Saturday, November 29, 2014

Begin's Greatness and Errors

Menachem Begin: Moments of greatness, moments of error 

Is a great person great in everything he or she does? Menachem Begin was a political leader, or to use a blunter word, a politician. Even to have become commander of the Betar youth movement in Poland must have involved competition and garnering support. But politicians can rise to moments of greatness and statesmanship.

His greatest moment, in my opinion, is not the peace treaty with Egypt. That is a great accomplishment, and marks his entry onto the world stage as a recognized statesman. The first moment of greatness came in June 1948. Etzel (the Irgun Zvai Leumi) had sent a small ship from France to Israel. Named the Altalena, which was a pen name of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s, it was loaded with over 900 fighters, and a large quantity of arms.

By the time it arrived off Israel’s shores, a UN-supervised cease-fire was in force between the fledgling state and the invading Arab armies, according to which no arms were to be introduced into the area. The Altalena was beached at the foot of Tel Aviv’s Frishman Street. Prime minister Ben-Gurion feared, beyond trouble with the UN, that the arms would bolster Irgun units in the unified IDF, and insisted that no separate “militias” should exist. (He later also disbanded the left-wing Palmah separate command.) Begin made every effort to reach an agreement, but once the ship beached at Tel Aviv, B-G was convinced this was a possible putsch against the government. He ordered the IDF to open fire on the Altalena. At that point, with casualties on both sides, there was danger that fighting would continue between Irgun members and supporters and the original large component of Hagana soldiers making up the new IDF.

Menachem Begin gave the order: No! No more shooting. “My greatest accomplishment,” he later said,” was not retaliating and causing civil war.”

If that was indeed his greatest accomplishment, what was his greatest moment of weakness, of error? Begin was not only a product of religious Jewish/Hebrew education and of Jabotinsky’s teachings. In many ways, as a Polish-trained lawyer, he adopted customs of the Polish gentry and influences of European politics in general.

For reasons beyond the scope of this article, Jabotinsky, Betar and eventually Begin himself had been described by their anti-rightist opponents as “fascists.” One reason was that Jabotinsky’s use of the word “tzvaiyut” – military-like – as an ideal for Jewish youth could easily be understood as “militarism,” a point seemingly underlined in that Betar members wore military-type brown uniforms. Later Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s SA wore brown as well. (Remember, I have described both Jabotinsky and Begin as liberal democrats.) In one of the early elections, Begin would ride to his campaign meetings with a motorcycle escort of Herut party members. This lapse into the lowest European political fashion simply played into the “fascist” stereotype. But a much greater flaw appeared surrounding the 1952 debate on whether Israel should sign a reparations agreement with West Germany.

The background: State-building versus ‘forgiving the Nazis’

In 1952, Israel was barely able to make ends meet. It had doubled its population in the first three years of statehood, resulting in rationing, austerity, leaky ma’barot huts replacing the tent cities of the new immigrants, rampant unemployment.

There were barely enough exports to register against Israel’s need for capital. The income from Keren Hayesod-UIA combined with that from the sale of Israel Bonds was nowhere near what was needed to sustain the state.

Ben-Gurion, foreign minister Moshe Sharett and finance minister Levi Eshkol were pragmatists.

The Germans owed the Jewish people and Israel as their successor state payment for material claims: the cost of absorbing displaced persons, and reparations for heirless Jewish property amassed by Nazis at all levels.

Begin’s Herut led a fiery opposition, which was augmented by the General Zionists on the Right and Mapam on the Left. Their argument was that material reparations would help Germany rid itself of the indelible stain of its murderous Nazi past in the eyes of the world.

Here Ben-Gurion showed the statesmanship of a pragmatist who put sustaining the existence of Israel together with the prophetic statement to an evil ruler “Would you both murder and inherit?” Begin, who felt the loss of his family and Polish and other European Jewry keenly, let emotion lead.

As the agreement was being debated in the Knesset, he gave a passionate speech at a demonstration attended by about 15,000 participants including many Holocaust survivors. Dramatically, he attacked the government and even called for its overthrow. Begin said: “When you fired at me with cannon, I gave the order; ‘No! [Do not return fire]!’ Today I will give the order, “Yes!” The demonstrators then moved on toward the Knesset (then at the Frumin Building on King George Street near Ben-Yehuda Street). A large police force cordoned them off. The enraged crowd threw stones at the Knesset windows, and at police. “After five hours of rioting, police managed to suppress the riots using water cannons and tear gas. Hundreds were arrested, while some 200 rioters, 140 police officers, and several Knesset members were injured,” according to Wikipedia.

