August 2, 2014
In Defense of Zionism
The often reviled ideology that gave rise to Israel has been an astonishing historical success.
Wall Street Journal: The Saturday Essay
Michael B. Oren
A Jewish State: See some key moments in the history of Zionism and Israel Robert Capa/ICP/Magnum Photos
They come from every corner of the country—investment bankers, farmers, computer geeks, jazz drummers, botany professors, car mechanics—leaving their jobs and their families. They put on uniforms that are invariably too tight or too baggy, sign out their gear and guns. Then, scrambling onto military vehicles, 70,000 reservists—women and men—join the young conscripts of what is proportionally the world’s largest citizen army. They all know that some of them will return maimed or not at all. And yet, without hesitation or (for the most part) complaint, proudly responding to the call-up, Israelis stand ready to defend their nation. They risk their lives for an idea.
The idea is Zionism. It is the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel. Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel—the state that Zionism created—willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.
Yet Zionism, arguably more than any other contemporary ideology, is demonized. “All Zionists are legitimate targets everywhere in the world!” declared a banner recently paraded by anti-Israel protesters in Denmark. “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances,” warned a sign in the window of a Belgian cafe. A Jewish demonstrator in Iceland was accosted and told, “You Zionist pig, I’m going to behead you.”
In certain academic and media circles, Zionism is synonymous with colonialism and imperialism. Critics on the radical right and left have likened it to racism or, worse, Nazism. And that is in the West. In the Middle East, Zionism is the ultimate abomination—the product of a Holocaust that many in the region deny ever happened while maintaining nevertheless that the Zionists deserved it.
What is it about Zionism that elicits such loathing? After all, the longing of a dispersed people for a state of their own cannot possibly be so repugnant, especially after that people endured centuries of massacres and expulsions, culminating in history’s largest mass murder. Perhaps revulsion toward Zionism stems from its unusual blend of national identity, religion and loyalty to a land. Japan offers the closest parallel, but despite its rapacious past, Japanese nationalism doesn’t evoke the abhorrence aroused by Zionism.
Clearly anti-Semitism, of both the European and Muslim varieties, plays a role. Cabals, money grubbing, plots to take over the world and murder babies—all the libels historically leveled at Jews are regularly hurled at Zionists. And like the anti-Semitic capitalists who saw all Jews as communists and the communists who painted capitalism as inherently Jewish, the opponents of Zionism portray it as the abominable Other.
But not all of Zionism’s critics are bigoted, and not a few of them are Jewish. For a growing number of progressive Jews, Zionism is too militantly nationalist, while for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, the movement is insufficiently pious—even heretical. How can an idea so universally reviled retain its legitimacy, much less lay claim to success?
The answer is simple: Zionism worked. The chances were infinitesimal that a scattered national group could be assembled from some 70 countries into a sliver-sized territory shorn of resources and rich in adversaries and somehow survive, much less prosper. The odds that those immigrants would forge a national identity capable of producing a vibrant literature, pace-setting arts and six of the world’s leading universities approximated zero.
Elsewhere in the world, indigenous languages are dying out, forests are being decimated, and the populations of industrialized nations are plummeting. Yet Zionism revived the Hebrew language, which is now more widely spoken than Danish and Finnish and will soon surpass Swedish. Zionist organizations planted hundreds of forests, enabling the land of Israel to enter the 21st century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th. And the family values that Zionism fostered have produced the fastest natural growth rate in the modernized world and history’s largest Jewish community. The average secular couple in Israel has at least three children, each a reaffirmation of confidence in Zionism’s future.
Indeed, by just about any international criteria, Israel is not only successful but flourishing. The population is annually rated among the happiest, healthiest and most educated in the world. Life expectancy in Israel, reflecting its superb universal health-care system, significantly exceeds America’s and that of most European countries. Unemployment is low, the economy robust. A global leader in innovation, Israel is home to R&D centers of some 300 high-tech companies, including Apple, Intel and Motorola. The beaches are teeming, the rock music is awesome, and the food is off the Zagat charts.
The democratic ideals integral to Zionist thought have withstood pressures that have precipitated coups and revolutions in numerous other nations. Today, Israel is one of the few states—along with Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.—that has never known a second of nondemocratic governance.
These accomplishments would be sufficiently astonishing if attained in North America or Northern Europe. But Zionism has prospered in the supremely inhospitable—indeed, lethal—environment of the Middle East. Two hours’ drive east of the bustling nightclubs of Tel Aviv—less than the distance between New York and Philadelphia—is Jordan, home to more than a half million refugees from Syria’s civil war. Traveling north from Tel Aviv for four hours would bring that driver to war-ravaged Damascus or, heading east, to the carnage in western Iraq. Turning south, in the time it takes to reach San Francisco from Los Angeles, the traveler would find himself in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
In a region reeling with ethnic strife and religious bloodshed, Zionism has engendered a multiethnic, multiracial and religiously diverse society. Arabs serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. While Christian communities of the Middle East are steadily eradicated, Israel’s continues to grow. Israeli Arab Christians are, in fact, on average better educated and more affluent than Israeli Jews.
In view of these monumental achievements, one might think that Zionism would be admired rather than deplored. But Zionism stands accused of thwarting the national aspirations of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants, of oppressing and dispossessing them.
Never mind that the Jews were natives of the land—its Arabic place names reveal Hebrew palimpsests—millennia before the Palestinians or the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Never mind that in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, the Palestinians received offers to divide the land and rejected them, usually with violence. And never mind that the majority of Zionism’s adherents today still stand ready to share their patrimony in return for recognition of Jewish statehood and peace.
