Begin's Legacy The Man Who Transformed Israel

He was the first prime minister from the Israeli right, and the first to represent the disenfranchised ‘Second Israel.’ Two decades after his death, with the longest-serving Likud coalition in power, Haaretz writers probe the complex and conflicted character of Menachem Begin.

Esti Ahronovitz
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Esti Ahronovitz

August 16, 1913: Born in “Brisk of Lithuania” (Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus), son of Hassia and Ze’ev Dov Begin, brother to Herzl and Rachel. The midwife was the grandmother of Ariel Sharon.

1915: In World War I, the Begin family flees to the town of Drohiczyn, in Russia, then wanders through forests for a year before finding a haven in the city of Kobryn.

Menachem Begin at an Independence Day rally in Ariel, 1981. Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

1919: The family returns to Brisk.

1929: Begin, 16, joins Betar, a Revisionist-Zionist youth movement. In his memoir “White Nights,” he described his first encounter with its leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in Brisk to deliver a speech: “You sit there, and listen to this man and feel in every bone in your body how he raises you up, up. Have you been conquered? No: You have been consecrated.”

Begin with his wife in 1942.
Begin and Yehiel Kadishai, 1977.
Menachem Begin at a Herut rally in Tel Aviv, 1952, protesting against suggested reparation payments by West Germany.
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Begin with his wife in 1942.Credit: Menachem Begin Heritage Center
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Begin and Yehiel Kadishai, 1977.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO
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Menachem Begin at a Herut rally in Tel Aviv, 1952, protesting against suggested reparation payments by West Germany.Credit: Hans Fin / GPO
Begin's legacy

1931: Begins law studies at the University of Warsaw. Organizes self-defense for Jewish students against anti-Semitic hooligans; active in local Betar branch.

1935: Graduates law school. As head of Betar information department publishes articles, delivers speeches and organizes meetings.

1938: At Third Betar World Congress, in Warsaw, proposes an amendment to the Betar oath. Instead of Jabotinsky’s “I will prepare my hand for the defense of my people and only in defense will I will raise my hand,” Begin suggests: “I will prepare my hand for the defense of my people and for the conquest of my homeland.” The amendment is adopted.

March 1939: Jabotinsky appoints Begin head of Betar in Poland.

May 29, 1939: Marries Aliza Arnold, whom he met two years earlier when he stayed with her family in Drohobycz, Poland, during a tour of Betar branches. Years later, Begin recalled meeting the Arnolds’ daughters, twin sisters aged 17, but taking special note of one, and deciding then and there that he would marry her. After the visit he wrote to her. At the wedding the young couple wore Betar uniforms. The guest of honor was Jabotinsky, who came to Drohobycz from Paris especially for the event.

September 6, 1939: On the sixth day of the German invasion of Poland, Begin and Aliza flee Warsaw together with Natan Friedman (who changed his name later to Yellin-Mor) and his wife, carrying 150,000 zloty. This vast amount of money was withdrawn from the postal bank, with Begin signing on behalf of Betar, and Friedman in the name of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization abbreviated as Etzel, in Hebrew).

September 20, 1940: Three agents of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, knock on the door of a two-room apartment outside Vilna, where the Begins and Israel Scheib (later Eldad) and his wife are hiding. “Here you are still my guests,” Begin says, offering the agents tea. He leaves with them after polishing his shoes, and takes with him a Bible and a biography of Disraeli.

March 1941: Sentenced to eight years of “corrective” hard labor for Zionist activity, incarcerated in Lukiskes Prison, in Vilna. One day he receives a package wrapped in paper bearing the word “Olah.” When a Jewish prisoner suggests that this might be a word in Hebrew, Begin grasps that this means that his wife has immigrated to the Land of Israel.

June 1941: Sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Haggard and ill, he is released after nine months and joins the Anders Army, a Polish force, which was organized in the Soviet Union.

1942: As a soldier in the army, arrives in Palestine via Iraq and Iran. Reunited with his wife after two years of forced separation.

March 1, 1943: Son Ze’ev Binyamin is born (Benny Begin, minister without portfolio in the current Netanyahu government).

December 1, 1943: Appointed commander of Etzel, goes by the underground alias of “Ben David.”

February 1, 1944: Etzel declares revolt against the British Mandatory government, demanding that power be placed in Jewish hands and proclaiming: “Liberty or death.”

February 12, 1944: Etzel squads plant bombs in Mandate immigration offices in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, to protest the low quota of immigration certificates. Later that year, the organization blows up the income tax office in Jerusalem and British intelligence offices in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem.

September 1944: Disguised as a yeshiva student, complete with beard, under the alias “Israel Sassover,” Begin moves to Habashan Street in Tel Aviv. Aliza, who is pregnant, registers in hospital as the wife of Israel Epstein (a friend of the family). Epstein, playing the anxious father, is informed that his “wife” has given birth to a girl and then disappears from the hospital in order to tell the real father the news. The child is named Hassia, after Begin’s mother.

October 1944: Start of the “Saison” or “hunting season” when the Haganah, the official prestate armed force, which objected to fighting the British while the war on Nazism raged, hunted down members of Etzel and Lehi, another underground group, and handed them over to the Mandate authorities.

