"Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” by Daniel Gordis
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Nextbook/Schocken; 295 pages, $27.95
Climbing out of the mouth of hell, Dante and Virgil, the poet heroes of the “Divine Comedy,” stand facing Mount Purgatory, home of souls punished for sins of love perverted. On the first rung of the stepped mountain, the other-worldly explorers find the proud – those guilty of the gravest of the seven deadly sins. These souls are doubled over, shuffling and bowed by the heavy stones they carry on their backs; the stones represent the weight of the conceit and arrogance they displayed when they were alive.
I don’t know if Menachem Begin deserves to be among these sinners (in any case, as Jews, both he and I would have been sent to hell by Dante), but Daniel Gordis’ new biography of him, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” certainly does. The book is a paragon of overweening pride: smug, self-satisfied, convinced of its own conclusions, and disdainful of its presumed critics.
Gordis, a rabbi and prolific author who is now senior vice-president of Jerusalem’s new Shalem College, has made a career of shrilly and unquestionably defending Israel against all critics, and this latest book is no exception. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister and one of the most charismatic, complex and polarizing political figures in the country’s history, is portrayed one-dimensionally as a Jewish saint, motivated, from the very beginning of his political career to its end, exclusively by his “unabashed, utter devotion to the Jewish people.” At the book’s end, the reader has no more insight into Begin’s character and drives than he or she did at the beginning, and would do well to turn to the many other more rounded accounts of Begin and his political career.
Pride is not, however, the only connection between Gordis’ “Menachem Begin” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The two works are also both allegorical – Dante’s an allegory of the spiritual life, and Gordis’ of Israeli politics. For, though the biography’s ostensible subject is Begin’s life, its real object is, quite transparently, to convince American Jews of the rightness of Gordis’ own particular pro-Israel position. Gordis uses Begin’s life as a parable to defend and justify many of the controversial positions of Israel’s current Likud-led government: on the Iranian nuclear issue, settlement construction, negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, disloyal Israeli leftists, American Jewish liberals, and Israel’s character as a Jewish state.
Rising through the ranks
Menachem Begin was born in the city of Brisk, Poland (today Brest, in Belarus), in 1913. When Menachem was 13, his father enrolled his youngest son in Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement headed by Vladimir Jabotinsky; Betar, and the organizations and parties that grew from it in Israel, would remain Begin’s political and ideological home throughout his life. Begin quickly rose through the ranks of the movement, sharpening his skills as an orator and crossing Poland to lecture about Jabotinsky’s vision of a Jewish state encompassing biblical territories on both sides of the river Jordan.
By the beginning of World War II, Begin was head of Betar in Poland. However, having escaped in 1939 with his wife from Warsaw to Vilnius, then under Soviet control, Begin was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and eventually tried for counter-revolutionary activities and sent to a labor camp.
Following Hitler’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union and Stalin’s joining the Allies, Begin was among those Polish prisoners released to the Free Polish Army, which travelled through the Soviet Union via Iran to meet British forces in Palestine in 1942. Upon reaching Tel Aviv, Begin reconnected with his former Betar comrades, who selected him to head the Irgun, the underground Jewish armed resistance to British rule in Palestine.
Up until the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, the Irgun and the smaller Lehi underground movement – sometimes in collaboration with the official Jewish Agency, but usually in opposition to its leader David Ben-Gurion – conducted terror attacks against British targets, including the abduction and execution of officers, and bombings, most famously of the King David Hotel in 1946.
During the years spent underground, to which Gordis devotes much of his attention, Begin lived in a Tel Aviv apartment under an assumed identity; it was only with the departure of the last British forces in 1948 that he could come out of hiding and begin his open political life as leader of the Herut, or Freedom, Party.
Despite support for the Irgun among many Jews, the Irgun’s massacre of Palestinian civilians at the village of Deir Yassin in 1948, and the violent confrontation between Irgun fighters and the newly created Israel Defense Forces over the Altalena arms ship that same year, tarred Begin’s reputation at home and abroad. Herut won only 14 of the 120 seats in the first Knesset elections in 1949, and the party remained in the opposition for decades.
Begin’s fortunes began to change with the 1967 Six-Day War. Not only did the conflict bring him into a unity government, but the primary issue he had been championing for years – the Jewish birthright to the biblical heartland – had suddenly, with the capture of territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, become part of the national agenda.