The response to date has been, at best, a refusal to remain at the negotiating table or, at worst, war. But Israelis refuse to relinquish the hope of resuming negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. To live in peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors remains the Zionist dream.
Still, for all of its triumphs, its resilience and openness to peace, Zionism fell short of some of its original goals. The agrarian, egalitarian society created by Zionist pioneers has been replaced by a dynamic, largely capitalist economy with yawning gaps between rich and poor. Mostly secular at its inception, Zionism has also spawned a rapidly expanding religious sector, some elements of which eschew the Jewish state.
About a fifth of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, and though some communities (such as the Druse) are intensely patriotic and often serve in the army, others are much less so, and some even call for Israel’s dissolution. And there is the issue of Judea and Samaria—what most of the world calls the West Bank—an area twice used to launch wars of national destruction against Israel but which, since its capture in 1967, has proved painfully divisive.
Many Zionists insist that these territories represent the cradle of Jewish civilization and must, by right, be settled. But others warn that continued rule over the West Bank’s Palestinian population erodes Israel’s moral foundation and will eventually force it to choose between being Jewish and remaining democratic.
Yet the most searing of Zionism’s unfulfilled visions was that of a state in which Jews could be free from the fear of annihilation. The army imagined by Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founding father, marched in parades and saluted flag-waving crowds. The Israel Defense Forces, by contrast, with no time for marching, much less saluting, has remained in active combat mode since its founding in 1948. With the exception of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological forbear of today’s Likud Party, none of Zionism’s early thinkers anticipated circumstances in which Jews would be permanently at arms. Few envisaged a state that would face multiple existential threats on a daily basis just because it is Jewish.
Confronted with such monumental threats, Israelis might be expected to flee abroad and prospective immigrants discouraged. But Israel has one of the lower emigration rates among developed countries while Jews continue to make aliyah—literally, in Hebrew, “to ascend”—to Israel. Surveys show that Israelis remain stubbornly optimistic about their country’s future. And Jews keep on arriving, especially from Europe, where their security is swiftly eroding. Last week, thousands of Parisians went on an anti-Semitic rant, looting Jewish shops and attempting to ransack synagogues.
American Jews face no comparable threat, and yet numbers of them continue to make aliyah. They come not in search of refuge but to take up the Zionist challenge—to be, as the Israeli national anthem pledges, “a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.” American Jews have held every high office, from prime minister to Supreme Court chief justice to head of Israel’s equivalent of the Fed, and are disproportionately prominent in Israel’s civil society.
Hundreds of young Americans serve as “Lone Soldiers,” without families in the country, and volunteer for front-line combat units. One of them, Max Steinberg from Los Angeles, fell in the first days of the current Gaza fighting. His funeral, on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, was attended by 30,000 people, most of them strangers, who came out of respect for this intrepid and selfless Zionist.
I also paid my respects to Max, whose Zionist journey was much like mine. After working on a kibbutz—a communal farm—I made aliyah and trained as a paratrooper. I participated in several wars, and my children have served as well, sometimes in battle. Our family has taken shelter from Iraqi Scuds and Hamas M-75s, and a suicide bomber killed one of our closest relatives.
Despite these trials, my Zionist life has been immensely fulfilling. And the reason wasn’t Zionism’s successes—not the Nobel Prizes gleaned by Israeli scholars, not the Israeli cures for chronic diseases or the breakthroughs in alternative energy. The reason—paradoxically, perhaps—was Zionism’s failures.
Failure is the price of sovereignty. Statehood means making hard and often agonizing choices—whether to attack Hamas in Palestinian neighborhoods, for example, or to suffer rocket strikes on our own territory. It requires reconciling our desire to be enlightened with our longing to remain alive. Most onerously, sovereignty involves assuming responsibility. Zionism, in my definition, means Jewish responsibility. It means taking responsibility for our infrastructure, our defense, our society and the soul of our state. It is easy to claim responsibility for victories; setbacks are far harder to embrace.
But that is precisely the lure of Zionism. Growing up in America, I felt grateful to be born in a time when Jews could assume sovereign responsibilities. Statehood is messy, but I regarded that mess as a blessing denied to my forefathers for 2,000 years. I still feel privileged today, even as Israel grapples with circumstances that are at once perilous, painful and unjust. Fighting terrorists who shoot at us from behind their own children, our children in uniform continue to be killed and wounded while much of the world brands them as war criminals.
Zionism, nevertheless, will prevail. Deriving its energy from a people that refuses to disappear and its ethos from historically tested ideas, the Zionist project will thrive. We will be vilified, we will find ourselves increasingly alone, but we will defend the homes that Zionism inspired us to build.
The Israeli media have just reported the call-up of an additional 16,000 reservists. Even as I write, they too are mobilizing for active duty—aware of the dangers, grateful for the honor and ready to bear responsibility.
Mr. Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2013. He holds the chair in international diplomacy at IDC Herzliya in Israel and is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. His books include “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” and “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.”
The Good: a brief history of the heroes that were integral to the establishment of Israel starting in the 1890′s …
(this section also includes the (not so “good”) British
Theodor (Binyamin Ze’ev) Herzl, the visionary of Zionism, was born in Budapest in 1860. He was educated in the spirit of the GermanJewish Enlightenment of the period, learning to appreciate secular culture. In 1878 the family moved to Vienna, and in 1884 Herzl was awarded a doctorate of law from the University of Vienna. He became a writer, a playwright and a journalist. The Paris correspondent of the influential liberal Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse was none other than Theodor Herzl.