Begin was seen as personally responsible for the violence, and barred from the Knesset for several months.

Viewed in hindsight, indeed this was the image of a demagogue. It took him many years to shed it.

In the next article, more on his human side.

Avraham Avi-hai, author of the novel A Tale of Two Avrahams, served at the Rothberg International School with the late Professor Hillel Dalesky. He was a volunteer from South Africa who, against his will, was ordered to fire on the Altalena.

When Begin Was A Lebanese's Hero

Saeed Akl, Lebanon’s leading poet whose fame spread throughout the Arab world, has died, state media and officials said Friday. He was 102. The ultra-nationalist Akl wrote his poems in classical Arabic as well as the Lebanese dialect, which he referred to as “the Lebanese language.”  Some of his most famous poems were sung by Lebanon’s top singer, Fayrouz...

...He also wrote a song about the Palestinian struggle, “Now, and not tomorrow, the bells of return shall ring,” written after Israel seized east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967.  But during the 1975-1990 civil war, Akl was known for his anti-Palestinian statements, and once praised the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for invading Lebanon.

The hero Begin should continue cleansing Lebanon to the last Palestinian,” he said in an interview in 1982, the year the Jewish State began an 18-year occupation of Lebanon.



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Begin Filmatography

Did you know Begin has a filmatography listing?

Biographical movies
Begin (1998)

Portrayed in
Sadat (1983) (TV)
Raid on Entebbe (1976) (TV)

Magazine cover photo
Time (USA) 20 September 1982
Time (USA) 11 September 1978
Time (USA) 30 May 1977

And there's one in the works.

Maybe you'd like to assist?


The Revolt Sizzle Reel from The Revolt - The Movie on Vimeo.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Jews Deserve a State

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin never loosened his tie, nor did his mind stray from the horror of the Holocaust, where Jewish ash would convince the world that Jews deserved land of their own. 

that was a description in the new Camp David book.

Menachem Begin believed that the Jewish people deserved a homeland so as to avoid that ash the first time because it was the natural right of the Jews to reconstitute the ancient homeland.  That was his conviction, even of no anti-Semitism even existed.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reviewing a Book Review

NYT Book Review Provides Platform for Joe Klein's Bias

Few topics arouse the ire of Time Magazine's political columnist Joe Klein more than Israeli or American Jewish conservatives or traditionalists. When he writes about them, historicity and facts become secondary to his own personal animus.

Such is the case with the journalist's book review of Lawrence Wright's “Thirteen Days in September,” published in the Sept. 14, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review supplement. Mr. Klein uses his review of a book about the 1978 Camp David negotiations as an opportunity to vent his own hostility against former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was a major player in the negotiations and resulting accords, as well as a traditionalist and a conservative.

It is informative to contrast Klein's review of the book in the New York Times with one in the Wall Street Journal two days earlier by Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior director for Near East Affairs at the National Security Council. According to Abrams:
In Mr. Wright's version, Mr. Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat come across far better than Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who is presented mostly as an obstacle to peace....Begin's life story is told far less sympathetically than are those of Mr. Carter and Sadat... [He] is presented as "the man who embodied the most wounded and aggressive qualities in the Israeli psyche. Obstruction, not leadership, was his nature. (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2014)
Klein, on the other hand, sees the author's somewhat negative characterization of Begin as “almost sympathetic.” He writes:
It is a measure of Wright's fairness and subtlety that Begin comes across as an almost-sympathetic character.
Klein himself characterizes Begin as a clearly unsympathetic character. “He isn't dashing; he isn't eloquent; he doesn't smile,” writes Klein, who brands him a “sourpuss extremist.”

As to Begin's approach to his religion, Klein is similarly denigrating:
His Judaism was litigious, drawn from the Talmudic tradition of worrying the law to distraction, fighting over every codicil.
The book reviewer is certainly entitled to his own negative opinion of Begin, and even to his misinformed characterization of Talmudic tradition. But it is his double standards in categorizing terrorism and terrorists that are most disturbing.

As leader of the Irgun (Etzel), an armed underground organization in Mandate Palestine that encouraged illegal immigration and carried out attacks against the British, Menachem Begin was labeled a terrorist by the British and competing Zionist groups. That designation, as well as the manner and type of attacks that Etzel carried out, has been and continues to be debated.

There is far less debate about the infamous 1978 PLO-perpetrated slaughter that came to be known as the “Coastal Road Massacre.” That attack killed 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children, and wounded 71 others. Time Magazine called it “the worst terrorist attack in Israel's history.”

But while Klein categorically labels Begin “a former terrorist,” he refrains from using that term to characterize the Palestinian perpetrators of the 1978 massacre. He blandly calls them “militants.”

Their intention, as two surviving terrorists confessed, was to seize hostages at a luxury hotel, as well as to take UN representatives and international ambassadors hostages who could be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, but that plan was aborted after the boats carrying the terrorists landed 40 miles away from their destination. Instead, the terrorists hijacked a bus, shot and threw grenades at passing cars, and eventually tried to kill the passengers on the bus and others who crossed their path. The timing of the attack was meant to destroy the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiation and to damage tourism, according to a Fatah planner

None of these motives, however, serve to blame Israel, and so Klein insidiously attributes a different intention to the terrorists– one turns the story away from Palestinian terrorism to an indictment of Israel under Menachem Begin's leadership. He writes:
The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed. And three days later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, which was then controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. “Those who killed Jews in our times cannot enjoy impunity,” the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin said. More than a thousand Palestinian civilians were killed; more than 100,000 were left homeless. The world, including President Jimmy Carter, was horrified. Following another invasion in 1982, Israel would occupy parts of southern Lebanon until May 2000.

It is hard to trust a book review about historical characters that is imbued with so much apparent personal hostility that the "facts" are shaped to support the reviewer's feelings. It is not surprising, however, that the New York Times entrusted such a review to Joe Klein, who would reliably bash Israel.


If you read the article, you will catch this sentence of Klein
Begin didn’t cave on anything except giving up the Sinai Peninsula
as if that meant nothing.

And this is important:

When Carter proposed that Israel allow a Jordanian flag to fly over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Begin responded, “Never. . . . What will happen when the Messiah comes?” He agreed to participate in the negotiations because “President Carter knows the Bible by heart, so he knows to whom this land by right belongs.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 13 Days of September 1978

New book is out on the Camp David Conference.

From a review:

The agreement Carter brokered between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the crowning achievement of his otherwise disappointing presidency. Sadat and Begin later were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Wright's book is no paean to the leaders.
Instead, he casts a critical and honest eye upon the three men.

Much of "Thirteen Days" details the fractured personal and public histories that brought Carter, Begin and Sadat to power and eventually to Camp David. And it portrays the negotiations themselves as a tense series of meetings between powerful men who whined, pouted and screamed to get their way...

...Sadat had helped set a peace process in motion with a surprise visit to Jerusalem in 1977. By agreeing to Carter's Camp David gambit, he hoped that Egypt might displace Israel as the Americans' key ally in the region. Begin was convinced the talks would fail — he was the only one of the three leaders to arrive at the summit without any proposals...

...As a condition for recognizing Israel, Sadat demanded that Begin return the Sinai Peninsula. Begin said such a deal would mean giving away a buffer zone of deserts and mountains in exchange for a mere written promise. Given Begin's own experiences with loss and betrayal, it was a difficult bargain to make.  "There was only one thing standing in the way, and that was Begin's entire history," Wright says.

and there is this:

On the surface, Begin and Sadat had little in common. But earlier in their careers both had been prisoners of the British colonial authorities. Both had fought — often viciously — for the independence of their countries. Wright doesn't spare showing us the blood they had on their hands.

As a young Egyptian nationalist during World War II, Sadat joined a "murder society" that assassinated isolated British soldiers and later targeted Egyptian leaders who collaborated with British colonial authorities.

Begin was a Zionist from a young age. In 1929, he joined a paramilitary Jewish youth group in Poland. He lost most of his family in the Holocaust. In Palestine, he became among the fiercest of the rebels fighting the British for the creation of a Jewish state. He used tactics that would later come to be branded "terrorism."

"The transformation of terrorism as a primarily local phenomenon into a global one came about in large part because of the success of his tactics," Wright writes of Begin. "He proved that, under the right circumstances, terror works."

Of course, Sadat saw Hitler as an idol; Begin didn't.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

When They Called Begin "Murderer"

I moved to Israel from New York in 1982, during another summer of fighting, and Israeli society was tearing itself apart. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was firing Katyusha rockets into residential areas of the Galilee; the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had invaded Lebanon, in Israel's first asymmetrical war against terrorists in urban neighborhoods. As civilian casualties in Beirut mounted, Israelis raged at each other in the streets. On Rosh Hashanah, I saw then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin emerge from a Jerusalem synagogue, to be greeted by left-wing demonstrators shouting, "Murderer!"

Yossi Klein Halevi
New Republic, August 29, 2014