negotiations with Egypt, where Begin gave extraordinary attention to the wording and details. Recently, Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan showed a part that expired after 25 years which was not thought through and caused a great deal of anguish. Begin was a lawyer who paid a great deal of attention to law and legality. As the leader of the Irgun, he gave much attention to ensuring that attacks were directed only at the British military and not at civilians. In the story of the hanging of British sergeants, they would not be hanged before there was an Irgun court and verdict in place. The law was always sacred to him.

It is his abiding by the law no matter what that, despite his right-wing background and labor leaders calling him a fascist (Ben Gurion even said Begin was an “explicitly Hitleristic character”), Begin earned the respect of his greatest enemies. Begin’s respect for law, details, and decency was extraordinary. His deference to the judicial system was profound and was there even when he strongly disagreed with the conclusion of Israeli judges.

In May 1929, while fundraising for Baitar, Begin was hosted by the Arnold family. In their home, he met their daughter Aliza Arnold, fell in love with her, and ended up marrying her. Aliza was cold and calculated and helped balance Menachem’s passion and spontaneousness. She would be his guide and right-hand person. After her death, Begin resigned as Prime Minister, and many believed it was because he was not able to do much without her.

As the Nazis began their conquest of Poland, Menachem and Aliza fled to Lviv and then to Soviet-ruled Vilna. When there two visas to Palestine were given by the British for the thousands of Beitar members in Poland, Begin refused to take one. Begin continued his work for Baitar until he was arrested by the Soviet N.K.V.D. police for Zionist activity. Interestingly, when asked to sign a confession to “participating in the crime of Zionism,” he refused. He agreed to sign that he was a Zionist, but not the crime of Zionism, since it was not a crime.

While in jail, his wife Aliza sent him a bar of soap. Knowing his wife, he opened the bar and saw a cloth with three letters on it–OLA. Begin understood her to say she is making Aliya to Israel.

After being sent to Siberia, Begin ended up working in slave labor until an agreement with the Polish Andres army allowed the release of Polish soldiers. For some reason, the Polish army transferred Begin and other Jews toward Iran and Iraq, and then Israel. Begin refused to take a leadership position until he was legally discharged from the Polish army.

In the meantime, Begin’s mom, who was in a hospital in Brisk, was taken out of bed and killed, and his father, with 500 other Jews, were taken to the river where they sang Hatikva and Ani Maamin, were tied and thrown into the river. His siblings were also murdered. The Holocaust would leave a profound impact on Begin. From the way Begin dealt with the Israel-German relations to his addressing nuclear threats against Israel, the memory of the Holocaust hung vividly over Begin’s head throughout his life.

After arriving in Israel and being appointed head of the Irgun, Begin’s spirit could immediately be felt throughout the Irgun. In 1944 the Irgun announced a revolt against the British. They would not take the line of the Hagana of not fighting the British until the war was over. No one knew better than Begin what the British White Paper meant to the Jews of Europe. He knew that being locked out of Israel meant being locked into the gas chambers, the killing fields, and the most vicious Nazi persecution.

Beginism vs. a Jabotinsky approach can be seen already in the declaration of revolt against the British. God’s name is invoked in the call for rebellion. This declaration is when you see the birth of Begin Zionism–one that is not diplomatic is highly legal, and is deeply inspired by the Tanach. Begin also set very stringent limits on what British targets could be attacked; he narrowed it to military infrastructure and was committed to avoiding civilian casualties as much as possible.

As the attacks on the British increased, Begin went into hiding in various locations and under various identities. Begin hid most famously as Rabbi Yisrael Sassover in Tel Aviv. The famous picture of him as a rabbi tells another story–they were able to play the part. Begin could give Shiurim and speak words of Torah as if he had learned in Yeshiva. This very much was a reflection of who he truly was.

In 1944, after speaking with Begin, leaders of the Jewish Agency and the Hagana initiated widescale extradition and divulsion of Irgun members. They gave the British the addresses and names of many Irgun members. Begin was adamant about his Havlaga (“restraint”) policy, saying, “there will not be a civil war–milchemet Achim.” The Irgun would not retaliate against their fellow Jews, no matter what. This policy continued with Begin throughout his life and was religious as much as it was strategic and historically conscious.

When Begin was asked at the end of his life what made him most proud of everything he had done, Begin said it was his leadership during the Altalena affair. During the first pause in Israel’s war of independence, the Irgun bought a ship that brought 900 Olim and much-needed ammo to Israel. Under the agreement with the Hagana, all organizations needed to be united. The signed agreement included all of Israel but not Jerusalem. Ben Gurion refused to let it dock and demanded the weapons. Members of Palmach began shooting it in front of the beaches of Tel Aviv. Begin was on the ship and told his people that they may not return fire and the Hagana even if it cost him his life. Begin ran on board and told them we would not repeat the mistakes of the Second Temple.