Herzl first encountered the anti-Semitism that would shape his life and the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century while studying at the University of Vienna (1882). Later, during his stay in Paris as a journalist, he was brought face-to-face with the problem. At the time, he regarded the Jewish problem as a social issue and wrote a drama, The Ghetto (1894), in which assimilation and conversion are rejected as solutions. He hoped that The Ghetto would lead to debate and ultimately to a solution, based on mutual tolerance and respect between Christians and Jews.
The Dreyfus Affair
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was unjustly accused of treason, mainly because of the prevailing anti-Semitic atmosphere. Herzl witnessed mobs shouting “Death to the Jews” in France, the home of the French Revolution, and resolved that there was only one solution: the mass immigration of Jews to a land that they could call their own. Thus, the Dreyfus Case became one of the determinants in the genesis of Political Zionism.
Herzl concluded that anti-Semitism was a stable and immutable factor in human society, which assimilation did not solve. He mulled over the idea of Jewish sovereignty, and, despite ridicule from Jewish leaders, published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896). Herzl argued that the essence of the Jewish problem was not individual but national. He declared that the Jews could gain acceptance in the world only if they ceased being a national anomaly. The Jews are one people, he said, and their plight could be transformed into a positive force by the establishment of a Jewish state with the consent of the great powers. He saw the Jewish question as an international political question to be dealt with in the arena of international politics.
Herzl proposed a practical program for collecting funds from Jews around the world by a company to be owned by stockholders, which would work toward the practical realization of this goal. (This organization, when it was eventually formed, was called the Zionist Organization.) He saw the future state as a model social state, basing his ideas on the European model of the time, of a modern enlightened society. It would be neutral and peace-seeking, and of a secular nature.
In his Zionist novel, Altneuland (Old New Land, 1902), Herzl pictured the future Jewish state as a socialist utopia. He envisioned a new society that was to rise in the Land of Israel on a cooperative basis utilizing science and technology in the development of the Land.
He included detailed ideas about how he saw the future state’s political structure, immigration, fundraising, diplomatic relations, social laws and relations between religion and the state. In Altneuland, the Jewish state was foreseen as a pluralist, advanced society, a “light unto the nations.” This book had a great impact on the Jews of the time and became a symbol of the Zionist vision in the Land of Israel.
A Movement Is Started
Herzl’s ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, although Jewish leaders were less ardent. Herzl appealed to wealthy Jews such as Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild, to join the national Zionist movement, but in vain. He then appealed to the people, and the result was the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, on August 2931, 1897.
The Congress was the first interterritorial gathering of Jews on a national and secular basis. Here the delegates adopted the Basle Program, the program of the Zionist movement, and declared, “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” At the Congress the World Zionist Organization was established as the political arm of the Jewish people, and Herzl was elected its first president.
Herzl convened six Zionist Congresses between 1897 and 1902. It was here that the tools for Zionist activism were forged: Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim, the Jewish National Fund and the movement’s newspaper Die Welt.
After the First Zionist Congress, the movement met yearly at an international Zionist Congress. In 1936, the center of the Zionist movement was transferred to Jerusalem.
Uganda Isn’t Zion
Herzl saw the need for encouragement by the great powers of the aims of the Jewish people in the Land. Thus, he traveled to the Land of Israel and Istanbul in 1898 to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The meeting with Wilhelm was a failure – the monarch dismissed Herzl’s political entreaties with snide anti-Semitic remarks. When these efforts proved fruitless, he turned to Great Britain, and met with Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary and others. The only concrete offer he received from the British was the proposal of a Jewish autonomous region in east Africa, in Uganda.
In 1899, in an essay entitled “The Family Affliction” written for The American Hebrew, Herzl wrote, “Anyone who wants to work in behalf of the Jews needs – to use a popular phrase – a strong stomach.”
The 1903 Kishinev pogrom and the difficult state of Russian Jewry, witnessed firsthand by Herzl during a visit to Russia, had a profound effect on him. He requested that the Russian government assist the Zionist Movement to transfer Jews from Russia to Eretz Yisrael.
At the Sixth Zionist Congress (1903), Herzl proposed the British Uganda Program as a temporary refuge for Jews in Russia in immediate danger. While Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, a Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, the proposal aroused a storm at the Congress and nearly led to a split in the Zionist movement. The Uganda Program was finally rejected by the Zionist movement at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.
Herzl died in Vienna in 1904, of pneumonia and a weak heart overworked by his incessant efforts on behalf of Zionism. By then the movement had found its place on the world political map. In 1949, Herzl’s remains were brought to Israel and reinterred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Herzl’s books Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”) and Altneuland (“Old New Land”), his plays and articles have been published frequently and translated into many languages. His name has been commemorated in the Herzl Forests at Ben Shemen and Hulda, the world’s first Hebrew gymnasium — “Herzliya” — which was established in Tel Aviv, the town of Herzliya in the Sharon and neighborhoods and streets in many Israeli towns and cities.
Herzl coined the phrase “If you will, it is no dream,” which became the motto of the Zionist movement. Although at the time no one could have imagined it, Zionism led, only fifty years later, to the establishment of the independent State of Israel.
— Jabotinsky – to the Jews of Warsaw on Tisha b’Av 1938
“For three years I have been imploring you, Jews of Poland, the crown of world Jewry, appealing to you, warning you unceasingly that the catastrophe is nigh. My hair has turned white and I have grown old over these years, for my heart is bleeding that you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spew forth its fires of destruction. I see a horrible vision. Time is growing short for you to be spared. I know you cannot see it, for you are troubled and confused by everyday concerns… Listen to my words at this… for time is running short.”
