Warrior and peacemaker
1. Menahem Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk in 1913 to a mother who came from a line of rabbis and a father who was a timber merchant and ardent Zionist. He studied first in cheder and then in schools associated with the religious Zionist movement. In his teens he was sent to a Polish government school, where he gained a secular education; he studied law at the University of Warsaw, graduating in 1935.
2. From an early age, he was a member of the Zionist movement. A follower of Jabotinsky [see my post of 12/31/12], he joined the youth branch of the Betar movement, rising quickly to become head of Betar Czechoslovakia in 1936 and of all Poland – the largest branch, with 100,000 members – in 1938. In this capacity he traveled frequently to regional branches.
3. He escaped Warsaw for Vilna three days after the Nazi invasion began in 1939. In 1940, he was arrested by the NKVD, tortured and sentenced to eight years in the gulag. In 1941, he was permitted release to join the Polish army, which in 1943 was evacuated to Palestine. There he was given a leave of absence to stay and fight. He joined the Irgun though he was voluble in his criticism of their leadership as being too cooperative with the British.
4. In 1944, he assumed leadership of the Irgun, proclaiming a revolt against the British – a move that was opposed by the Jewish Agency. When in 1946 he ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel, the British placed a bounty of ten thousand pounds on his head.
5. After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the Irgun was disbanded. Begin founded the Herut (Freedom) party in opposition to the labor party, Mapai, and was elected to the first Knesset, with a nationalist agenda.
6. In 1977, after three decades of labor dominance, Begin became the sixth Prime Minister of Israel as a founding member of Likud, which was a consolidation of Herut and other parties.
7. As prime minister, he signed a peace treaty with Egypt and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of the Camp David Accords. In exchange for recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, Begin gave up land. (Is it only a great warrior who can accomplish such ends? I hate to think so.)
8. During Begin’s term in office, impoverished towns and neighborhoods – occupied primarily by Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews – were upgraded; many of the measures he took moved the economy away from socialism and toward capitalism. With the prime minister’s blessing, many new settlements were built in the West Bank and Gaza, quadrupling the Jewish population there.
9. In June 1981, Begin authorized the bombing of a nuclear plant in Iraq; in 1982, the invasion of Lebanon to fight PLO strongholds – resulting in a protracted war that sucked at the life and soul of Israel’s self-identity.
10. His wife, Aliza, died in 1982, and he resigned from public life in 1983, spending the remainder of his life in seclusion. Begin died in 1992 and was buried on the Mount of Olives. An estimated 75,000 mourners turned out for his funeral.
10. His written works include The Revolt, about his days in the Irgun; and White Nights, about being a prisoner in the Soviet Union.
12. Visitors to Jerusalem may wish to visit the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. A museum of his life and legacy, it also awards an annual prize to a person or organization that has done important work for the benefit of the State of Israel and/or the Jewish people.
In Jerusalem, Sederot Menahem Begin runs from north to south just west of Hebrew University.