Sunday, May 12, 2013

Begin as a Model for Leadership

Menachem Begin: A model for leadership

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 (, an elite leadership program that brings Jewish university graduates to Israel for a year’s internship in the government and prominent think tanks.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review of Shilon's Biography of Begin

Menachem Begin: A New Life

Reviewed by Asaf Romirowsky
Jewish Ideas Daily
May 3, 2013

In Menachem Begin: A Life, a new biography of one of Israel's more multifaceted leaders, Avi Shilon succeeds in portraying a fervent and uncompromising Zionist whose political brilliance usually compensated for his lack of military experience. Shilon shows that for Begin, anti-Semitism was at the root of everything. It was Begin's realization of the threat that posed by anti-Semitism that motivated his actions and led to his political career. When the Holocaust destroyed the Polish-Jewish world from which he had emerged, the need for Jewish independence became clearer to him than ever before. Ensuring that another Holocaust would never take place was his paramount concern, even when he was Prime Minister of Israel, pursuing Yasir Arafat in the PLO leader's Beirut bunker. While many of Begin's critics have deplored the ways in which this frame of mind led him to take what they consider politically inappropriate actions, Shilon's biography focuses not on criticizing the man in this respect but in showing the reader where Begin "came from."

Shilon also shows just how important symbolism was to Begin. In the 1940s, when he was the leader of the underground Etzel, an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization, his operations against the British rulers of Palestine always included symbolic elements that stressed the importance of Jewish sovereignty and self-determination. For example, Etzel's "Operation Wall" was a response to a British prohibition against blowing a shofar at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur. This action, Shilon observes, "was not the most important in the history of Etzel, but it emphasized Begin's main approach in the organization's initial operations: symbolic declarative acts, not necessarily with any real military content."

Begin had a gift not only for symbols but for words. According to Shilon, his oratorical skills were in part responsible for his emergence as Jabotinsky's successor. The Revisionists, the members of Jabotinsky's movement, were captivated by Begin's ability to express their ideology and deeply impressed by his honesty and integrity. Yet "more than anything else," Shilon rightly observes, Begin "will be remembered for putting his stamp on the Jewish character of the Israeli state." He "saw himself as part of the Jewish nation across the ages, a kind of new modern prophet, a link in a chain stretching across the generations whose hard-line view were inspired by the Jewish Holocaust and who restored to the public debate images and views from the Diaspora."

Begin's Diaspora experience imbued him with a profound sense of Jewish solidarity. Even when the Haganah was hunting down his rebel forces and turning them over to the British, he would not lash out against his fellow Jews. We did not teach our fighters, he wrote in The Revolt, "to hate our political opponents," for "mutual hatred brings almost certain civil war." Subsequently, during Israel's War of Independence, when the Israeli Army attacked the Altalena, an Etzel ship carrying weapons to the new state in apparent defiance of Ben-Gurion's orders, Begin defused the threat of civil strife. "I call on my brothers not to open fire," he declared. "There will be no fraternal war. . . . The enemy is at the gate." At the time, some of Begin's Etzel comrades regarded the response as cowardly. Only much later, Shilon notes, did Begin receive due credit for it.

After becoming Prime Minister of Israel in 1977, Begin similarly defied accusations of cowardice from some of his associates. He had his own misgivings about paying a high territorial price for a peace treaty with Egypt, but he overcame them for the sake of what he considered to be the greater good. And no one accused him of cowardice when he dared to order the attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

If Begin wasn't a coward, neither was he a warmonger. The war in Lebanon in 1982 was something that had been thrust upon him, and it broke him. As Shilon makes clear, Begin "knew that he had not led his government properly and that he had become embroiled in a war he did not desire, and he knew it was his responsibility. Furthermore, he knew that those around him had witnessed his deterioration, yet none of them had dared say a word and actually had helped him to retire with dignity."

Shilon's comprehensive biography of one the most important Zionists and leaders of the State of Israel elucidates the whole course of Begin's life, from his youth in Poland, when he was afflicted by a sense of powerlessness, to his performance in positions of power in the Jewish state. It helps us understand the greatness of the man, his very real and sometimes surprising achievements, and the factors that led to his demise. Shilon provides a clear picture of a leader whose steadfastness can serve as an example to all of us, even those who do not share every one of Menachem Begin's commitments.