October 1945: With the war over, the three prestate military organizations Haganah, Etzel and Lehi launch the Jewish Resistance Movement.

July 22, 1946: Etzel blows up the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the civilian and military headquarters of the Mandate authorities. Ninety people Britons, Jews and Arabs are killed in the blast. Begin was riveted to the radio that morning in Tel Aviv, along with Haim Landau, the Etzel commander of the Jerusalem District. According to Landau’s account, “Every hour a special news bulletin was broadcast, and with each bulletin more details were given, along with the names of victims who had been identified. The broadcasts drove him crazy. Begin was appalled. He constantly muttered, ‘What happened there?’” A few days later, a friend of Begin’s, seeing that the news broadcasts were depressing him, tore out the radio’s wire so it wouldn’t work.

April 16, 1947: Four Etzel activists Dov Gruner, Mordechai Alkahi, Yehiel Dresner and Eliezer Kashani are hanged by the British. A month later, Etzel raids Acre Prison and frees members of the underground movements. In July, Etzel hangs two British sergeants, Clifford Marvin and Martin Paice, in retaliation for the execution of three more of its men Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar who were arrested during the Acre raid.

May 14, 1948: State of Israel established. Begin makes his last broadcast from the Etzel radio station. His daughter Leah is born that year.

June 3, 1948: Agreement signed allowing Etzel units to become part of the newly established Israel Defense Forces.

June 20, 1948: Haganah shells Etzel arms ship, the Altalena, off the coast of Tel Aviv. Begin, who is on board the ship, orders his men to hold their fire, lest civil war erupt.

January 25, 1949: The Herut party, under Begin’s leadership, wins 14 seats in the elections to the First Knesset.

June 30, 1951: Herut wins only eight seats in the elections to the Second Knesset.

January 7, 1952: Begin addresses a mass demonstration in Jerusalem against the reparations agreement with Germany. After his speech, demonstrators attack the Knesset building and throw stones at it.

July 27, 1955: Herut wins 15 seats in the elections to the Third Knesset.

November 3, 1959: Herut wins 17 seats in the elections to the Fourth Knesset.

August 15, 1961: Herut maintains its strength in the Fifth Knesset, with Begin becoming the official leader of the opposition.

February 28, 1965: Herut and the Liberal Party merge to form Gahal. The new party wins 26 Knesset seats in that year’s elections.

June 1966: Two young Herut activists, Shmuel Tamir and Ehud Olmert, challenge Begin’s leadership at a party convention, after his failure to win in six consecutive elections. Begin resigns as party leader for a few months.

June 5, 1967: The Knesset approves Begin’s co-option to the government, as the Six-Day War begins. Begin and Yigal Allon, from the Labor Alignment, spearhead the historic decision to conquer East Jerusalem.

October 28, 1969: Gahal again wins 26 seats in the elections to the Knesset.

August 6, 1970: Begin resigns from the government, protesting its decision to discuss the Rogers Plan (a peace plan put forward by U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers based on Israeli withdrawal from all the territories conquered in 1967).

September 12, 1973: Likud party established (a merger of Gahal, State List, Free Center and the Greater Israel Movement).

May 12, 1977: Likud wins 43 seats in the elections to the Knesset; Begin, almost 64, forms his first government. As prime minister he often joked about his many years in the opposition. On one occasion he recalled how the Labor Alignment used to laugh at the fact that Herut hired someone to shout “Begin for prime minister” whenever the leader arrived at party headquarters. When the rabble-rouser was asked whether the work paid well, he replied, “The pay isn’t great, but it’s a life-long job.”

November 19, 1977: Begin receives Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Jerusalem.

September 17, 1978: Signs Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel at Camp David, following 11 days of negotiations. Israel agrees to withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula.

December 10, 1978: Begin and Sadat receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

March 26, 1979: In a festive ceremony on the White House lawn, Begin signs the peace treaty with Egypt the first such agreement between Israel and an Arab state.

June 7, 1981: Israel bombs Iraq’s Osirak reactor, an attack authorized by Begin.

June 5, 1982: Begin orders start of Operation Peace for Galilee, the first Lebanon war, which begins the next day, following the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London. The war drags on and Begin is depressed by the reports about Israeli casualties. According to Aryeh Naor, Begin’s cabinet secretary, the prime minister’s military secretary, Azriel Nevo, passed on every report about casualties in the fighting as it was received. Even in the middle of the night. Finally, Aliza Begin called the deputy prime minister, Simha Erlich, to ask that he intervene to stop the reports from being passed on at night. “There were a few reports yesterday evening,” she said, “and he cried and didn’t sleep a wink all night.”

September 16-18, 1982: With Israeli authorization, fighters from the Christian Phalange in Lebanon enter the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut, where they perpetrate a massacre.

November 13, 1982: Aliza Begin dies.

September 15, 1983: Begin resigns as prime minister and becomes a recluse.

March 9, 1992: Menachem Begin dies. Tens of thousands follow the funeral procession to the Mount of Olives, where Begin is buried next to his wife.



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