Saturday, February 16, 2008

New Begin Biography Reviewed in Jerusalem Post

Dispassionate about Begin


Begin 1913-1992
By Avi Shilon
Am Oved
535 pages; NIS 98

Writing a biography is a tough undertaking, particularly when a controversial politician is involved. It appears that this young author was intrigued by Menachem Begin's life story. He worked for five years to unravel the myth and the real person.

Has he succeeded? My impression is that he has done a fairly comprehensive and balanced job in this Hebrew biography. He delved in archives, read documents and gathered testimony from Begin's colleagues and friends, looking for a key to decipher his personality. Overcoming temptations to resort to psychological analysis, he concluded that telling Begin's life story dispassionately was the only reasonable way of getting to know and comprehend him.

It is essential to note that Begin was brought up in a Zionist family that was dedicated to Jewish causes. Curious as it may sound, he and his two brothers joined the socialist Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement in 1925. Four years later he and his brothers switched loyalty and became members of Betar, the Revisionist youth movement. And when Ze'ev Jabotinsky came to Brisk to deliver his message in 1929, Begin's allegiance to him became established.

Following the German onslaught on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Begin's family, with the 5,000 Jews of Brisk, were brutally massacred. Swearing to revenge their murder, Begin's profound hostility toward Germans and a sense of mistrust of gentiles in general were part and parcel of his personality. But distinct from Jabotinsky, who had derived his inspiration and his worldview from the liberal nationalism of the Western Europeans, Begin and his Jewish contemporaries in Poland were deeply influenced by the Polish nationalist and militarist legacy. A friend who served in the Defense Ministry while Begin held the portfolio recalls how amazed he was that whenever a general entered the room, Begin would get up to salute him.

Being mesmerized by Jabotinsky did not necessarily imply Begin's automatic acceptance of all of his leader's views. For example, he opposed Jabotinsky's draft agreement with David Ben-Gurion in 1934-1935 calling for a truce between the Histadrut and the Revisionist Nationalist Trade Union. More serious was their dispute about the proper conduct in facing the violent Arab disturbances in the 1930s. Jabotinsky urged restraint, still hoping to achieve British support, while Begin was enchanted by the violent anti-Arab reprisals. Jabotinsky's rebuttals of Begin's arguments were occasionally rather blunt, charging on one occasion that the young leader's speech sounded like the "noise of a squeaking door." The poet Uri Zvi Greenberg was impressed when he met Begin, but said later that he "thinks that he is Jabotinsky."

In 1943 Begin was nominated to head the IZL and one of the first things he did was to proclaim (in the midst of the war against Nazi Germany) a rebellion against Britain. The declaration was accompanied by the call to establish a Jewish state. That, however, was not a novelty because a year earlier Ben-Gurion launched the Biltmore plan calling for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Ben-Gurion, let us remember, was the elected chairman of the Jewish Agency, and he realized that acts of terrorism against the British at that time would harm the diplomatic efforts and could damage vital Jewish interests, especially in light of Churchill's pledge to establish a Jewish state after the war and agree to form a Jewish Brigade in 1944 to fight Hitler under the Jewish flag. When challenged on the wisdom of resorting to arms at that time, Begin argued that the military activities would help the diplomatic efforts of the Jewish Agency. That was not perceived as a very persuasive argument.

Irrespective of the differences with the Ben-Gurion policy, Begin was asserting one clear principle - avoiding civil war at all costs - which he held to most of the time. The only exception was when he tried to foil by violence the Knesset's endorsement of the reparations agreement with West Germany. Apart from this case, Begin has been rightly portrayed as a democratic leader.

The tragedy of the Altalena in the summer of 1948 was certainly a brinkmanship adventure. The scheme of IZL, endorsed by Begin, had in mind securing arms for its separatist militia in Jerusalem. The Altalena was loaded with weapons and ammunition sailing to the newly established Jewish state that considered fighting for Jerusalem a national obligation, not a factional whim. All this occurred in the midst of the War of Independence, while a cease-fire was ordered by the UN Security Council and the government announced its acceptance of that resolution, which forbade the importation of arms.

Begin and his colleagues were under the impression that the IZL had the right to defy the newly established government of Israel which was determined that Jerusalem was under its jurisdiction.

In summing up Begin's life story there is no doubt that his most significant achievements during the period he served as prime minister were the peace treaty with Egypt and the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Begin was responsible for other ventures - like the tragic war of 1982 in Lebanon.

The author, however, has portrayed Begin as a national leader who generally respected the democratic process, even when some of his colleagues were prepared to fight it.

While the book has been well received overall, it has caused a wave of media controversy. In a letter to Haaretz, Benny Begin refuted Shilon's claim in an earlier interview to that paper that he had collaborated with the author. Historian Yehiam Weitz referred to some inaccuracies in the book on a joint appearance with the author on Channel 10's London and Kirschenbaum recently. These apparent inaccuracies, however, don't impair the portrait of Begin as national leader.

The book's narrative is smooth and reveals quite a few unknown facts about the former prime minister.