Menachem Begin: A model for leadership
By PAUL GROSS
Of those who fought for the Jewish state, and then went on to lead it, the two outstanding figures are David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.
Of those who fought for the Jewish state, and then went on to lead it, the two outstanding figures are David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Outstanding not just because of their contributions both to the establishment of the State of Israel and as prime ministers, but because they were the leaders of the two major political factions at the crucial moment of the state being declared and then in its formative first years.
Ben-Gurion was of course Israel’s founding prime minister and its dominant figure for its first decade and a half of existence. He was part of the triumvirate of truly indispensable Zionists – alongside Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann – without whom Israel would likely not have arisen. The men who, at pivotal moments in the history of the Zionist movement, shaped and pushed events in the direction of Jewish statehood. He was also responsible for the extraordinary achievements of Israel’s early years, absorbing hundreds of thousands of new immigrants while also developing a modern democratic state and securing it against implacable foes on every border.
That said, I want to suggest that it is Menachem Begin who offers us the most compelling model of leadership for the State of Israel today, and for its continued development and flourishing in the future.
This Shabbat marks 100 years since his birth, according to the Hebrew date, 13th of Av. (And he only ever celebrated his birthday according to the Jewish calendar – an example of his fierce commitment to Jewishness, rather than just to Israeliness, about which more later.) [Note: this is an error. This Shabbat is Nasso, two months and a week earlier] One can disagree with certain political positions of Begin’s while appreciating the power and importance of the essential principles that governed his thinking in his more than 50 years as a Zionist activist, political leader, opposition parliamentarian and finally prime minister. In particular I would mention three pillars of his Zionist vision which I believe are increasingly relevant for today’s Israel.
Firstly, that a Jewish state must be not just a homeland for any Jew that wishes to live here, but the beating heart of the Jewish world. It should be “Jewish” in more than just name; its national culture imbued with the 3,000 years of Jewish history and heritage.
Begin was not religious in the strict sense, but he had a deep connection with Jewish tradition. The Labor Zionists knew and respected the Bible (when asked to identify the basis of the Jewish claim to Palestine Ben-Gurion replied: “'The Bible is our mandate”) but were far less interested in the rich Jewish religious and philosophical life that had developed in the Diaspora since the biblical period. Begin on the other hand was drawn to that world and it was not surprising that many Diaspora Jews could feel that Begin was “one of them”; that is, part of the Jewish people, in a way they couldn’t with the archetypal secular Israeli prime ministers that had preceded him. It was also his innate sense that all Jews are, in a very real sense, mishpacha – family, that enabled this exemplar of Ashkenazi Jewry to become the political hero of hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jewish Israelis.
Today, one of Israel’s great challenges is to bridge the gap between religious and secular, including by making Jewish heritage accessible to all Israelis, without coercion or the requirement of greater religious observance. Ruth Calderon’s famous maiden Knesset speech in which she – a non-religious woman, with a PhD in Talmud studies – taught a lesson from the Talmud to her fellow MKs, was a wonderful example of what could be. Begin believed that Jewish traditions and teachings were the birthright of every Jew, regardless of whether or not they were religious.
The second value of Begin’s that should shape our thinking about Israel today is that the Jewish state must also be a liberal democratic state. Although Begin’s detractors have painted him as a hard-line nationalist, the accurate description of his political ideology would be “liberal nationalism.”
A recent publication analyzing Begin’s values, produced by a think tank with impeccable liberal credentials, the Israel Democracy Institute, described him as a “nationalist with an unwavering commitment to Israel’s security” adding that their analysis shows that, “Menachem Begin was a democrat and liberal par excellence, and consistently upheld human rights even when he felt they conflicted with national security.”
Begin understood that liberal democracy was not just about majority rule, but also about ensuring checks and balances were in place to protect minority rights and prevent the abuse of power by the majority – for instance, a Supreme Court with the power to overturn majority legislation that went against essential values of the state.
The third and final value was absolutely fundamental to Begin’s worldview: His absolute, unbending commitment to the defense of the Jewish people. He grew up part of the 3 million-strong Jewish community of Poland, before the Second World War the largest outside of the United States. His parents and other family members were among the 90 percent of that population to be wiped out. He was determined that the establishment of a Jewish state must mean that never again would Jews be defenseless against anti-Semitic violence. Most famously, this principle informed his decision to attack Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, preventing Saddam Hussein, who frequently called for Israel’s destruction, from obtaining the means by which to do so. As Begin said to IDF chiefs at the time: “I will not be the man in whose time there will be a second Holocaust.”
I work as director of a Jewish leadership program inspired by the example of Menachem Begin. Our participants come from all over the world. They are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and none-of-the above.
They are right-wing, left-wing and undecided.
As a program we are non-partisan, but unapologetically Zionist. The Israel that we hope our participants will help to defend, support and advocate for is an Israel with these three pillars of Begin’s vision at its base: an Israel proud of its Jewish heritage; committed to being part of the liberal, democratic world; and uncompromising in its defense of its citizens and in the global fight against anti-Semitism.
The author is the director of the Israel Government Fellows program of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center (www.igf.org.il), an elite leadership program that brings Jewish university graduates to Israel for a year’s internship in the government and prominent think tanks.