Sunday, March 9, 2014

Haaretz's Review of the New Gordis Begin Biography (As Expected)


Daniel Gordis' Begin biography teaches liberals and leftists can't be trusted
In portraying a saint-like Begin, Gordis is attempting to silence contemporary critics of today's Likud-led government.

Climbing out of the mouth of hell, Dante and Virgil, the poet heroes of the “Divine Comedy,” stand facing Mount Purgatory, home of souls punished for sins of love perverted...I don’t know if Menachem Begin deserves to be among these sinners (in any case, as Jews, both he and I would have been sent to hell by Dante), but Daniel Gordis’ new biography of him, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” certainly does. The book is a paragon of overweening pride: smug, self-satisfied, convinced of its own conclusions, and disdainful of its presumed critics...Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister and one of the most charismatic, complex and polarizing political figures in the country’s history, is portrayed one-dimensionally as a Jewish saint, motivated, from the very beginning of his political career to its end, exclusively by his “unabashed, utter devotion to the Jewish people.” At the book’s end, the reader has no more insight into Begin’s character and drives than he or she did at the beginning, and would do well to turn to the many other more rounded accounts of Begin and his political career.

...though the biography’s ostensible subject is Begin’s life, its real object is, quite transparently, to convince American Jews of the rightness of Gordis’ own particular pro-Israel position. Gordis uses Begin’s life as a parable to defend and justify many of the controversial positions of Israel’s current Likud-led government: on the Iranian nuclear issue, settlement construction, negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, disloyal Israeli leftists, American Jewish liberals, and Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

A combination of support from Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and public outrage at the debacle of Israel’s near-loss in the 1973 Yom Kippur War swept Begin into power in 1977. [no mention of the Labour party scandals? - YM]...Gordis’ narrative of Menachem Begin’s life does not stray far from the standard biographies. The difference, which makes possible the allegory to contemporary politics, lies in how he tells the story.

The book’s most glaring example of using Begin’s life to take a stand in support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies is the chapter devoted to the Israel Air Force’s 1981 strike that destroyed Iraq’s uncompleted Osirak nuclear reactor. Though he does not say so explicitly, Gordis’ effusive and dramatic telling of this successful mission serves as a model and a justification for a threatened similar attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Gordis praises Begin’s resolve in preventing “Saddam’s developing genocidal capability” and his unwillingness to bow to American opposition and international censure, and, moreover, provides proof that Begin was right all along. Gordis quotes a message written by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1991 just after the first Gulf War, thanking the commander of the Israeli air force for destroying the reactor, “which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!” The lesson here is clear: Whatever it might say now, if Israel takes out Iran’s nukes, the United States will thank us later.

Similarly, the book’s derision of Begin’s opponents on the left has direct implications for Israeli politics today. While Begin is portrayed as an ideal type – faithful, resolute and uncompromisingly devoted to the Jewish people – David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is depicted as deceitful, mendacious and paranoid. In a final chapter that compares Begin to the founding fathers of the American Revolution, Gordis states that, while Ben-Gurion was certainly a great Jewish leader, he was also a British “Loyalist,” who needed reminding from Begin’s Irgun that “it wasn’t enough to want a Jewish state; one had to actually do something in order to achieve it.”

...Gordis’ black-and-white picture of the two is a caricature that does not do justice to either figure. But, again, the point here is not to paint a complex portrait of characters and motives. As with his disdain for American Jewish liberals like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, who signed a public letter protesting Begin’s first visit to the United States in 1948 on account of his association with the Deir Yassin massacre – the lesson of Gordis' portraits is that liberals and leftists, in Israel and America, are naive and not to be trusted...Gordis’ defense of Begin is meant to silence contemporary critics.

...Gordis’ discussion of the Camp David negotiations is unintentionally illuminating regarding his own perspective on today’s talks. He presents Sadat and Carter as willfully obtuse, misunderstanding the political challenges Begin might face at home, and “tacking on” the Palestinian issue and the fate of the West Bank and Gaza to negotiations – an issue which for the Egyptian and American leaders was quite germane – and claims that, “intentionally or not, both Sadat and Carter were creating the impression that what animated them was simply hostility to Israel.”

Begin, on the other hand, is pictured as resolute, steadfast and heroically uncompromising, unwilling to violate his core conviction that Israel must maintain total control over and retain all the settlements in the biblical territories captured in the Six-Day War.

Gordis’ praise of Begin’s negotiating strategy, coupled with his enthusiasm for Begin’s commitment to Jewish dignity above all else, translates pretty straightforwardly into support for the current government’s negotiating strategy. Netanyahu has demanded that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for the negotiations. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and others have quite reasonably questioned what that designation might mean for Israel’s many non-Jewish citizens, especially the Arabs who make up some 20 percent of the population. The dubious lesson of Gordis’ portrayal, never explicitly acknowledged but obvious to any knowledgeable reader, seems to be: Hunker down, sacrifice nothing, and eventually the goyim will give in. 

Samuel Thrope is a Martin Buber Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University or Jerusalem. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Tablet and other publications, and is the translator of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s “The Israeli Republic.”
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