Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Judy Montagu Recalls Begin

MENACHEM Begin was a realist too. He understood the Jewish reality. He saw the birth of the State of Israel as a country no less legitimate than any other, and maybe more legitimate than some. He personally witnessed something akin to the prophet Ezekiel's awe-inspiring vision (37:1-14) in which a valley of dry bones - post-Holocaust Jewry - became clothed with sinews, flesh and skin, had breath put in their lungs, stood up on their feet as "a multitude" and proceeded to build a bustling, modern state in their biblical homeland.

In June 1977, speaking to the press on his first day as prime minister of Israel, Begin smelled malice but was restrained in his answer to a British reporter's provocative question about Israel's right to exist:

"Traditionally, there are four major criteria of statehood under international law. One: effective and independent government. Two: effective and independent control of the population. Three: a defined territory. And four: the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations.

"Israel is in possession of all four and, hence, is a fully- fledged sovereign state and a fully accredited member of the United Nations" (From "Sniffing the foul air of prejudice" by Yehuda Avner, The Jerusalem Post, February 17, 2004).

But the exchange had rattled Begin considerably, and, as Avner recalled, that led him to make this addition to his prepared speech to the Knesset several hours later:

"The right to exist? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist? Their existence per se is their right to exist!"

The new premier went on to detail the Jews' "historic, eternal and inalienable right to Eretz Yisrael" in an oration that had MKs rising to their feet "in full-throated acclaim."

Begin subsequently refused to be drawn into any kind of debate over Israel's right to exist. There was simply nothing to discuss.

ONE can only conjecture how Begin - a proud Jew with "an all-encompassing grasp of Jewish history" whose "memory instinctively went back thousands of years and his vision forward thousands of years," as Avner wrote in another piece two years later - would have responded on learning that the question of Israel's right to exist has been publicly raised many thousands of times.

What can be said is that far too many Jews and Israelis today lack anything approaching Begin's "surfeit of both Jewish self-respect and Jewish memory." And that's tragic, because if you aren't familiar with your own legacy and as a consequence are wobbly on Jewish individual and national self-respect, how can you affirm the Jewish right to exist in this land?

When your own history is a blank to you, the vacuum is easily filled by someone else's rewriting of it; which has happened with too many Jews here and abroad, infected by an insidious and unrelenting propaganda assault that undermines their right to statehood in their own Jewish country.

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