Menachem Begin: Moments of greatness, moments of error
Is a great person great in everything he or she does? Menachem Begin was a political leader, or to use a blunter word, a politician. Even to have become commander of the Betar youth movement in Poland must have involved competition and garnering support. But politicians can rise to moments of greatness and statesmanship.
His greatest moment, in my opinion, is not the peace treaty with Egypt. That is a great accomplishment, and marks his entry onto the world stage as a recognized statesman. The first moment of greatness came in June 1948. Etzel (the Irgun Zvai Leumi) had sent a small ship from France to Israel. Named the Altalena, which was a pen name of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s, it was loaded with over 900 fighters, and a large quantity of arms.
By the time it arrived off Israel’s shores, a UN-supervised cease-fire was in force between the fledgling state and the invading Arab armies, according to which no arms were to be introduced into the area. The Altalena was beached at the foot of Tel Aviv’s Frishman Street. Prime minister Ben-Gurion feared, beyond trouble with the UN, that the arms would bolster Irgun units in the unified IDF, and insisted that no separate “militias” should exist. (He later also disbanded the left-wing Palmah separate command.) Begin made every effort to reach an agreement, but once the ship beached at Tel Aviv, B-G was convinced this was a possible putsch against the government. He ordered the IDF to open fire on the Altalena. At that point, with casualties on both sides, there was danger that fighting would continue between Irgun members and supporters and the original large component of Hagana soldiers making up the new IDF.
Menachem Begin gave the order: No! No more shooting. “My greatest accomplishment,” he later said,” was not retaliating and causing civil war.”
If that was indeed his greatest accomplishment, what was his greatest moment of weakness, of error? Begin was not only a product of religious Jewish/Hebrew education and of Jabotinsky’s teachings. In many ways, as a Polish-trained lawyer, he adopted customs of the Polish gentry and influences of European politics in general.
For reasons beyond the scope of this article, Jabotinsky, Betar and eventually Begin himself had been described by their anti-rightist opponents as “fascists.” One reason was that Jabotinsky’s use of the word “tzvaiyut” – military-like – as an ideal for Jewish youth could easily be understood as “militarism,” a point seemingly underlined in that Betar members wore military-type brown uniforms. Later Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s SA wore brown as well. (Remember, I have described both Jabotinsky and Begin as liberal democrats.) In one of the early elections, Begin would ride to his campaign meetings with a motorcycle escort of Herut party members. This lapse into the lowest European political fashion simply played into the “fascist” stereotype. But a much greater flaw appeared surrounding the 1952 debate on whether Israel should sign a reparations agreement with West Germany.
The background: State-building versus ‘forgiving the Nazis’
In 1952, Israel was barely able to make ends meet. It had doubled its population in the first three years of statehood, resulting in rationing, austerity, leaky ma’barot huts replacing the tent cities of the new immigrants, rampant unemployment.
There were barely enough exports to register against Israel’s need for capital. The income from Keren Hayesod-UIA combined with that from the sale of Israel Bonds was nowhere near what was needed to sustain the state.
Ben-Gurion, foreign minister Moshe Sharett and finance minister Levi Eshkol were pragmatists.
The Germans owed the Jewish people and Israel as their successor state payment for material claims: the cost of absorbing displaced persons, and reparations for heirless Jewish property amassed by Nazis at all levels.
Begin’s Herut led a fiery opposition, which was augmented by the General Zionists on the Right and Mapam on the Left. Their argument was that material reparations would help Germany rid itself of the indelible stain of its murderous Nazi past in the eyes of the world.
Here Ben-Gurion showed the statesmanship of a pragmatist who put sustaining the existence of Israel together with the prophetic statement to an evil ruler “Would you both murder and inherit?” Begin, who felt the loss of his family and Polish and other European Jewry keenly, let emotion lead.
As the agreement was being debated in the Knesset, he gave a passionate speech at a demonstration attended by about 15,000 participants including many Holocaust survivors. Dramatically, he attacked the government and even called for its overthrow. Begin said: “When you fired at me with cannon, I gave the order; ‘No! [Do not return fire]!’ Today I will give the order, “Yes!” The demonstrators then moved on toward the Knesset (then at the Frumin Building on King George Street near Ben-Yehuda Street). A large police force cordoned them off. The enraged crowd threw stones at the Knesset windows, and at police. “After five hours of rioting, police managed to suppress the riots using water cannons and tear gas. Hundreds were arrested, while some 200 rioters, 140 police officers, and several Knesset members were injured,” according to Wikipedia.
Begin was seen as personally responsible for the violence, and barred from the Knesset for several months.
Viewed in hindsight, indeed this was the image of a demagogue. It took him many years to shed it.
In the next article, more on his human side.
Avraham Avi-hai, author of the novel A Tale of Two Avrahams, served at the Rothberg International School with the late Professor Hillel Dalesky. He was a volunteer from South Africa who, against his will, was ordered to fire on the Altalena.