Begin from the beginning
Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt and crowds hailed him as Israel's 'king'. But was he a success?
Menachim Begin (Photo: AP)
This biography of the most reviled and simultaneously idolised of Israeli politicians was published in Hebrew five years ago. Now stodgily translated into English and carelessly edited, at the end of its 588 pages of text and copious notes it leaves the reader little clearer about what made Begin tick.
The relationship between biographer and subject is always a complex one, as Shilon is aware. He insists in the preface that he has eschewed personal prejudices, pat conclusions and psychological analysis — while speculating in the same paragraph that Begin suffered from bipolar disorder! Also, he repeatedly harks on Begin’s physical unattractiveness, bank-clerk appearance and awe of “real” soldiers, thus perpetuating the stereotypical contrast between Galut Jew and new Israeli.
Nevertheless, his book will serve as a useful interim assessment of Menachem Begin, until such time as the legendary halo that in Israel seems to surround all Revisionist and Underground heroes, fades sufficiently to allow objective judgment.
From the evidence available, we know that Begin worshipped Jabotinsky and drew all his notions about hadar (dignity, grace under pressure, gallantry), as well as a confused ideological mishmash of individual liberalism and state autocracy, from the glorified leader, who in turn had borrowed it from Italian fascism. But Jabotinsky refused to endorse Begin as his successor, unimpressed by the latter’s leadership of Betar in Poland. A flamboyant orator, Begin was less good at organisation and implementation.
After coming to Palestine in 1942 with the Polish Anders Army, Begin joined Etzel (along with Lehi, otherwise known as the Stern Gang, one of two terrorist organisations banned by the British) and in less than 18 months had become its commander. The tenor of his life was set; constant disguise and evasion, reliance on a few trusted comrades and an instinctively rebellious refusal to conform.
With time, other characteristics came to the fore, such as his unbridled tongue, his obsession with the Holocaust and abiding detestation of Germany, bouts of depression and self-pity, and a tendency to aggrandise the role of Etzel in creating the state, whether in rabble-rousing demagoguery at election rallies or when sentimentally reminiscing with fellow veterans.
Shilon constantly praises Begin’s political skills, which are not obvious to an outsider. He was easily out-manoeuvred by his arch-rival Ben-Gurion over the Altalena incident and German reparations; in both issues Begin recklessly fanned flames that brought Israel to the brink of civil war.
A career that began with the controversial blowing up of the King David Hotel, continued with the massacre at Deir Yassin, oversaw eight defeats at the polls and was brought to an ignominious conclusion by the botched invasion of Lebanon in 1982, can hardly be deemed a success.
Sentimental but cold and aloof, Begin was galvanised by crowds, especially the adoring Sephardi constituency he made his own. He believed destiny had chosen him to lead the Jewish people to great things; in that he was just another of our false messiahs.
David J Goldberg is emeritus rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. His latest book is ‘This is Not the Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel’