Saturday, March 8, 2014

Halkin on Gordis' New Begin Biography

From a book review of 'Menachem Begin' by Daniel Gordis by HILLEL HALKIN

In his thoughtful and well-written new biography of Begin, the American-born Daniel Gordis, who moved to Israel in 1998 and has become one of its most articulate explainers and defenders to English-speaking audiences, addresses the question of what, at its deepest level, this change [between 1967 and 1977] was about...

What interests Mr. Gordis most, however, is Begin's Jewishness...his restoration to Israeli public life of a fundamental sense of Jewish purpose that was missing from it during the long years of Labor hegemony...

...Gordis is right that Begin "was different." One of the features of the Labor Zionism that dominated Israel politics before 1977 was its revolt against, and often hostility to, Jewish religious tradition...Begin shared none of this. Neither Revisionism, Betar nor the Irgun had ever been anti-religious, and Begin related to Zionism as a historical movement that was in harmony with the religious past rather than at odds with it. He had, as Mr. Gordis puts it, "a finely honed appreciation for the rhythms and priorities of Jewish life and tradition, which had never yet been represented in the prime minister's office." What was more, he was intent on expressing it, whether this took the form of a quasi-religious devotion to the land of Israel (which, ironically, enabled him psychologically to surrender all of Sinai, a territory that was not, for Judaism, sacred)...

Begin's love and respect for Jewish tradition were a significant factor in the love and respect that much of Israel felt for him...If secular Zionism was a revolution in Jewish life, perhaps the greatest ever, Begin belonged to the counterrevolution that all revolutions produce in their wake—one that saw the old secular elite lose much of its cultural and political power and a more stridently nationalistic society, more dominated by religious discourse, emerge. How much Begin propelled this development, and how much it propelled him, is debatable;...If there is one assertion of Mr. Gordis's that I find it difficult to agree with, therefore, it is his characterization of Begin as an ideal balance between the two halves of the "Jewish soul," a man who harbored in equal proportions "both deeply humanist convictions and a passionate allegiance to [his] own people."

That Begin was a decent and humanly sensitive man there can be no doubt, but his allegiance to his people, it seems to me, was far stronger than any humanist convictions he may have had...Menachem Begin had an exacting conscience, far more than did most other political leaders of the age, Israel's included.

— Mr. Halkin's life of Vladimir Jabotinsky will be published in May.
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