As the Sabbath noon of May 15, 1948 turned to afternoon, and afternoon into evening, the mood in downtown Jerusalem grew from excitement to tumult. Despite the siege and the threat of shelling, people roamed the streets rejoicing. Revelers from an inglorious bucket brigade of trench diggers and hackers, I among them, frolicked down Jaffa Road to Ben Yehuda Street, whose upper section had been blasted by truck bombs.
A bonfire was ablaze in a giant crater, and youngsters were spinning around it in a feisty hora folk dance. One young man in red shorts, overwhelmed by the thrill of the hour, cartwheeled over to where some of us were standing, and hugged each in turn.
In Zion Square an old man with a trombone and a girl with a guitar were playing a spirited "Hava Nagilla" and, spying the violin case of one of our crowd called Leopold Mahler - a professional violinist and Holocaust survivor who never ever wanted to play again - persuaded him to unpack his instrument and join in. Picking up the rhythm, Mahler began reworking it into wildly spiraling variations, his notes fluttering this way and that, improvisation upon improvisation, as if man and instrument were rediscovering each other in shared delight after a long separation.
At the bottom of Ben Yehuda Street, Cafe Atara, its blasted windows sealed with corrugated iron sheets upon which a defiant "Business as Usual" sign was splashed in fresh white paint, was offering a free glass of wine to all comers. Inside, candles and hurricane lamps cast a yellow glow over the rowdy crowd of fighters crackling with post-underground fever, it being their first truly free out-and-about since the British departure the day before.
IN ONE corner four dusty-looking fellows were fiddling with a battery-powered radio, frantically searching for a station. "Keep the noise down everybody," one of them yelled, "Menachem Begin's going to speak." "To hell with him!" shouted somebody vehemently, with a hard look. "We don't need to hear that warmonger tonight, of all nights!" The man had a pistol at his belt, sign of a Haganah officer.
"What did you say?" asked a burly fellow detaching himself from the group around the radio. "Begin will stop at nothing now to seize power by force!" snapped the Haganah chap. "Is that so?"
The burly man elbowed his way through the crush, leaned over the Haganah man so close that their noses almost touched, and in a thin whisper, rasped. "I think I know you. We've met before. You're the one who turned me and my Irgun friends over to the British in 1944. They beat us up and confiscated our weapons. We were all jailed because of you.
"But Begin wouldn't let us take revenge. 'Oh no, he said - there must be no civil war. A Jew must never lift a finger against another Jew,' he said."
A deep-buried ember of resentment and wrath smoldered and seethed in his eyes as he spoke.
"Could be it was me," answered the other man without a flinch, voice unflustered. "You Irgun terrorists were bringing total ruin on the rest of us because of…"
"Stop calling us terrorists," shouted an incensed fellow by the radio. "Freedom fighters, that's what we were - still are. We never deliberately targeted civilians."
"Is that so?" bellowed the Haganah man in a sudden sharp declaration of war. "Because of your terrorist antics, the British were wringing the necks of the rest of us. Ben-Gurion had no choice but to stop you, otherwise the British would have crushed us all. We had a bigger war to fight, remember? We had to defeat the Nazis before taking on the British.
"But no - your Mr. Begin knew better. Your Mr. Begin had to jump the gun. Your Mr. Begin couldn't wait until the war was over."
"Damned right he couldn't wait," retorted the burly man, poking a finger into the other fellow's chest. "By 1944 the Allies had all but won the war - remember?" Poke. "The Nazis were exterminating hundreds of thousands of Jews by the day - remember?" Poke. "And the British still wouldn't allow a single Jew into Palestine - remember?" Poke.
"So yes, damned right Begin declared a revolt against the British. Without that revolt the British would still be here right now." Poke.
"Shtuyot! - Fiddlesticks!" barked the Haganah officer, thumping the other man's hand away.
"Begin's speaking," cried a fellow by the radio.
THERE WAS a silence, broken only when somebody asked, "Where from?"
"From the Irgun's secret radio station in Tel Aviv."
"He's going to declare a putsch, you'll see," scathed the Haganah man.
"Shut your trap or you'll get this in your face," spat his burly challenger, fist clenched, features distorted with anger.
A husky voice, rising and falling through the crackling airwaves, began solemnly to talk:
Citizens of the Jewish homeland, soldiers of Israel, Hebrew youth, sisters and brothers in Zion: After many years of underground warfare, years of persecution and moral and physical suffering, the rebels against the oppressor stand before you with a blessing of thanks on their lips and a prayer in their hearts. The Jewish revolt of 1944 has been blessed with success.
"Hurray!" many yelped. "Boo!" others snorted.
The State of Israel has arisen in bloody battle, the voice went on. The highway for the mass return to Zion has been opened. The foundation has been laid - but only the foundation - for true independence. One phase of the battle for freedom, for the return of the whole people of Israel to its homeland, for the restoration of the whole Land of Israel to its God-covenanted owners, has ended. But only one phase…
Scoffing, the Haganah man interrupted, "You'll see, he's about to launch his second revolt, this time against his own people."
Thoroughly exasperated, the burly man roared back, "I'm going to get you," and he struck out to rush him, but was forcibly restrained. Now the whole place exploded into an uproar, drowning out what Begin was saying. When the yelling subsided, we heard him state:
We are surrounded by enemies who long for our destruction. Our one-day-old state has been established in the midst of the flames of battle. And the very first pillar of our state must, therefore, be victory - total victory - in the war which is raging all over the country.
A storm of radio static suddenly drowned him out, causing those crowding the receiver to groan in frustration. The burly man angrily banged the set without effect, while another fiddled with the knob until, out of the quivering airwaves, the voice reemerged, stronger than ever:
Ships! it thundered. For Heaven's sake, let us have ships. Let us not mouth empty words questioning our capacity to absorb immigrants. Quickly! Quickly! Our nation has no time! Bring in hundreds of thousands of Jews now…
Again, a sharp crackle submerged the voice, and a loud buzz droned around the cafe. It instantly faded when Menachem Begin resurfaced to declare, with such compelling vibrancy and conviction that the whole of the Atara sat up:
The Irgun is now leaving the underground. We Jews now rule ourselves over a part of our Homeland, and in that part the law of a Jewish government prevails. This law is the law of the land; it is the only law. Hence, there is no longer a need for an armed underground. From now on we are all soldiers and builders of the State of Israel. And we shall all respect the government of the day, for it is our government.
Almost everybody cheered, but not the Haganah officer. He jumped up, made for the door and, shooting a glance at the men by the radio, barked, "I don't believe a word he says. Do you lot really think Begin's going to disarm his Irgun and knuckle under a democratically elected Ben-Gurion government? Not a chance!" and off he strode, antagonism written all over his face.
That was on Israel's first day of independence, 59 years ago. How wrong could a man have been, one wonders? How misguided could David Ben-Gurion have been in persuading so many into thinking what that man thought?
Agree or disagree with Menachem Begin, when one peers at him through the telescope of Israel's sovereign history, one sees in sharp focus a fierce democrat, a great commoner, an unsurpassed parliamentarian, a humble spirit, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, most famously, a quintessential Jew - the most Jewish prime minister the Jewish state ever had.
Monday, April 23, 2007