(Jewish Ideas Daily) — About Menachem Begin the thing that I remember most was the way he talked. Begin wouldn’t say that he was born on the eve of the First World War; he’d say, as he did when a group of us from the Wall Street Journal interviewed him in 1981, that he was born “into” the First World War.
Begin’s fastidiousness about the language of leadership, his temptation to vainglory, and his unalloyed heroism are all captured in Avi Shilon’s new biography, “Menachem Begin: A Life,” published by Yale. It is the most detailed narrative yet of the man who became the sixth prime minister of Israel and led the Jewish state onto the road that is causing such consternation among the desiccated left today. For those of us who came to love Begin, the book’s welcome reprise comes just as his political heirs, in a new hour of peril from Iran, are being tested against the example he set.
Shilon writes at the outset that some experts have argued that Begin suffered from manic depression, but announces that he has “resisted such speculation,” preferring Begin’s deeds to “any psychological analysis.” It’s a sage strategy for telling the life of a man who so clearly lived for a cause greater than himself.
It is certainly a life that offers more drama than could be cooked up by even the most perfervid psychiatrists. Begin’s mother was murdered by the Nazis in a hospital at Brisk. His father, a Zionist, and his brother, Herzl, were also slain by the Nazis. Arrested by the NKVD in 1940, Begin was sentenced to seven years in the Soviet camps. He was in Tashkent when learned that his family, save for his sister Rachel, had perished.
Begin, in any event, rose quickly through the Betar youth movement. After he met — and fell in behind — the Revisionist prophet Vladimir Jabotinsky, Begin felt, as Shilon puts it, like “Stalin in the power triangle” along with Marx and Lenin, except that Theodor Herzl was Marx and Jabotinsky Lenin.
The story of the years of the revolt against the British is well told here, though the narrative of the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne contains no mention of his role in Britain’s refusal to allow the sailing to Palestine of the refugee ship Struma, which was then sunk by the Russians, killing 768 persons. The assassination of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948 is related with but a glimpse of the mischief the count was concocting. The account of the shelling of the Altalena, though, touches most of the bases.
What is so exciting about this period in Begin’s life is the way in which his defeat and isolation in the post-revolt years and his display of character during his decades in opposition became the seeds of his ultimate credibility. Rarely has victory been sweeter than the one enjoyed by Menachem Begin.
All the more bitter his despair at the end. The peacemaking felt good while he was doing it. Begin seemed to savor every hosanna from the left; he went to Oslo to accept the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize even though President Sadat declined. The peace was followed by the settling of the liberated territories, a process in which Shilon portrays Begin as a centrist tilting slightly to the right, ground then held by Ariel Sharon.
This was also the period in which economic reforms were launched. It was under Begin that the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman was brought in as an adviser. This period, no doubt, saw the formation of the strategy that has led to the atrophy of Labor and the dominance of Likud.
The 1981 bombing of the Iraq nuclear reactor is related in a chapter dealing with Begin’s larger world view. While editing an announcement of the bombing mission’s success, Shilon says, Begin changed a draft to add, at the end, “We shall not allow our enemies to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.” Writes Shilon, “This declaration became known as the Begin Doctrine, according to which Israel would not allow any Arab nation to acquire nuclear arms.” Was that formulation, one could puzzle, intended to exclude the Persians?
The story of the 1982 Lebanon war is told here in a straightforward way, as is Begin’s precipitous slide and resignation from office after the death of his wife. Aliza died while Begin was in America. His collapse from public life followed quickly.
Begin said he wanted to write a book called “The Generation of Holocaust and Redemption.” How sad that he died too soon. It can be said, with no slight to the author of this brimming biography, that in Jewish libraries there will always be the void where Menachem Begin’s memoir might have stood.
(Seth Lipsky, a former foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal, is editor of the New York Sun. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.)