Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Amazon Review of Daniel Gordis' "Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul"

The history of Israel has largely been written from a secular Labor-Zionist or a Palestinian perspective. In those histories Menachem Begin has either been air-brushed out or vilified as a terrorist by Jew and Arab alike. Daniel Gordis a rabbi from a family of rabbis and vice president of Shalem College in Israel makes a huge contribution in correcting the historical record. Simply put, although Menachem Begin was not the George Washington of Israel, he certainly was a founding father and was it not for him the State of Israel might not have been brought into being.

Begin was born in 1913 in the town of Brisk (now Brest in Belarus) under grey Polish skies compared to the sunny Mediterranean skies most of the early Zionist leadership who were either born in then Palestine or arrived there when very young. As a result Begin stood out as Polish formal compared to Israeli casual. Begin did not arrive in Palestine until he was 30. As an aside his birth was midwifed by Ariel Sharon's grandmother. Begin learned his Zionism from his father and the everyday Polish anti-Semitism he witnessed while growing up. He also, unlike the Zionists in Palestine, grows up religious and very knowledgeable in the biblical texts.  In time he would become, according to Gordis, the most Jewish of Israeli prime ministers. As a teenager he became a convert to the Revisionist Zionism of the charismatic Vladimir Jabotinsky and quickly became a leader of its Betar youth group. Revisionist Zionism differed from Labor Zionism in that it was more clear-eyed about the fate of the Jews, in Europe, market oriented versus socialist, and was pessimistic about the prospect of peaceful coexistence with the Arab population living in Palestine.

Imprisoned by the Russians in 1940 he is released after the German invasion and finds his way to Palestine in 1943 where almost immediately assumes the leadership of the Irgun. It here where Menachem Begin enters history. He adopts "an eye for an eye" policy with respect to the British. For every Irgun member executed by the British, a British soldier would be kidnapped and executed. He plots along with the more establishment Haganah the 1946 bombing of the King David hotel, the headquarters of the British Army. It was Begin’s terror campaign that forced the British out. In too many histories it is the Irgun alone who were responsible for the bombing. Prior to the imposition a temporary cease fire in Israel's War for Independence the Atalena, an Irgun arms carrying ship was fired upon by Haganah troops just outside of Tel Aviv. The government under Ben Gurion wanted to show that Israel would support the U.N. cease fire ordered the attack. The columnist Tom Friedman has cited this as an important step in establishing the credibility of the new government. However, the historical record is murkier, because the government was told by Begin that the ship was coming after the cease fire was put in place. Begin made attempts at compromise, but Ben Gurion fearing Begin as a rival, opened fire. Twenty years later Ben Gurion reconsidered.

By most histories Begin is blamed for the 1948 massacre of Deir Yassin, an Arab village near Jeruslaem. Yes, there was a massacre, but the nascent state was struggling to keep the road to Jerusalem open. Moreover the entire operation was being run by the Haganah. Thus there is plenty of blame to go around, but to most histories the blame falls fully on Begin. 

With the labor Zionists fully in control Begin spends the next 30 years in all but political exile. To be sure he is a member of the Knesset, but he doesn't enter the government until the 1967 war. He leaves it soon thereafter. However a political revolution is brewing under the surface. The population is becoming more Sephardic and become restive under the more elitist labor Zionist Ashkenazim, corruption was growing, and the early failures of the Israeli Army during the 1973 War highlighted military unpreparedness. Thus in 1977 a political revolution took place brought Menachem Begin to the prime ministership with his Likud coalition. One of his acts is to admit and make full citizens of 66 Vietnamese boat people who were picked up by an Israeli freighter in the South China Sea. No Asian country wanted to take them in; Israel did.

Begin is most well known for making peace with Egypt's Anwar Sadat. He won the Nobel Peace Prize with Sadat in 1979 for the Camp David Accords which established peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai to Egyptian control. In the Sinai he showed no hesitation in removing the Jewish settlements there. This would not be the case for the West Bank. Recall the Sinai was never part of biblical Israel.

Begin made the big call in June 1981 when he ordered the Israeli Air Force to take out the Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction at Osirak. His action was condemned by most of the world, but in the light of history it represented one of the most clear eyed acts statesmanship of the 20th Century.

Perhaps the biggest stain on Begin was his delegating too much authority to Ariel Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon War. There is a straight line from that delegation to the massacre by Christian phalangists of the Arab towns of Sabra and Shatila. Begin resigned over this. Not only was the Lebanon War a political disaster, it was also a moral one.

Begin died in 1992. He lived his life under the precept of hadar (Dignity). Gordis brings this to life.

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