REVISIONISTS, ZIONIST (later New Zionist Organization)
The Revisionists Zionist movement of maximalist political Zionists was founded and led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the later 1920s and in the 1930s the Revisionists became the principal Zionist opposition party to Chaim Weizmann’s leadership and to the methods and policy of the World Zionist Organization and the elected Jewish leadership in Ereẓ Israel. The initial nucleus of the Revisionist movement consisted of a group of Russian Zionists who had supported Jabotinsky during World War I in his campaign for the creation of a Jewish Legion. Their organ became the Russian-language Zionist weekly, The Razsvet, published in Berlin (1922–24), later in Paris (1924–34). This group was joined by other Zionist circles and personalities, such as Richard Lichtheim, Robert Stricker, Jacob de Haas, the Hebrew poet Jacob Cohen, and others, who opposed Weizmann and his policy.
The Revisionists based their ideology on Theodor Herzl’s concept of Zionism as essentially a political movement, defined by Jabotinsky as follows: “Ninety per cent of Zionism may consist of tangible settlement work, and only ten per cent of politics; but those ten percent are the precondition of success.” The basic assumption was that as long as the mandatory regime in Palestine was essentially anti-Zionist, no piecemeal economic achievements could lead to the realization of Zionism, i.e., the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in the entire territory of Palestine, “on both sides of the Jordan.”
At its inception, the Revisionist program centered on the following demands: to reestablish the Jewish Legion as an integral part of the British garrison in Palestine, to develop the Jewish Colonial Trust as the main instrument of economic activity, and to conduct a “political offensive” which would induce the British government to adapt its policy in Palestine to the original intention and spirit of the Balfour Declaration. The Revisionist program soon became more elaborate, asking, in addition to the demand for Jewish military units, etc., for the introduction of a whole new system of policy in Palestine, defined as a “settlement regime” – a system of legislative and administrative measures (such as land reform, state protection of local industries, a favorable fiscal system, etc.) explicitly designed to foster Jewish mass immigration and settlement. The Revisionists criticized the system of small-scale immigration and settlement based on “schedules” of immigration certificates and on the emphasis of agriculture. Economic and social methods, designed to bring to Palestine “the largest number of Jews within the shortest period of time” should include support of private initiative and private capital investment, mainly in industry, intensive agricultural cultivation of small plots (the *Soskin method), as well as compulsory arbitration of labor conflicts and the outlawing of strikes and lockouts “during the period of state-building.” While strongly critical of British policy in Palestine, the Revisionists denied being “anti-British.” Their conception was that constructive Anglo-Jewish cooperation could be brought about only through determined political pressure on the British government exerted on an international scale.
Chaim Weizmann was born in Motol, Russia in 1874. He received his education in biochemistry in Switzerland and Germany. Already in Geneva, he became active in the Zionist movement. In 1905 he moved to England, and was elected to the General Zionist Council.
Weizmann’s scientific assistance to the Allied forces in World War I brought him into close contact with British leaders, enabling him to play a key role in the issuing of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917 in which Britain committed itself to the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine.
In 1918, Weizmann was appointed head of the Zionist Commission sent to Palestine by the British government to advise on the future development of the country. There, he laid the foundation stone of the Hebrew University. That same year Weizmann met in Aqaba with Emir Feisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the leader of the Arab movement, to discuss prospects of reaching an understanding on the establishment of independent Arab and Jewish states.
Shortly after, Weizmann led the Zionist delegation to the Peace Conference at Versailles, and in 1920 became the president of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). He headed the Jewish Agency which was established in 1929.
In the 1930’s, Weizmann laid the foundations of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot, later to become the Weizmann Institute, a driving force behind Israel’s scientific research. In 1937, he made his home in Rehovot.
Chaim Weizmann again served as President of the WZO from 1935-1946. During the years that led up to World War II, he invested much effort in establishing the Jewish Brigade. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the issuing in 1939 of the White Paper, which in effect halted Jewish immigration to Palestine.
After the end of World War II, Weizmann was instrumental in the adoption of the Partition Plan by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, and in the recognition of Israel by the United States.
With the declaration of the State of Israel, Weizmann was chosen to serve as the first President of Israel. This role he filled until his death in 1952.
The Belfour Declaration 1917
The British government decided to endorse the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. After discussions within the cabinet and consultations with Jewish leaders, the decision was made public in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild. The contents of this letter became known as the Balfour Declaration.
November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you. on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
The Importance of the San Remo Conference
A British Jew : With Jews like these, who needs enemies
British politician Herbert Samuel (1870-1963) was appointed the first High Commissioner of Palestine, where he served 1920-25. A Jew and an influential Zionist, Samuel bent over backwards not to favor the Yishuv, to the point that he forwarded the interests of the Palestinians most hostile to the Jewish presence. Most notoriously, Samuel appointed Amin al-Husseini as mufti of Palestine, a position which Husseini used to become the most powerful figure in the mandate and the Palestinian who did the most-ever damage to Zionism.
(yes, even more so than his nephew Yasir Arafat).
Arab Riots of the 1920s
At the end of World War I, discussions commenced on the future of the Middle East, including the disposition of Palestine. On April 19, 1920, the Allies, Britain, France, Italy and Greece, Japan and Belgium, convened in San Remo, Italy to discuss a peace treaty with Turkey. The Allies decided to assign Great Britain the mandate over Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River, and the responsibility for putting the Balfour Declaration into effect. Arab nationalists were unsure how best to react to British authority. The two preeminent Jerusalem clans, the el-Husseinis and the Nashashibis, battled for influence throughout the mandate, as they had for decades before. The former was very anti-British, whereas the latter favored a more conciliatory policy.
One of the el-Husseinis, Haj Amin, who emerged as the leading figure in Palestinian politics during the mandate period, first began to organize small groups of suicide groups, fedayeen (“one who sacrifices himself”), to terrorize Jews in 1919 in the hope of duplicating the success of Kemal in Turkey and drive the Jews out of Palestine, just as the Turkish nationalists were driving the Greeks from Turkey. The first large Arab riots took place in Jerusalem in the intermediary days of Passover, April 1920. The Jewish community had anticipated the Arab reaction to the Allies’ convention, and was ready to meet it. Jewish affairs in Palestine were then being administered from Jerusalem by the Vaad Hatzirim (Council of Delegates), appointed by the World Zionist Organization (WZO) (which became the Jewish Agency in 1929). The Vaad Hatzirim charged Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky with the task of organizing Jewish self-defense. Jabotinsky was one of the founders of the Jewish battalions, which had served in the British Army during the First World War and had participated in the conquest of Palestine from the Turks. Acting under the auspices of the Vaad Hatzirim, Jabotinsky lead the Haganah (self-defense) organization in Jerusalem, which succeeded in repelling the Arab attack. Six Jews were killed and some 200 injured in Jerusalem in the course of the 1920 riots. In addition, two Americans, Jakov Tucker and Ze’ev Scharff, both WWI veterans, were killed resisting an Arab attack on the Jewish settlementof Tel Hai in March 1920. Had it not been for the preliminary organization of Jewish defense, the number of victims would have undoubtedly been much greater.
After the riots, the British arrested both Arabs and Jews. Among those arrested was Jabotinsky, together with 19 of his associates, on a charge of illegal possession of weapons. Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor and deportation from the country after completion of his sentence. When the sentence became known, the Vaad Hatzirim made plans for widespread protests, including mass demonstrations and a national fast. Meanwhile, however, the mandate for Palestine had been assigned to Great Britain, and the jubilation of the Yishuv outweighed the desire to protest against the harsh sentence imposed on Jabotinsky and his comrades.
With the arrival in Jerusalem of the first High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, British military government was superseded by a civilian administration. As a gesture toward the civilian population, the High Commissioner proclaimed a general amnesty for both Jews and Arabs who had been involved in the April 1920 riots. Jabotinsky and his comrades were released from prison to an enthusiastic welcome by the Yishuv, but Jabotinsky insisted that the sentence passed against them be revoked entirely, arguing that the defender should not be placed on trial with the aggressor. After months of struggle, the British War Office finally revoked the sentences.
In 1921, Haj Amin el-Husseini began to organize larger scale fedayeen to terrorize Jews. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, former head of British military intelligence in Cairo, and later Chief Political Officer for Palestine and Syria, wrote in his diary that British officials “incline towards the exclusion of Zionism in Palestine.” In fact, the British encouraged the Arabs to attack the Jews. According to Meinertzhagen, Col. Waters Taylor, financial adviser to the Military Administration in Palestine 1919-23, met with Haj Amin a few days before Easter, in 1920, and told him “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world…that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols [Chief Administrator in Palestine, 1919-20] and General Allenby [Commander of Egyptian Force, 1917-19, then High Commissioner of Egypt] would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home. Waters-Taylor explained that freedom could only be attained through violence.”
Haj Amin took the Colonel’s advice and instigated a riot. The British withdrew their troops and the Jewish police from Jerusalem, and the Arab mob attacked Jews and looted their shops. Due to Haj Amin’s overt role in instigating the pogrom, the British arrested him. Yet, despite the arrest, Haj Amin escaped to Jordan, but he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in absentia. A year later, however, British Arabists convinced High Commissioner Herbert Samuel to pardon Haj Amin and to appoint him Mufti.
Samuel met with Haj Amin on April 11, 1921, and was assured “that the influences of his family and himself would be devoted to tranquility.” Three weeks later, however, riots in Jaffa and Petah Tikvah, instigated by the Mufti, left 43 Jews dead. Following these riots England established the Haycraft Commission to evaluate the cause of these riots. The appendix of the report reads, “The fundamental cause of the Jaffa riots and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents . . . the Arab majority, who were generally the aggressors, inflicted most of the casualties.”
Following these riots, Haj Amin consolidated his power and took control of all Muslim religious funds in Palestine. He used his authority to gain control over the mosques, the schools and the courts. No Arab could reach an influential position without being loyal to the Mufti. As the “Palestinian” spokesman, Haj Amin wrote to Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill in 1921, demanding that restrictions be placed on Jewish immigration and that Palestine be reunited with Syria and Transjordan. Churchill issued the White Paper of 1922, which tried to allay Arab fears about the Balfour Declaration. The White Paper acknowledged the need for Jewish immigaration to enable the Jewish community to grow, but placed the familiar limit of the country’s absorptive capacity on immigration. Although not pleased with Churchill’s diplomatic Paper, the Zionists accepted it; the Arabs, however, rejected it.
Despite the disturbances in 1920-1921, the yishuv continued to develop in relative peace and security. Another wave of riots, however, broke out in 1924 after another wave of pogrom’s sent 67,000 Polish Jewish refugees to Palestine. After a week of skirmishes in Jerusalem between the Haganah and Arab mobs, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs lay dead. The yishuv’s main concern at that time was its financial difficulties; the economic crisis of 1926-1928 led many to believe that the Zionist enterprise would fail due to lack of funds. Zionist leaders attempted to rectify the situation by expanding the Jewish Agency to incorporate non-Zionists who were willing to contribute to the practical settlement of Palestine.
The prospects for renewed financial support for the yishuv upset Arab leaders who feared economic domination by the Zionists. Led by Haj Amin al-Husseini once again, rumors of a Jewish plot to seize control of Muslim holy places began to spread. Violence erupted soon after, causing extensive damage. Rioting and looting were rampant throughout Palestine. In Jerusalem, Muslims provoked the violence and tensions by building and praying on or near the holiest place in the world for Jews, the Western Wall. By late August, the Arabs, in well organized formation, attacked Jewish settlements near Jerusalem. The disturbances spread to Hebron and Tsfat, including many settlements in between, and on the Kfar Dorom kibbutz in the Gaza Strip. After six days of rioting, the British finally brought in troops to quell the disturbance. Despite the fact that Jews had been living in Gaza and Hebron for centuries, following these riots, the British forced Jews to leave their homes and prohibited Jews from living in the Gaza strip and Hebron in an attempt to appease Arabs and quell violence. By the end of the rioting, 135 Jews (including eight Americans) were killed, with more than 300 wounded.
Like the riots earlier in the decade, afterward the British appointed Sir William Shaw to head an inquiry into the causes of the riots. The Shaw Commission found that the violence occurred due to “racial animosity on the part of the Arabs, consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future.” The report claimed that the Arabs feared economic domination by a group who seemed to have, from their perspective, unlimited funding from abroad. The Commission reported that the conflict stemmed from different interpretations of British promises to both Arabs and Jews. The Commission acknowledged the ambiguity of former British statements and recommended that the government clearly define its intentions for Palestine. It also recommended that the issue of further Jewish immigration be more carefully considered to avoid “a repetition of the excessive immigration of 1925 and 1926.” The issue of land tenure would only be eligible for review if new methods of cultivation stimulated considerable growth of the agricultural sector. The Shaw Commission frustrated Zionists, but the two subsequent reports issued on the future of Palestine were more disturbing. The Hope Simpson report of 1930 painted an unrealistic picture of the economic capacity of the country. It cast doubt on the prospect of industrialization and incorrectly asserted that no more than 20,000 families could be accomodated by the land. The Hope Simpson report was overshadowed, however, by the simultaneous release of the Passfield White Paper, which reflected colonial Secretary Passfield’s deep-seated animus toward Zionism. This report asserted that Britain’s obligations to the Arabs were very weighty and should not be overlooked to satisfy Jewish interests. Many argued that the Passfield Paper overturned the Balfour Declaration, essentialy saying that Britain should not plan to establish a Jewish state. The Passfield Paper greatly upset Jews, and interestingly, also the labor and conservative parties in the British Parliament. The result of this widespread outcry to the Secretary’s report was a letter from British Prime Minister MacDonald to Dr. Chaim Weizmann, reaffirming the commitment to create a Jewish homeland.
The Arabs found rioting to be a very effective political tool because the British attitude toward violence against Jews, and their response to the riots, encouraged more outbreaks of violence. In each riot, the British would make little or no effort to prevent the Arabs from attacking the Jews. After each incident, a commission of inquiry would try to establish the cause of the riot. The conclusions were always the same: the Arabs were afraid of being displaced by Jewish immigrants. To stop the disturbances, the commissions routinely recommended that restrictions be made on Jewish immigration. Thus, the Arabs came to recognize that they could always stop Jewish immigration by staging a riot. Despite the restrictions placed on its growth, the Jewish population increased to more than 160,000 by the 1930s, and the community became solidly entrenched in Palestine. Unfortunately, as the Jewish presence grew stronger, so did the Arab opposition. The riots brought recognition from the international Jewish community to the struggle of the settlers in Palestine, and more than $600,000 was raised for an emergency fund that was used to finance the cost of restoring destroyed or damaged homes, establish schools, and build nurseries.
The Palestine Mandate 1922
The Council of the League of Nations:
The Principal Allied Powers agreed that Britain administer of the territory of Palestine, which formerly belonged to the Turkish Empire, and should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by Britain and the Allied Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. Recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country. The Principal Allied Powers selected Britain as the Mandatory for Palestine on behalf of the League of Nations to control and administer the following articles. Any provision not having been previously agreed upon by the Members of the League, shall be explicitly defined by the Council of the League Of Nations.
Click below to read articles:
The British: With friends like these, who needs enemies
White Papers of 1939 (a catastrophic set back for the Jews)
In the statement on Palestine, issued on 9 November, 1938, Britain announced their intention to invite representatives of the Arabs of Palestine, of certain neighboring countries and of the Jewish Agency to confer with them in London regarding future policy. It was their sincere hope that, as a result of full, free and frank discussions, some understanding might be reached. Conferences recently took place with Arab and Jewish delegations, lasting for a period of several weeks, and served the purpose of a complete exchange of views between British Ministers and the Arab and Jewish representatives. In the light of the discussions as well as of the situation in Palestine and of the Reports of the Royal Commission and the Partition Commission, certain proposals were formulated by Britain and were laid before the Arab and Jewish Delegations as the basis of an agreed settlement. Neither the Arab nor the Jewish delegation felt able to accept these proposals, and the conferences therefore did not result in an agreement. Accordingly the British were free to formulate their own policy, and after careful consideration they have decided to adhere generally to the proposals which were finally submitted to and discussed with the Arab and Jewish delegations.
The Mandate for Palestine, the terms of which were confirmed by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922, has governed the policy of successive British Governments for nearly 20 years. It embodies the Balfour Declaration and imposes on the Mandatory four main obligations. These obligations are set out in Article 2, 6 and 13 of the Mandate. There is no dispute regarding the interpretation of one of these obligations, that touching the protection of and access to the Holy Places and religious building or sites. The other three main obligations are generally as follows:
To place the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People. To facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions, and to encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, close settlement by Jews on the Land.
