Sunday, March 09, 2014

Menachem Begin, The Counter-Revolutionary


A pair of events, neither of which occurred at a chronological midpoint in Israel's history, nevertheless divide that history in two. The first was the Six Day War of 1967. The second was Menachem Begin's electoral victory of 1977. Both came unexpectedly, both launched Israel on unforeseen trajectories and both had immense consequences that the country is still struggling to cope with.

These events, though 10 years apart, were closely connected. Begin, a loser in eight prior national elections, would never have won the prime ministership on his ninth try without the '67 war. It bestowed on him-a right-wing leader despised and shunned by Israel's ruling establishment until asked to join a national unity cabinet as war threatened-a political respectability he hadn't had before. It transformed his Herut Party's platform, which called for Jewish rule in all of Palestine, from an apparent fantasy to a reality. It awakened a wave of repressed sentiment for places-the Old City of Jerusalem, Hebron, the hill country of Judea and Samaria-that, though an integral part of the Jewish people's biblical heritage, had been written off as permanently lost by all but Begin's most fanatic followers. And it led directly to the surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack in 1973, whose initial debacle and terrible losses turned Israelis against the Labor Zionist leadership they had trusted since the nation's founding in 1948. It made them ready for a change.

In his thoughtful and well-written new biography of Begin, the American-born Daniel Gordis, who moved to Israel in 1998 and has become one of its most articulate explainers and defenders to English-speaking audiences, addresses the question of what, at its deepest level, this change was about. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul doesn't break new investigative ground. Relying on previous studies, it tells the story of Begin's childhood and adolescence in a Polish shtetl; his rise to the top of Betar, a youth movement affiliated with the Revisionist Party founded by the right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky; his years as commander of the Irgun, the Revisionists' underground fighting force in Palestine, following his arrival there in 1942 and the death of his family in the Holocaust; his two decades of languishing in the political wilderness after Israel's establishment in 1948; his 1977 triumph; his historic roles in the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and the 1982 war in Lebanon; and the physical and psychological decline that led to his resignation in 1983. All are given their due.

What interests Mr. Gordis most, however, is Begin's Jewishness. Momentous as they were, Begin's opening of the West Bank to intensive Jewish settlement, his relinquishing of Sinai for peace with Egypt and the liberalization policies that hastened the end of Israel's semi-socialist economy aren't, in Mr. Gordis's opinion, his most important legacy. That, rather, was his restoration to Israeli public life of a fundamental sense of Jewish purpose that was missing from it during the long years of Labor hegemony. Though a politician like all politicians, Begin, Mr. Gordis writes, was "infinitely more than that . . . a person whose Jewish soul dictated virtually everything he said, every decision he took. . . . [He] was, and remains, the most Jewish prime minister that Israel has ever had."

On the face of it, this is a challengeable assertion. Begin, it is true, grew up in an Eastern European home suffused in Jewish knowledge and values, which can't be said of Israeli-born (or almost-born) prime ministers like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon. But Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Ben-Gurion's successor, Levi Eshkol, and Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir, were raised in similar homes-and while Begin, unlike them, continued irregularly to attend synagogue and partake in religious rituals throughout his life, he was by no means a traditionally observant Jew. Both Herut and the Likud Party that grew out of it, moreover, were secular parties with no such Jews in their leadership, and Begin's great hero and ideological mentor Jabotinsky didn't have a religious bone in his body.

Yet Mr. Gordis is right that Begin "was different." One of the features of the Labor Zionism that dominated Israel politics before 1977 was its revolt against, and often hostility to, Jewish religious tradition, which was perceived as parochial, passive and an obstacle to the Jewish people's return to a healthy existence in its historical land. Ben-Gurion, though more obsessively concerned with Israel's Jewish identity than was Begin, who took this identity as a given, conceived of a Jewish state as the breeding grounds of a new type of Jew. Traditional Judaism was for him a relic from the past with no positive role left to play in Israeli life.

Begin shared none of this. Neither Revisionism, Betar nor the Irgun had ever been anti-religious, and Begin related to Zionism as a historical movement that was in harmony with the religious past rather than at odds with it. He had, as Mr. Gordis puts it, "a finely honed appreciation for the rhythms and priorities of Jewish life and tradition, which had never yet been represented in the prime minister's office." What was more, he was intent on expressing it, whether this took the form of a quasi-religious devotion to the land of Israel (which, ironically, enabled him psychologically to surrender all of Sinai, a territory that was not, for Judaism, sacred) or the coalitions he formed with Israel's Orthodox and ultraorthodox parties or his support for policies like the financially inadvisable banning of Saturday flights by El Al, Israel's national airline, because the Sabbath was "an eternal value" of the Jewish people.

Begin's love and respect for Jewish tradition were a significant factor in the love and respect that much of Israel felt for him. As opposed to Israel's old, largely Labor-voting elite, the children and grandchildren of the masses of Jews from Arab lands who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and '60s had retained, if not the Orthodoxy of their parents and grandparents, a warm feeling for it. This population, which resented its low economic status and felt excluded from power and influence, was Begin's most enthusiastic constituency. Israel's have-nots had an attachment to Judaism that its haves did not.

If secular Zionism was a revolution in Jewish life, perhaps the greatest ever, Begin belonged to the counterrevolution that all revolutions produce in their wake-one that saw the old secular elite lose much of its cultural and political power and a more stridently nationalistic society, more dominated by religious discourse, emerge. How much Begin propelled this development, and how much it propelled him, is debatable; sooner or later, it would have happened without him, too. Yet when conditions for it first ripened, he was the Israeli politician best equipped to take advantage of them. In this sense, he was indeed their catalyst.

From the time of the Bible, the Jewish people has existed in a state of tension between its universalistic and particularistic sides, one emphasizing its calling in the world and the other its apartness from it, pulled now this way, now that. This tug of war, which continues in full force in Israel today, is the battle to which the subtitle of Mr. Gordis's book refers, and the years that have passed since 1977 represent a swing back toward the particularistic. If there is one assertion of Mr. Gordis's that I find it difficult to agree with, therefore, it is his characterization of Begin as an ideal balance between the two halves of the "Jewish soul," a man who harbored in equal proportions "both deeply humanist convictions and a passionate allegiance to [his] own people."

That Begin was a decent and humanly sensitive man there can be no doubt, but his allegiance to his people, it seems to me, was far stronger than any humanist convictions he may have had. Perhaps the most telling example of this was his reaction to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982, when an armed force of Lebanese Christian Phalangists entered two Palestinian refugee camps with the logistical support of the Israeli army and killed close to a thousand of their residents. Israel, not entirely fairly, was held responsible for the incident by an outraged world-although there was no evidence that it had anticipated the massacre, much less wanted it to take place, it did encourage the Phalangists to enter the camps and flush out their PLO fighters-and Begin's response, as quoted by Mr. Gordis, was to remark to his aide Yehuda Avner while they were on their way to synagogue for Rosh Hashana services the next day: "Goyim kill goyim and they hang the Jews."

Humanistically, this left much to be desired. Many Israelis, at any rate, thought so, because that same week hundreds of thousands congregated in Tel Aviv to protest and call for Begin's resignation. (I was one of them.) To his credit, the deep depression that caused him to resign a year later was partially brought on, it would seem, by his recognition that the war in Lebanon he had ordered had become a moral as well as a political mess. Menachem Begin had an exacting conscience, far more than did most other political leaders of the age, Israel's included.

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- Mr. Halkin's life of Vladimir Jabotinsky will be published in May.

The review can be read on the
Wall Street Journal website here

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