Begin's Betrayal

A fellow Herut member describes Menachem Begin as opportunistic and disingenuous in his diary / The woman who knew Herzl / The mysterious disappearance of the Australian PM / Da Vinci's fingerprint.

Abba Kovner was a poet and a Mapam party activist who was admired by many, one reason being his activity as a partisan commander in World War II. In May, 1961, Kovner appeared as one of the witnesses for the prosecution in the Eichmann trial. His testimony left a strong impression and was one of the formative moments in shaping the memory and the legacy of the Holocaust.

But Kovner's testimony also reflected a struggle that was entirely a matter of passions and politics - the struggle over historical glory. The prime minister was David Ben-Gurion; the opposition leader was Menachem Begin. Kovner, as well as Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak Zuckerman, were allowed to give the Labor Movement credit for heroism, including the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The role of the Revisionists was ignored.

During Kovner's testimony, one of the veterans of the Herut movement, Haim Lazar, who was also one of the partisans, was present in the courtroom. Upon his return home he wrote in his diary: "Abba Kovner's testimony, as could have been expected, was a song of praise to himself and his associates. He turned the entire underground into a family-party issue. He did everything: wrote the 'first poster in the world' calling for resistance, organized the underground and headed it, stood at the head of the partisan brigades in the forests and carried out innumerable acts of heroism. And of course - I and I alone." Lazar considered Kovner's testimony a show.

Lazar and Kovner were in the Vilna Ghetto. According to Lazar, the underground organization was prepared for an uprising and was awaiting Kovner's order: "The order was delayed and in the end was not given at all because he, Kovner, had to remain alive for the sake of history."

Lazar made a living as director of the central committee of the Leumit health maintenance organization. He promoted his worldview as a historian: In his books he restored to the right-wingers their part in the nation's glory. His complaints can be found among thousands of diary pages. His daughter, historian Sarah Lazar, is now publishing several of its pages.

The emotional turmoil in Lazar's diary is not directed only against the left, but also against the leader of his party, Menachem Begin: Begin is portrayed as an opportunistic politician, who did not mean what he said even when he spoke about the Holocaust. Lazar says that he also took no interest in efforts to engrave in the Israeli memory the part played by the members of Betar in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, because he did not participate in it. Begin left the city a few days after the Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939, and Lazar never forgave him for that:

"I once again mentioned the fact that all the leaders fled from Poland with the outbreak of the war and left the masses, both those who were organized and ordinary Jews, to the sighs and reversals of fate, without any guidance and advice in those difficult times. I particularly criticized the leaders of the Zionist Revisionists and Betar, who more than anyone else, thanks to the education they received, should have understood the situation thoroughly and remained with their masses of proteges, rather than saving themselves only."

From May, 1942, Begin lived in Palestine. Lazar: "From Palestine nobody tried to reach the ghettos or the camps. This would certainly have encouraged the masses and aroused them to many rebellions." But most of all Lazar is angry about the fact that Begin did not do his utmost to oppose the ties between Israel and Germany. Isaac Remba, the editor of the newspaper Herut, told Lazar that the party leaders had instructed him to moderate the position of the paper on this issue, because most of the public was not opposed to ties with Germany, and the party leaders were afraid that their position would harm them in the elections. According to Lazar, this was "a group of typical wheeler-dealers who were interested only in seats, honor and enjoying themselves, and self-praise and parasitism, without any exalted background and without any idea and without considering the good of the nation."

It is interesting that the pages from Lazar's diary are appearing in the periodical HaUmma (The Nation) of all places, which is publishing "Misdar Jabotinsky" ("The Jabotinsky Order"). The diary is worth studying. It can confirm a thesis that historian Yehiam Weitz suggests in his new book about the Herut movement ("Hatzad harishon lekes hashilton"; "The First Step to Power: The Herut Movement, 1949-1955," published by Yad Ben-Zvi, in Hebrew): Begin's attitude toward the question of ties with Germany was that of a pragmatic politician; as opposed to the impression he tried to create, he did not see it first of all as a moral question. Lazar therefore felt that Begin betrayed his vow to boycott Germany. Weitz says that Lazar is right.

Herzl touched her

And meanwhile on the History Channel, a repeat screening of "Pillar of Fire," the classical series by Yigal Lossin that was first aired in 1981. Zionism as a drama of revival and liberation, without post-modern doubts. In the first installment, as incredible as it sounds, there is an interview with a woman named Solomia Levita, who knew Herzl. He placed his hand on her shoulder and in German wished success to Zionism. This section has been broadcast a thousand times, and never ceases to amaze: almost like an interview with Herzl himself.

What happened to Holt?

Australian prime minister Harold Holt contributed a mystery to history that fires the imagination: He disappeared. To this day nobody knows for certain what happened to him. It happened 40 years ago this week: Holt went to swim in the ocean, not far from Portsea, Victoria. He entered the sea and didn't return. The successor of Robert Menzies at the head of the Liberal Party, who had served as prime minister for about 20 months, was an amateur diver; he was 59 years old when he died.

His death? Officially he died, but maybe he's still alive, who knows? His body was never found and thus a wave of rumors has proliferated, which peaks at least once every 10 years. Maybe he was murdered by CIA agents because he wanted to withdraw his country's forces from Vietnam, maybe he was eaten by a shark.

Recently the rumor that Holt committed suicide has been reinforced once again. New evidence has been found that he had signs of depression. His political colleagues had betrayed him, the husband of his mistress was about to cause a scandal. But they also say that the prime minister might have been picked up by a Chinese submarine and taken to a distant land, where he is living happily ever after to this very day.

The beauty of this story is that there is no need to stop telling it; we will always be able to enjoy its mysteries. Holt therefore deserves thanks, and the Australians have paid him back properly: They named a luxurious swimming pool in Melbourne after him.

Nonsense of the year

The prize for the most foolish historical study of 2007 should go to an Italian anthropologist named Luigi Capasso, who discovered a fingerprint on one of the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. Anyone who touched the painting over the last 500 years could have left his fingerprint on it, but Leonardo used to spread the paint with his finger, and therefore the learned scholar concludes that it must be his own fingerprint. His examination revealed that it has a unique structure that is common in the Middle East. This discovery ties in with the theory that Leonardo's mother came from Turkey. The result is a headline that was worded with utmost seriousness and appropriate academic caution, with a question mark at the end: Was Leonardo an Arab?