Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Appreciation: Knitting and Recalling Begin

Altalena: An Evenstar for Jabotinsky and Begin

...I briefly tried to do some mindless knitting...I went through my stash of yarn; I had bought some half-and-half cashmere and silk laceweight, but that wasn’t satisfying. For winter, I wanted something more substantial...

...I always block on Shabbat because finishing lace is an act of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. What we put into the world, we put into the world and there is more of. Then I named it for Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Jewish Legion, and Menachem Begin. The more you look at them, particularly Begin, the better they look. Ben Gurion does not. Now I find myself reading Begin’s The Revolt: The Story of the Irgun (Steimatsky, Jerusalem, 1972). The frontispiece, a formal photo of Begin, is incredibly interesting. He has that strange mouth, that in a woman we would call sensuous and sardonic, and then those eyes: calm, clear, driven by a vision of his country and its place in the world, eyes that are sane and reassuring even though they have seen hell. By contrast, Ben Gurion’s face and eyes are those of a madman. Gradually, reading his writing, you realize that this Polish Jew little removed from the shtetl had made himself not only into a man capable of preventing a Jewish civil war (at real personal risk), making peace with Anwar Sadat, integrating marginalized Sephardi Jews into Israel and helping open up the economy, but also a British gentleman. And by that, I mean the real thing, not an artifact of good tailoring. “Unlike Arthur Koestler,” Begin wrote, I believe that sobriety is one of the happy characteristics of our people… [W]hile I believe that there are many things we ought to learn from other peoples, drinking is not one of them. Preferably, others should learn abstinence from us.”


But it is his chapter, “The Floggings,” that we realize we are indeed dealing with a gentleman, of a man who while waging war against the British always attempted to spare those who could be spared, a man who fought a total war with limited means. “In the development of certain British colonies the whip has been made to serve an educational purpose.

“While Eretz Israel was ruled as a British colony, it could not logically be denied the educational privilege of the whip.” The British captured two young Irgunists and sentenced them to 15 years and 18 lashes for bearing arms without permission. The Irgun high command decided, virtually without discussion but in instinctive revulsion, that if the British were going to flog captured soldiers, they would capture British officers and flog them. The reasoning was this: “The relations between soldiers and their officers are not particularly affectionate.” Indeed, “on one of the posters containing our warning, a British soldier scrawled in big letters, ‘Please don’t forget my sergeant major.’ … [T]his particular Tommy thoughtfully added his full name, unit, and regimental number.”

In the event, the British did publicly flog young Kimche; the Irgun retaliated by flogging one British major and three British non-commissioned officers. That left young Katz, and the British, warned that this time a flogging would be met by fire, cancelled the flogging on young Katz. Writes Begin, in full memory of Arab massacres of Jews, “A young Arab of sixteen who had also been sentenced to lashes was included in the ‘amnesty’. Respecting the honour of others as we did our own, we rejoiced for him, too.’”

There are roads not taken in politics as in the lives of individuals. One is, what would Israel be like if this measured, proud, dignified voice–Begin was known to listen in silence to abuse at political meetings, until his abusers wearied, then tell a joke–were the normal tone of public life? Indeed, what would America be like if that were how we Americans normally addressed each other? No, manners are not policy, but how we speak to people indicates our opinion of them, just as how we dress indicates what we think of ourselves.

Which somehow brings us back to lace: its making and its wearing.

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