In 1973, when Egypt and Israel were still at war, I made the trip to Egypt traveling on a foreign passport. My wife and three children were at home in Israel and there was absolutely no way I could contact them to inform them that I had arrived safely in Cairo.
Prior to deciding to make the trip I inquired from foreign embassies if they had any knowledge regarding Jews touring in Egypt. The unanimous response was that Jews, but not Israelis, would be welcome to enter Egypt as long as there were no Israeli visas or stamps in their passports and no visible indication that they had been in Israel.
Upon arrival at the customs and immigration inspection at the Cairo air terminal I was questioned by inspectors about my family name. “Is it an Israeli name”, they asked? I replied that it was a Hebrew name from Biblical sources and that I was of the Jewish religion. They kept me at the airport under armed guard until they were convinced of my story and then I was released and took a taxi into the center of Cairo on the Nile to the Hotel Semiramis.
There is no need to relate all of my experiences in Egypt, who I met, where I went, what I saw.
At a bookshop I bought a large art album of historic Cairo from antiquity to the present day. It was my intention to give it as a gift to someone very dear and special to me when I arrived back in Israel by way of Athens, Greece.
One week later I was invited to a meeting with the Israeli Minister of Defense, Shimon Peres, who years later would become a Prime Minister of Israel.
In speaking with him about my Egyptian visit, I mentioned that I had a feeling that Egypt wanted an end to the hostilities. Many Egyptians whom I met, including an official visit with the Minister of Culture and Education, stated that while they would not recognize the State of Israel many were prepared to enter discussions for a possible ceasefire, beneficial to both sides.
I told Peres that I had a funny feeling that a peace with Egypt was possible. He replied “I don’t think we will see it in the near future.”
But Shimon Peres had not recognized nor considered the strength and determination of a future Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. For years, he had been my hero. I had been a member of the Betar Zionist organization founded by Begin’s mentor, Zeev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism.
Several weeks later I requested a personal meeting with Menachem Begin at Beit Jabotinsky in Tel-Aviv. The meeting was short and I presented to him the gift I had bought in Cairo precisely for him.
The future Prime Minister Begin to be was deeply touched. He invited me to be seated and he called his secretary to bring tea. Then he stood up, walked to his enormous desk and pulled out a very large photo of himself which he autographed in Hebrew and gave it to me as his gift.
That photo has hung on my wall ever since 1973. Before leaving his office, I thanked him and told him “ata ha gibor sheli”… you are my hero. His brief reply was “ani lo gibor aval ani yachol lihiyot chaver”.
“I am not a hero but I can be a friend.”
Only a Begin could have succeeded in making peace with Egypt. He and Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, met, shook hands, broad smiles, and a new friendship was beginning to bloom. Sadat was invited to address the Israeli Knesset where he received a standing ovation.
Menachem Begin who had fought against the British Mandatory authorities from 1939 to 1948, who was the leader of the fierce Hebrew underground, the Irgun, and who was responsible for blowing up the British headquarters in Jerusalem’s prized Hotel King David, through his actions, his strength and his courage forced the British government to end the Mandate and in 1948 Menachem Begin, now out of hiding, rejoiced when he witnessed the British retreat from Palestine.
Years later, after a major defeat of Ben-Gurion’s Histadrut socialist Labor party, there was a political revolution in Israel. A new party, Herut, had won the election and its leader, Menachem Begin, became Prime Minister.
He was to Israel what Abraham Lincoln had been to America….a fighter for the freedoms of his people.
There has been no greater Prime Minister in Israel’s 71 years of independence than the late Menachem Begin. No politician before or since could compare with him. He remains the most loved and honored of all of Israel’s Prime Ministers.
The legacy which he left behind continues to inspire us every day. He would feel, if he were here now, the disgrace of the party he founded, now called the Likud.
We cannot revive the dead. But we must forever cherish and treasure the great legacy which Menachem Begin bequeathed to the citizens of Israel.
May his memory be for an inspiration and a blessing forever. And no matter what he said to me in 1973, he was, he is, he always will be my great Israeli hero.
As his Betar greeting…. Tel Chai.