This week was the 30th anniversary of Menachem Begin’s passing. Begin was among Israel’s greatest leaders. He was the commander of the Etzel paramilitary organization during the struggle with the British Mandate in Palestine, became Israel’s 6th prime minister, made peace with Egypt, and destroyed the nuclear reactor in Iraq before it became operative, among many other achievements. But in my eyes, what stood out most about Begin was his integrity.
In light of today’s leaders, of every party and side, Begin is an example to look up to. He gave the country his very best, and when he felt that he could no longer carry out his role as prime minister, he announced his resignation and retired from public life. To me, his legacy is the legacy of a true leader.
It is true that in those days, in the 1970s and early 80s, when Begin was the prime minister, we were all different. People were more naïve and less sinister and narcissistic than today. Nevertheless, Begin stood out even among his contemporaries. This does not take away from the greatness of leaders such as David Ben Gurion and others of his time, but Begin was still something else.
In Israel, everything happens very quickly. Regrettably, declines happen quickly, too, and today’s Israeli leaders are many miles away from those of the past.
In fact, Begin was so unique that he even won the favor of my teacher, RABASH. RABASH and I had an arrangement: Whenever we were in the car together, he would have me turn on the radio to listen to the news every hour. He was always looking for clues from the Creator, and worldly events were God’s words to him. However, two minutes into the news, when the anchor started quoting this or that politician’s words, RABASH would immediately tell me to turn off the radio. The only exception was Begin. Begin’s words were a delight to him. The clarity and integrity of his words were truly compelling for RABASH.
Another unique aspect about Begin was his respect for religion. Israel is a divided country in countless different ways. Despite being non-religious himself, Begin had tremendous respect for religious leaders. His sincere esteem for them earned him the support of many of them, but more importantly, the legacy of respecting religious and non-religious alike still prevails in Israel, to a great extent.
Today’s leaders cannot be like him. They do not come from the same place of clean ideology because if they did, they would not make it to leadership positions. Not only have the leaders changed, but more importantly, the society that engenders them has changed. Hence, its leaders have changed accordingly.
If we are ever to see such leaders as Menachem Begin rise again, we must first become a society that can generate them. Today, integrity is worthless. People appreciate power, not sincerity. As a result, they get power-hungry leaders, who are willing to trample anyone on their way up the heap. By the time they get to the top, they have forgotten who they presume to serve, and they have no other thought in mind but their own success.
It is not their fault; I have no grievances against any of our leaders. My only regret is that we, the Israeli society, are not rising to the challenge of building an exemplary society that the world can appreciate.
The world will not thank us for our high-tech weapons or sophisticated spying software. It will also not thank us for building fast computer chips or cool navigation apps.
The world will thank us only if we set an example of solidarity, of mutual care and mutual responsibility. If our leaders display these traits, and if they are backed by a nation that places solidarity above all else, we will win the world’s favor and our leaders will be welcome everywhere.
Solidarity and cohesion, in the end, are the only exports that the world needs from us. Begin promoted these, and this is why I respect his legacy.