If Only We Had Begin
A few days after the outbreak of the war, I went into a neighborhood hardware store where two old timers were muttering that things would be different today if only Begin were still prime minister. My goal is not to disparage Netanyahu or any of Israel’s politicians. Rather, I would like to examine the life of Menachem Begin in order to understand why so many Israelis admired, revered and trusted him – and why numerous schools, government buildings, parks and roads were named after him.
Born in 1913 in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, Menachem Begin was an early devotee of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who instilled in Begin powerful life lessons of Jewish pride, selflessness and courage. Begin became a leader of Betar, the youth movement of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism. He later led the pre-state Irgun military organization.
Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, Begin founded Herut, the forerunner to the Likud party, and in 1977 he became the sixth Prime Minister of Israel. As a result of the peace treaty that he signed with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Begin was the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Begin is also famous for bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Lest one think that this preventive attack was a one-time operation, Begin stated, "On no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel. We shall defend the citizens of Israel in good time and with all the means at our disposal." This commitment to self-defense strikes became known as the Begin Doctrine, which remains an important component of Israel’s security planning.
These seemingly contradictory activities of peacemaking and war provocation were two important components of Menachem Begin’s unified world view. Begin was a proud and learned Jew who was guided by Jewish values, and viewed the world from a biblical perspective. He cherished the majesty of Jewish history and felt privileged to help restore the Jewish people to their God-given ancestral homeland, where they can provide refuge to their brethren and control their own destiny.
Furthermore, Begin understood that being Jewish meant sometimes being isolated, and he often quoted biblical passages alluding to the separateness of the Jewish nation. Begin appreciated that this separation affords us the opportunity to act upon our Jewish values. One of these treasured values is standing up for the oppressed – and if Jewish lives are being threatened, we must intervene.
This insight helps explain Begin’s activities in the pre-state underground. When Jews were prohibited from entering British Mandate Palestine after the Holocaust, Begin’s Irgun organization bombed the King David Hotel and took other tough stances to fight the British blockade. Simply put, our people needed to return home and therefore Begin felt obligated to defeat the British forces, despite international backlash.
Fast forward to 1981, when Begin ordered Israel’s Air Force to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. This preventive strike was initially met with almost universal condemnation, and only years later was acknowledged for having stopped Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein from achieving nuclear capability.
Menachem Begin was Israel’s first prime minister who had strong Jewish values, which guided his life and all of his crucial decisions. He was humble, honorable, and generous; in a word, he was a mensch. Some may have disagreed with his policies but, because everyone knew and respected Begin’s belief system, no one ever questioned his priorities and commitments.
Now we understand why, whenever Israel faces challenges, odds are that your Israeli taxi driver might say: “You know what we really need now? We need Begin.”
[The primary source for this article was Daniel Gordis’ outstanding biography “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.”]
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at email@example.com. Please visit his blog at www.myisraelhome.com.