That evening, Begin went on the radio and spoke for two hours, crying, speaking to his fellow Irgun members. At the time, Begin was mocked by the Hagana for crying on the radio but later took great pride in those tears. “I cried twice, after the Altalena and after the liberation of Jerusalem,” he would share later.

So painful was this event that it resonated for decades later. “Ben Gurion later told me that he was misled in the whole story,” Begin would share after Ben Gurion reached out to him in 1967 to form an alternative government to Levi Eshkol. This difficult episode of Jewish history is still a point that divides Israelis to this day.

In many ways, contrasting this episode with both the Kurdish and Palestinian quest for independence, one can see how this gave birth to the Jewish state. The ability of splinter groups to unite at all costs led to the establishment of the state of Israel. Much of the credit for this goes to Menachem Begin.

While Begin went out of his way to overcome differences with his fellow Jews, he did not extend this to the vicious forces of British occupation. In 1947, as the British continued to persecute the Irgun and refuse Jews entry into Israel, the Irgun hit the British harder and harder. The British decided to respond with deadly force and cruelty and began executing young members of the Irgun. Most famous of these were Moshe Barazani and Meir Feinstein, who were sentenced to death, and as they were going to be hung by the British, they blew themselves up together with a grenade placed between their embracing hearts. This episode left a profound mark on Begin. One of them was a Sephardic Jew; one was Ashkenazi, their hearts united in the fight for Jewish independence. At the end of his, Begin chose to be buried on Mt. Olives near Feinstein and Barazani and not on Mt. Herzel with other Israeli P.M.s.

When the British upped the ante on executions and decided they would execute more Irgun members. To make things better or worse, Irgun members refused to recognize British courts–something showing Begin’s inner lawyer–and were convicted often. To retaliate against the British, the Irgun kidnapped two British sergeants, who were actually helping the Hagana, and put out a notice that if their boys were executed, they would execute the sergeants. The British refused. This highlights an aspect of Begin’s public policies–he would defend some decisions he did not make. Both in Lebanon, here, and in other places, Begin would have to defend some decisions he didn’t make, and he always took full responsibility. The response was very sharp. But, between King David and the Sargents, British public opinion was turning against the occupation of Palestine.

While Begin made a heroic leader of resistance to the British, he did not fade away once the goal was achieved. After the establishment of the state of Israel, Begin established Cherut. It is important to note that Jabotinsky’s body was not allowed back into Israel, and Irgun members were not treated like people who helped build the state of Israel. To understand just how deep the rivalry was, Begin called Ben Gurion “the Judenrat” for agreeing to partition and promised to bring him to justice. At the same time, most Jews referred to Begin as a fascist. Ben Gurion even called him a Hitlerist.

It would be a huge mistake to ascribe the difference between Ben Gurion and Begin to personal animosity or even ideological differences between socialists and capitalists. Begin, and Ben Gurion had fundamental differences in how they viewed Israel. Ben Gurion believed, like many Zionists, that our diasporic state and exile were an abortion. We were returning to when the clock stopped–the end of the Bar Kochva rebellion. The tragedies that befell us in the past 2000 years were products of this state of abortion. Thus the new state was there to recreate us as Israeli. Hence Ben Gurion insisted on Hebrew names, downplaying the meaning of the Holocaust and ignoring much of rabbinic Judaism. Begin, on the other hand–unlike Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky.

In fact, Jabotinsky’s Zionism is in many ways far closer to Ben Gurion’s to that of Begin. After the Kishinev pogroms, Jabotinsky sees a piece of a violated Torah scroll, and the words “Eretz Nochriya” jumps out at him. He believed in Jews having a homeland the same way Italians should have a homeland of their own. Begin’s Zionism was far more biblical, far more Divine, and far more unifying of the people.

But, by 1952, Begin was mostly busy writing his book and was out of the political spotlight. In December 1952, Ben Gurion announced the tentative agreement for reparations with Germany. As the name Wiedergutmachung implies, this was not just returning property. It was Germany taking responsibility for the Holocaust in return for some kind of forgiveness. Members of Cherut approached Begin knowing he was the only one who could lead on this issue and lead he did. It is important to note the difference between Ben Gurion and Begin on this. Ben Gurion did not lose his family the way Begin did; he did not flee the Nazis and didn’t feel the same bond with European Jews. Furthermore, historians point out Ben Gurion saw the Holocaust as a non–defining aspect of being Jewish. Ben Gurion saw himself as Israeli, Begin as Jewish. To Ben Gurion, the Holocaust was an aberration, the product of exile; to Begin, it was the eternal hate of Amalek to the Jewish people. Begin repeatedly cited Tanach when speaking about Germany. Ben Gurion also had to pay the bills for the young state that was absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jews from North Africa and Arab countries. Yet Begin did not want to see any kind of relations established with Germany. Begin went to his greatest extremes when talking about this subject and even called for violence.

When the matter of relations with Germany came to a vote in the Knesset, Begin asked the Arab Knesset members not to vote on the issue since it was not their history. Ben Gurion argued that if we don’t take the money, Germans will benefit from “Have you killed and also inherited?!”. Ben Gurion also claimed the money would help support Holocaust survivors and would be a revenge against the perpetrators. A strong state of Israel would also prevent another Holocaust and more persecution. Yet most of Begin’s arguments were religious and moral, not practical. The idea of selling out the dignity of the murdered or giving Germany a pardon for the worst crime committed in human history was unforgivable to Begin.

To understand the differences between Begin and Ben Gurion, we need to understand they each represent a certain philosophy. While for Ben Gurion, the Jewish state was a fresh beginning of nationhood that paused during the Roman destruction, to Begin, the Jewish state was there to right the many abuses of exile and continue the flame of centuries of Jewish achievements in the diaspora. When elected, Begin was asked by a journalist with what style he plans on leading, and he said: “a good Jewish style.” Begin, unlike Ben Gurion, was about a state that was more Jewish than Israeli.

Begin was a man of conflicts. A devout and proud Jew but also an ultra democrat. In the 1960s, when Begin realized that Israeli Arabs were still under military rule, he promoted legislation that ended that. Begin took the same approach when crafting the peace agreements with Egypt when he came up with the idea of a Palestinian Autonomy and said there would never be a Palestinian state in Israel. With all this, Begin’s strong opposition to the idea of a Palestinian state came A. from his old Baitar commitment to a Jewish state on the biblical homeland. B. The rockets shot from Syria and Lebanon into Israel, which he believed would then come all over Israel–something proven to be very true in the case of Gaza today.

As his years in government went on, Begin formed a deep friendship with Mizrachi Jews and with the orthodox community. Begin’s Judaism was much more similar to the kind of religion common among Sephardic Jews than among Ashkenazi Jews. It was a warm Judaism, traditional and proud, that didn’t see the need to run the other way just if it was not orthodox. This was the source of his appeal across Israel. Begin’s religiosity was an exception among Ashkenazi Jews, yet common among Mizrachi Jews. It was a warm Judaism that took great pride in who he was and was not alienated by the fact that he was not as orthodox as others.

In both operation Kadesh (1956) and the Six-Day War, Begin was asked to join the coalition, and he did so gladly. Begin was deeply disappointed by Israel’s retreating within three days from the Sinai. Throughout his life, Begin strongly opposed Israel caving in to American pressure (from there, his famous quote: “I am not a Jew with trembling knees). Begin also famously said that the Jewish people have managed for 3,500 years without approval from Washington and should be able to go for another 3,500 years without the approval of Washington.

Leading up to the Six-Day War, Israel suffered from a crisis of low morale. Lavi Eshkol was a great man but a terrible speaker, and the people were rightfully panicked. Ben Gurion was asked to join the government but would agree only if Eshkol quit, and so Peres asked Begin to join, something that reassured the Israeli public. It also helped rehabilitate Begin’s image. It helped mainstream Begin. In 1969 Ben Gurion tried to get Begin to join him against Ashkol and wrote to Begin he never had anything personal against him. After Israel’s wins in the

In 1977 Begin shocked the Israeli political system when he won the election to be prime minister of Israel. One of my favorite stories is when my cousin Simcha Lyons met Begin after the elections and told him he thinks of him every Shabbat Mevarchim. The puzzled Begin asked why, and Lyons told him because we say in the blessing “Hotzianu Me’avdut le’cherut” (a pun on the name of Begin’s party Cherut and Labor/Avodah).

It is hard to understand how much Begin shaped Israel the way we know it today. In pre Begin era, Israeli currency did not trade internationally, currency trade inside Israel was illegal, the government made all T.V.s black and white, so there were no disparities, basic food was subsidized, and there was a huge amount of regulation. Begin fast-tracked Israel’s free market. This came with a great deal of inflation and pained many needy families, but ultimately set Israel on the path to becoming the economic powerhouse it is today.

