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What would Begin do?

How I miss the former prime minister, who responded to failure with soul-searching and self-blame
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 14, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 14, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Like many Sephardic Jews, I am a fan of Menachem Begin. He embodied the Jewish values that I seek in a leader: humility, ability to soul-search, a vision of a just peace for generations, and love of Torah and the People of Israel. As a law professor and jurist, I watch with deep discomfort the divisiveness and hatred that the investigation of Prime Minister Netanyahu, a Likud heir of Begin, is generating in Israel. And I ask myself, what would Begin do if he were in Bibi’s shoes? I had studied the man and his life, and I wrote my thesis about Begin when a young student. In my imagination, fueled by my research, here is how I envision Begin’s conduct.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, US President Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House as they sign the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, March 26, 1979. (AP/Bob Daugherty, via The Times of Israel)

Begin would, first and foremost, act with humility and a subdued spirit (shafel ru’ah’). This is a man who lived for 29 years in the same modest two-bedroom Tel Aviv apartment with his wife and three children. If, nonetheless, he made Bibi-type mistakes and his leadership was contested, Begin would emulate the humility of Moses, our greatest leader. When Korah challenged his leadership, pretexting a legal dispute to grab power, Moses fell face down to the grounds in a humble gesture of respect for his opponent, and of sadness at the hostility displayed by his own cousin. Moses begged for peace with his fellow Jews. And only when it became clear that Korah would not relent did Moses fight, respectfully, by bringing his case to G-d in a trial-like contest.

Begin would do just that. He would admit his mistakes, cigars, champagne, grey deals, and all, and feel and express sadness at the stain on the Prime Minister’s Office. He would uphold the rule of law, in words and deeds, and invite the investigators to write their report free of ad hominem accusations. This is what Begin did when he went along with the Kahan Commission, rejecting Sharon’s pleas that an investigation of alleged war crimes in Lebanon would only fuel the anti-Semites’ quest to libel Israel as the oppressed-turned-oppressor.

If, in his heart of hearts, Begin felt excessively blamed, he would first beg for peace and resolution, perhaps even forgiveness, without arrogance or aggressiveness. And if that did not work, he would fight respectfully, like Moses, in a court of law. But if he came to realize that he failed his office, Begin’s spirit would sink and he would gradually retire — as he did when he understood that the Lebanon War was turning into Israel’s bloody quagmire. Begin’s response to failure was soul-searching and self-blame — not lashing out and fostering divisiveness.

As to the country, Begin would demand, and I believe command, compliance with the Torah’s injunction that “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” The word “justice” is repeated to show the solemnity and heavy burden of its exercise. When any citizen of Israel, even the prime minister, is accused of a crime, it is no time for foes to rejoice at every incriminating piece of evidence or friends to impugn the prosecutors’ move. It is time to seek justice solemnly, dispassionately in spite of the heated emotions, patiently, and with dignity.

Of course Begin had his faults. This is a man who lived the end of his life as a recluse after his wife’s passing, when the country could have greatly benefited from a public accounting of his years in office. But I believe that the respect that Begin elicited, would have translated into a dignified prosecution. Perhaps it is not too late for Bibi to emulate him.

About the Author
Ari Afilalo (afilalo@camden.rutgers.edu) is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.
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