Unapologetic terrorist or revolutionary? Menachem Begin is rightly de-demonised, but not whitewashed, in Avi Shilon's new biography
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.
As soon as Israeli state institutions were established, Begin reformed Irgun into a political party, Likud, and led it himself in the Knesset. There he was famous for insisting on observing procedure and the law. He stopped Ben Gurion from arresting the journalist Uri Avnery for expressing dissident opinions. Out of pride, he did not want to accept reparations from Germany for the Holocaust. A supporter of Arab rights, he was to offer the Palestinians autonomy but they rejected it.
Privately, Begin had the manners of a Polish gentleman of the old school. It was his custom to wear the same conventional grey suit. Happily married, he liked to stay up late with loyal friends, he could sing and had a sense of humour. When Albert Einstein accused Irgun in the New York Times of being “similar to the Nazi and Fascist Parties”, Begin replied that Einstein was indeed a rare genius but “I still understand more math than he understands politics.” Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the most influential Jews of the period as well as a specialist in drawing fine moral distinctions, approved Begin’s nationalist ends but condemned Irgun’s means, so much so that he cut Begin dead when they were about to meet. The Daily Mail greeted Begin on a visit to London with the headline, “The Return of the Little Murderer.” Once a terrorist always a terrorist — whatever the facts, that characterisation stuck.
After 19 long years in opposition in the Knesset, Begin at last won an election. As prime minister, he took the decision to accept the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s offer of a peace treaty. Israeli settlements in Sinai had to be destroyed and the whole territory returned to Egypt. No other politician had the courage or the nobility — Shilon’s word — to commit the country to peace. Soon afterwards, though, Begin assented to the invasion of Lebanon in the belief that he was protecting northern Israel from a militant PLO. Ariel Sharon, then minister of defence, kept secret from Begin his far more extensive plans for the region. Lives were lost; territory was occupied; international opinion moved against Israel. Resigning, Begin lived out the remainder of his life in loneliness and guilt. The closest he came to any apology was to concede that Irgun’s hanging of the two British soldiers had indeed been cruel.
Whatever the cost to himself, Begin had succeeded in his aim to give Jews the new identity of Israelis, defined as people able and willing to take their fate into their own hands. Much of the world evidently believes that Israelis do not have a legitimate right to fight for survival and wishes that Jews were once more the people they were before nationalism, when their fate depended on others. The unspoken question here is whether Begin’s “complex and tangled” personality — Shilon’s words again — was in any way the cause of today’s hostility towards Israel, or anti-Semitism by its proper name. De-demonised in this biography but not whitewashed, Begin is shown at last for what he was, a most tragic victim-hero of the 20th century.