Begin was the first Israeli PM to go to the Kotel and pray the very day after his election. While being a devout Likkud member, Begin would nonetheless receive a lot of hate for keeping many civil servants from the labor party, including the Israeli ambassador in D.C.

Begin went on to transform Israel from being the Israel of Mapai and Kibbutzim to a more traditional Israel. Begin changed the way the state would treat the legacy of Irgun and Lehi members, the N.I.L.I. underground, my great uncle Yosef Lishansky, and the way Mizrachi and orthodox Jews were seen by the state. In his love for the underdog, Begin took on the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for failing to recognize the Bnai Israel community from India and took in a ship of persecuted Vietnamese refugees.

In the late 1970s, as civil war broke out in Ethiopia, Begin sent an urgent secret memo to Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef asking him for the position of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on Ethiopian Jewry. Once he has an affirmative response that they are considered Jewish, he urges the Mossad to begin the process of Aliya of Beita Yisrael, Ethiopian Jews.

Begin saw the many Jews from Arab countries living in terrible housing conditions. He decided he would reform that and build a huge amount of housing. With what money? Begin did what no other Israel PM would do and decided the Israeli government would pay for half of it, and the other half would be fundraising from Jews around the world. This is how you have many sister cities.

Begin gave immediately the ministry of education to the religious Zionist parties, extended the religious exemption from army service to any number of Yeshiva students, mainstreamed the terms “Be’ezrat Hashem, IY Hashem, arrived in the U.S. and first met with religious leaders from the Lubavitcher rebbe to Lithuanian leading figures. Scholars noted that Begin made being PM far more symbolic, traditional, and emotional.

Right after the Six-Day war, Begin spoke out forcefully against giving any piece of land away. He supported Jews living anywhere they wanted in Judea and Samaria. Elon Moreh was one of the first settlements. Right after he was elected, Begin said, “there will be many more Elonei Moreh’s.” Yet the heart of the Gush Emunim camp sunk when they heard that he appointed Moshe Dayan as F.M. Dayan had a bad reputation for his role in the Yom Kippur war and opposition to settlements.
Despite his firm belief in the right of Jews to the historical land of Israel and being a hardliner, Begin would go on to surprise the world. Begin took office on June 20, 1977. On July 4, he was invited to a reception in the American embassy, where he asked someone to call the Romanian ambassador. Begin whispered to the ambassador that if Chouchesko wanted to host him and Sadat, he would not be opposed. In August, Begin visited Romania and said he wanted peace with Egypt and Syria. In November, speaking in Egypt’s parliament, Sadat said he would seek peace with Israel.

An Israeli journalist listening to Egyptian radio heard Sadat suddenly say that he would go and visit Israel and speak in the Knesset. The journalist called Begin’s home and was told he was in the shower. He asked Aliza to tell Begin to come out. He told him what Sadat said. Begin responded shortly thereafter that he would love to see Sadat in the Knesset. A few days later, Sadat arrived in Israel. What few people know is that all along the roof of the terminal in Ben Gurion airport were snipers on the roof. The Israelis thought until the last minute that the Egyptians might be hiding an attack.

After negotiations hit a snag, the U.S. got more and more involved and invited Begin and Sadat to Camp David, where more intense negotiations took place. Carter famously applied lots of pressure on Begin, who famously resisted a great deal of that pressure. Begin famously said: “war is avoidable; peace is inevitable.”

Begin also famously said of Jerusalem: “we will never give the city of Solomon, son of David, son of Yishai, to Hussein Iben Abdulah Iben Talal.”

One of Begin’s biggest concerns was Sadat’s nazi past. Sadat also made outlandish demands such as demilitarizing Israel, a treaty for Israel not to have nuclear weapons, the return of the Palestinian refugees, and the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet through the negotiations, with all tribulations, common ground was found.

Interestingly, Begin’s religion played a big role in the talks. A recently declassified C.I.A. document showed that Sadat did not trust Dayan because he was not religious. It also helps us understand why the Abraham accords are so successful, as they are based on religion, the way Sadat trusted Begin more than Dayan.

When receiving the prize, Begin was true to who he always was. He said he did not deserve the prize, but his people did. He spoke about the Holocaust and the suffering of his people. Begin said: “I have dreamed of this day since November 29, 1929.”

Few people have shaped the history of Israel and the Jewish people like Menachem Begin. From relations between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews, balancing democracy and Judaism, and peace with Israel’s neighbors, Menachem Begin has shaped modern-day Judaism, impacting the Jewish world we see to this day. May his memory be a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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