Thanks to the Begin Center for inviting me to participate in this program. I’ll be brief because, like everyone else here, I’m eager to hear the rabbi and Daniel Gordis. Dr. Gordis’s book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul deserves a wide reading because it’s an intelligent examination of its subject, nicely researched and a pleasure to read.
There are reasons why Begin’s name is well known and there are reasons why Begin is historically important. But the latter aren’t the same as the former.
Begin’s fame and notoriety derive mainly from two things that I’ll mention only briefly: the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and the accusations that Begin, during the 1940s, was a terrorist. The peace treaty was, for sure, a spectacular development. But even though it was signed 35 years ago, its historical significance is still, I think, an open question.
The treaty created a formal peace, but didn’t reduce anti-Israel hostility among Egyptians generally. Nor did it spur even formal steps toward peace by other Arab states. It’s true that Egypt and Israel haven’t warred against each other since 1979, and that’s a happy non-occurrence, but it’s not clear to what extent the treaty deserves credit for that. Even without peace treaties, Israel fought no wars in that period against Jordan or Syria either. Let’s hope someday the Egyptian people will accept Israel as a friendly neighbor. If that happens, the treaty is likelier to be seen as a development of great historical importance.
As for the accusations of terrorism, one of Dr. Gordis’s book’s chief contributions is to deal with them frankly in light of the evidence. The book helps one understand that what was called terrorism in the 1940s differed in essential respects from the purposeful targeting of ordinary people that is the essence of radical Islamist terrorism today.
What I want to highlight are two other matters. Both are crucial, I believe, to an appreciation of Begin’s role as an Israeli leader.
First is Begin’s liberalism. Let’s define our terms: “liberalism” is belief in the importance of each individual and a commitment to the political equality of individuals. Rule of law is an essential aspect of liberalism. You can’t have a liberal society if law is not a constraint on the people in power, but is merely a tool of the powerful. The Labor Zionists deserve appreciation for many accomplishments, but, let’s face it, the wellsprings of their political philosophy were collectivist – Marxist socialism and, in some cases, Bolshevism. Zionist socialists weren’t passionate respecters of individuals as such, nor were they sticklers about law and due process. Their tradition – their frame of mind – was neatly captured by the famous maxim that you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
Begin, however, was an old-fashioned liberal. He saw people not as masses, but as individual souls. He respected law. He was not only law-abiding by nature, but can be faulted for being legalistic, a minor fault under the circumstances of Israeli politics and diplomacy. Begin upheld the rights of people who protested against him. And he advocated respect for the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Now, I imagine that some of you are wondering how one can square Begin’s liberalism with his Jewish nationalism. How can Jewish collective rights in Eretz Yisrael be reconciled with liberalism? The answer is that many liberal democratic countries are ethnically based. Many view themselves as guardians of the cultures of particular peoples. Indeed that’s true of most liberal democracies. The United States is one of the few exceptions. And, as the Gordis book observes, love for one’s own particular people doesn’t preclude respect for others. In fact, such love can be a source of empathy, as Begin showed when he gave refuge in Israel to South Vietnamese “boat people” escaping the communists’ conquest of their country. His heart went out to the Vietnamese because he saw them in light of the Jews’ experience as refugees at the mercy of a merciless world.
The second point I want to highlight is Begin’s role in promoting unity and community in Israel. Community is something many of us take for granted, but it’s difficult to create fellow feeling, mutual respect and cooperation among hundreds of thousands of people drawn or thrown together from all over the world in a short period. Through the middle of the 20th century, the Jews in Palestine, and then in Israel, were led almost entirely by Ashkenazim who were secular and Socialist. Among Israel’s greatest challenges were making non-Ashkenazi Jews feel welcome and equal and finding ways to bridge the divide between secular and religious Jews. These remain major challenges, but a prominent aspect of Begin’s legacy was the political connection he forged with the Sephardim and the Mizrachim and his embrace of Jewish religious practice. He made a point throughout his life of exalting the concept of Am Yisrael so that Jews would not let intra-family schisms destroy the kind of unity needed to advance the Zionist cause or to preserve Israel as a state.
It can be argued that Begin’s finest moments were before he became Prime Minister. When he was head of the Irgun, Begin ordered his forces not to fight back during the so-called hunting season, when Ben Gurion ordered Haganah men to arrest Irgun fighters and turn them over to the British authorities. Begin chose to suffer what he deemed unjust blows rather than allow a civil war among Jews. A few years later, in 1948, Ben Gurion ordered Haganah forces to sink the Irgun arms ship Altalena off Tel Aviv’s beach. Begin again ensured that his soldiers did not shoot back. Ben Gurion accused the Irgun of intending civil war and planning violent anti-democratic attacks against the government of the new Jewish state. Whether or not Ben Gurion actually believed this, it’s clear from Begin’s record – at the time and in the decades that followed – that Ben Gurion’s accusations were wrong.
Begin had his flaws. He made mistakes. He missed opportunities. He sometimes spoke rashly. Daniel Gordis’s biography scrupulously brings these flaws forward for examination. The flaws remind us that Begin was human. They don’t belie his status as one of the most consequential and admirable leaders in the long history of the Jewish people.