To safeguard the civil and religious rights of all inhabitants of Palestine irrespective of race and religion, and, while facilitating Jewish immigration and settlement, ensure that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced.
To place the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the development of self governing institutions.
The British found the the expression `a national home for the Jewish people’, is a fundamental cause of unrest and hostility between Arabs and Jews.The British Government convinced that in the interests of the peace and well being of all people of Palestine a clear definition of policy and objectives is essential. The proposal of partition recommended by the Royal Commission would have afforded such clarity, but the establishment of self supporting independent Arab and Jewish States within Palestine has been found to be impracticable. It has therefore been necessary for Britain t to devise an alternative policy which will, consistent with their obligations to Arabs and Jews, meet the needs of the situation in Palestine. Their views and proposals are set forth below under three heads, Section I, “The Constitution”, Section II. Immigration and Section III. Land.
Click below to read Proposals:
Partition Plan 1947
The United Nations
Childhood and adolescence
Menachem Begin dedicated his life to serving his nation, and twice reached the pinnacle of his ambitions – first as the commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) before the establishment of the State, and then as the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel. He himself felt, even after the signing of the peace accord with Egypt that – “Nothing can ever compare to the feelings I experienced during the period of the underground, or those of a person fighting from the underground for the freedom of his nation.”
Menachem Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk, then Brisk, Lithuania on Av 13, 5673 – August 16, 1913 to Ze’ev Dov and Hassia (nee Kosovsky). Because he was born on Shabbat Nahamu – the Sabbath of Comfort – following the three-week period of annual national mourning over the destruction of the Temples ending on the ninth of Av – he was given the name Menachem – the comforter. His father was the secretary of the Jewish community and one of its first Herzlian Zionists. Although poor, the humble Begin home was filled with love and warmth. The parents gave their daughter (Rachel Halperin, who passed away on September 8, 1991) and two sons Herzl and Menachem, a strong Jewish Zionist education. Hassia sacrificed herself for her children, of whom Menachem was the youngest, and strongly urged them to acquire a good education.
At the age of only one year, Menachem was already “witness” to his first war – World War I – which forced him and his family to abandon their home in Brisk and wander through the villages and forests of eastern Poland. When the war ended, they returned to Brisk, at which time Menachem began to go to school – first to the traditional cheder and then yeshiva, followed by the Jewish Tachkemoni school of the Mizrachi movement, the Polish government secondary school and finally, the University of Warsaw. At the age of five, he was a “particularly clever boy, active and always willing to learn,” as recalled by his kindergarten teacher some 60 years later.
Begin, who observed Jewish tradition all his life, refrained from writing on Shabbat while at school. He once, even, received a failing grade in his favorite subject, Latin, because he refused to take an examination given on Shabbat. Already before becoming a Bar Mitzvah, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Asked to write a composition for school on the subject, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he wrote, “a lawyer,” explaining that he wanted to “help the wretched and downtrodden.”
Until the age of 13, Menachem, like most of the Jewish youth of his town, was a member of Hashomer Hatza’ir, which at the time was a national scouts movement, devoid of socialist content. Begin made his first speeches as a member of this movement. The very first was when he was only ten when he spoke before a large audience gathered in Brisk’s main park. It was on the minor holiday L’ag Ba’omer, at the culmination of the traditional parade of the Jewish youth movements. Young Menachem spoke Hebrew, delighting and enthralling his listeners. At the age of 16, he joined the Betar youth movement. In 1930, he heard Ze’ev Jabotinsky for the first time, and the experience left a powerful and lasting impression on him.
“I was captivated by the integrality of Betar’s Zionism, the Land of Israel, the aspiration to establish a Jewish state in our time,” Begin would relate many years later.
In 1931, he began to study in the law faculty of the University of Warsaw and supported himself by giving private lessons. He was very active in student affairs, although his involvement in public activities had begun many years earlier. Despite graduating law school, he never practiced law, but his legal education served him well throughout his entire political career. On more than one occasion, he and his Jewish friends were attacked and beaten but were not afraid to reciprocate and fight back. In the university, he was among the first to organize the Jewish students to defend themselves against the anti-Semitic bullies. In 1935, he completed his law studies and graduated as Magister Juri.
Betar Commissioner in Poland
Begin soon climbed to the top of the Betar organization hierarchy. As the commander of the Brisk chapter and one of nine officers of Betar’s Netzivut in Poland, he attended Betar’s second international conference, held in Krakow in 1935. There, he clashed with Jabotinsky in a trenchant speech he gave in the wake of the storm stirred up by the Arlozorov murder.
“Mr. Jabotinsky may have forgotten that Ben-Gurion called him ‘Vladimir Hitler,’ but our memory is better,” proclaimed the 22-year-old orator before the leadership of Betar. Jabotinsky hastened to respond, “I will never forget that people like Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi and Golomb once wore the uniform of the battalions and fought alongside me. I am sure that if Zionism demands it, they will not hesitate to once again don those uniforms and fight.”
After that, Begin’s voice was often heard at conferences and in the Jewish centers he frequently visited. His articles were already being published in the Betar’s periodicals, Hametzuda [The Citadel], Hamadrich [The Leader] and others. In 1937, Begin returned from a mission as the head of the Betar movement of Czechoslovakia, and once again found his place among the leadership of Betar in Poland. In one incident, he organized a demonstration in front of the British embassy in Warsaw that called upon the British government to increase the number of immigration certificates for Jews to Mandatory Palestine, which had been cut in the wake of Arab terror. Begin was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison. This was both his first time in prison and the first time he engaged in active conflict with the British. When warned that he would be sent to a special punishment camp if he continued with protests of this kind, he responded, “Our youth is willing to bear even harsher punishments and make even greater sacrifices for the Land of Israel.” Begin also started to organize groups of “clandestine” immigrants that crossed numerous borders illegally on their way to the Land of Israel and so elude the British restrictions on Jewish entry into Palestine.