Allegory to contemporary politics
A combination of support from Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and public outrage at the debacle of Israel’s near-loss in the 1973 Yom Kippur War swept Begin into power in 1977. Alongside his landmark peace accord with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, Begin also greatly expanded the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and, at the prodding of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, ordered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The first Lebanon war, aimed at supporting Maronite Christian militias and driving the Palestinian Liberation Organization from their bases in the country, led to the massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, to massive protests within Israel, and to the end of Begin’s political career. Already frail, he resigned and withdrew from public life a year later, and passed away in 1992.
Gordis’ narrative of Menachem Begin’s life does not stray far from the standard biographies. The difference, which makes possible the allegory to contemporary politics, lies in how he tells the story.
The book’s most glaring example of using Begin’s life to take a stand in support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies is the chapter devoted to the Israel Air Force’s 1981 strike that destroyed Iraq’s uncompleted Osirak nuclear reactor. Though he does not say so explicitly, Gordis’ effusive and dramatic telling of this successful mission serves as a model and a justification for a threatened similar attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Gordis praises Begin’s resolve in preventing “Saddam’s developing genocidal capability” and his unwillingness to bow to American opposition and international censure, and, moreover, provides proof that Begin was right all along. Gordis quotes a message written by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1991 just after the first Gulf War, thanking the commander of the Israeli air force for destroying the reactor, “which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!” The lesson here is clear: Whatever it might say now, if Israel takes out Iran’s nukes, the United States will thank us later.
Similarly, the book’s derision of Begin’s opponents on the left has direct implications for Israeli politics today. While Begin is portrayed as an ideal type – faithful, resolute and uncompromisingly devoted to the Jewish people – David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is depicted as deceitful, mendacious and paranoid. In a final chapter that compares Begin to the founding fathers of the American Revolution, Gordis states that, while Ben-Gurion was certainly a great Jewish leader, he was also a British “Loyalist,” who needed reminding from Begin’s Irgun that “it wasn’t enough to want a Jewish state; one had to actually do something in order to achieve it.”
Not to be trusted
Ben-Gurion was no saint, of course, but neither was Begin. Gordis’ black-and-white picture of the two is a caricature that does not do justice to either figure. But, again, the point here is not to paint a complex portrait of characters and motives. As with his disdain for American Jewish liberals like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, who signed a public letter protesting Begin’s first visit to the United States in 1948 on account of his association with the Deir Yassin massacre – the lesson of Gordis' portraits is that liberals and leftists, in Israel and America, are naive and not to be trusted.
In an age when there is more and more debate in the American Jewish community about Israel, Gordis’ defense of Begin is meant to silence contemporary critics.
One of the most unexpected turns in Begin’s political career was the peace treaty he signed in 1979 with Egypt. Egypt and Israel had fought a devastating war just a few years before, and as the largest military power in the region, Egypt was the greatest threat to Israeli security. Begin’s overtures to Sadat, and the latter’s 1977 visit to Israel and speech in the Knesset, were greeted with euphoria by most Israelis. However, as Gordis rightly points out, the devil in the peace treaty was in the details of the negotiations between the two parties. The Camp David talks, which President Jimmy Carter convened in 1978, were tense and dramatic, almost falling apart several times.
As we are now, still, in the midst of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Gordis’ discussion of the Camp David negotiations is unintentionally illuminating regarding his own perspective on today’s talks. He presents Sadat and Carter as willfully obtuse, misunderstanding the political challenges Begin might face at home, and “tacking on” the Palestinian issue and the fate of the West Bank and Gaza to negotiations – an issue which for the Egyptian and American leaders was quite germane – and claims that, “intentionally or not, both Sadat and Carter were creating the impression that what animated them was simply hostility to Israel.”
Begin, on the other hand, is pictured as resolute, steadfast and heroically uncompromising, unwilling to violate his core conviction that Israel must maintain total control over and retain all the settlements in the biblical territories captured in the Six-Day War.
Gordis’ praise of Begin’s negotiating strategy, coupled with his enthusiasm for Begin’s commitment to Jewish dignity above all else, translates pretty straightforwardly into support for the current government’s negotiating strategy. Netanyahu has demanded that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for the negotiations. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and others have quite reasonably questioned what that designation might mean for Israel’s many non-Jewish citizens, especially the Arabs who make up some 20 percent of the population. The dubious lesson of Gordis’ portrayal, never explicitly acknowledged but obvious to any knowledgeable reader, seems to be: Hunker down, sacrifice nothing, and eventually the goyim will give in.
The writer is a Martin Buber Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University or Jerusalem. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Tablet and other publications, and is the translator of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s “The Israeli Republic.”