War game: Mencahem Begin playing chess with Zbigniew Brzezinski at Camp David
Menachem Begin was possessed by the revolutionary idea that Jews were in need of a state of their own. His teacher and beau idéal was Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who maintained that in the age of totalitarian persecution Jews could save themselves only through Zionism, their own nationalist movement. The Germans murdered Begin's entire family except for a sister. Begin himself escaped, only to be arrested by the Russians, given an eight-year sentence for Zionism and deported to a gulag camp in the Arctic. Released to join the free Poles under General Wladyslaw Anders, he reached British-mandated Palestine in 1942 and defected. Jews had a better chance of surviving, he now knew from experience, if they had their own ground to stand on and fight. For the purpose he gathered a few hundred like-minded men into a militia known as the Irgun, and went underground in Tel Aviv.
The first objective in building the Jewish nation state was to break the will of the British and force them to leave the country. Among many acts of carefully calculated violence, Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing dozens of British officials who had requisitioned it; hanged two soldiers in reprisal for the execution of Irgun members; and freed prisoners in Acre jail by dynamiting it. Once the British withdrew, Irgun targeted the Arabs, for instance massacring probably about 100 in the village of Deir Yassin and driving most of the Arab population out of Jaffa.
David Ben Gurion and the official Zionist leadership had almost all grown up under the influence of European socialism. Their Israel might have emerged as a Soviet clone, as Joseph Stalin hoped for a time. They had at their command the Haganah, an embryo and largely clandestine army. In the standard version of the events of 1948 when Israel came into existence the Haganah is depicted as the good guys, the Irgun as bad guys. Basing himself on an impressive amount of research and interviewing, Avi Shilon gives a very different account. What really distinguished the Haganah from the Irgun in his judgment was not tactics but propaganda. Ben Gurion ceaselessly blackened Begin as a right-wing fanatic. "The first time I heard Begin give a speech over the radio," he said with an animosity that was all the more personal because political, "I heard the voice and the screaming of Hitler." In reality, according to Shilon, Begin was a poor and even a disinterested commander who left operations to the men in the field, and made his point through persuasive oratory that rose almost to the level of poetry.
The so-called Altalena incident settled what had been a power struggle. This ship was bringing arms in at a moment so critical that the two underground groups might have fought one another for possession of them. "Fratricidal War — Never!" Begin kept his promise never to shoot at fellow-Jews. The Haganah in contrast did open fire to seize the weapons from Irgun, hypocritically practising the terrorism they accused their rivals of.