At the third international Betar conference held in Warsaw in 1938, Begin once again clashed with Jabotinsky, this time even more forcefully. “After a period of political and practical Zionism, we are now facing a period of military Zionism,” declared Begin, who spoke as the representative of the activist-maximalist stream within the Revisionist movement in Poland. “We must gain strength so that we need never be dependent on the kindness of others. If we succeed in building up a force of this kind, the help of the world will surely follow.”
That same conference approved Begin’s proposal to change the wording of the Betar oath composed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The original words: “I will prepare my hand for the defense of my people and only in defense will I will raise my hand,” were replaced by: “I will prepare my hand for the defense of my people and for the conquest of my homeland.” Jabotinsky rebuked the young rebel, but at the same time, his admiration and estimation for him grew, and in March 1939, he appointed Begin Netziv of Betar in Poland, placing him in charge of the over 70,000 young members of the movement. The official Betar pronouncement to its members said: “It was the personal desire of Officer Menachem Begin to immigrate to the Land of Israel and continue his Betar service there, but the Betar authorities have seen fit to postpone his immigration for the time being and to give him, at least for a certain period of time, this responsibility in Poland.” The “certain period of time” lasted only a few months. The Second World War broke out six months later, and Menachem Begin’s immigration to Eretz Israel was delayed for another four years.
Extremely tragic events were about to occur, but before that, on May 29, 1939, Menachem Begin celebrated a very happy personal event – his marriage to Aliza (Alla), nee Arnold. Menachem and Aliza met in the home of her father, Zvi, the head of the Revisionist party in Drohiczyn, where Begin spent a few months preparing for his law requirements. It was love at first sight. “Two 17-year-old girls, twins, sat at the table, but despite their resemblance, I could immediately tell the difference between them. I liked one of them, Alla, right away. I decided right then and there that she would be my wife.” Upon their engagement, Jabotinsky wrote to Begin: “Dear friend! I have had good, even very good days in my life, but the best of them was the day when I placed the ring on my wife’s finger and said seven Hebrew words to her.” Jabotinsky traveled to Drohiczyn to stand next to Begin under the wedding canopy, and with him came hundreds of Begin’s friends from Betar.
Four months later, in September 1939, the Germans occupied Poland. Brisk fell to the Germans even before Warsaw. With unimaginable courage, Begin’s father stood up to the Nazi governor to protest the arrests of Jews and demand their release. It was his last act on behalf of the Jewish townspeople. The Nazis soon handed Brisk over to their Russian allies, who held on to it until July 1941. After reoccupying the town, the Germans established a ghetto which was liquidated in October 1942.
Begin heard about his family’s fate from eyewitnesses. “The Germans took Mother from the hospital and murdered her. They drowned Father in the river together with 500 other Jews. Father went with his head held high and following his lead, all the Jews sang Ani Maamin bevi’at hamashiakh [I believe in the coming of the Messiah] and Hatikvah – after which the Germans threw them into the river.”
During the period just before the war broke out, Begin was mainly occupied with organizing Betar groups immigrating to pre-State Palestine. The last group found itself stranded in a village on the Polish-Romanian border, Shaniatian. Begin personally supervised the group for three weeks, and along with it, was forced to return to the point of departure – Warsaw. But he soon had to flee from there too: The Nazis were already at the gates of the city. Begin’s proposal to the Polish army to form special units of Betar members to fight the common enemy was rejected.
Begin and his wife, accompanied by Natan Yellin-Mor and his wife (who had married just the day before), left Warsaw together, on September 6. They traveled by train, and after that became no longer possible, continued by wagon and on foot, traveling hundreds of kilometers in this way in ten days. In Lvov, Begin was detained by the Soviets, but because he managed to keep his real identity from them, they released him and he continued on to Machov, and from there to Vilnius (Vilna), which, although it had already been overrun by the Red Army, was given over to Lithuania with Soviet control.
Vilnius of those days was a focal point for many Betar refugees, among others, from all over Poland. Begin helped organize them and continued his Zionist activities there. He refused to accept one of two immigration certificates to Palestine that arrived, thanks to the “generosity of the British government,” for the many of Betar members there through the Israel office in Kovno. He resolved to remain, casting his fate together with the Betar members that had gathered in Vilnius who were unable to immigrate.
After Lithuania became a Soviet republic in July 1940, Begin and his wife – along with Dr. Yisrael Eldad (Scheib at the time) and his wife – hid in the home of a Catholic family in a suburb of Vilnius who agreed to rent them two rooms. News of Jabotinsky’s death in New York on August 4 arrived in Vilnius somewhat belatedly, and therefore, on the 30th day following his death, a special memorial ceremony was held in the local cemetery and the Betar members sang Hatikvah in his memory.
On September 20, 1940, at the height of a very suspenseful game of chess between Begin and Eldad – with the situation on the board tending somewhat in Eldad’s favor – three agents of the NKVD, the secret Soviet police, showed up and arrested Begin. Aware of what awaited him, he made sure to polish his shoes and put on a tie and clean suit before leaving the house. He also took a Bible with him.
In the Lukishki prison, Begin was repeatedly interrogated, especially about his activities as the Betar Netziv. He was accused of having served British imperialism, a charge that would later bring a smile to his lips. The verdict read out to him noted that, “The Special Advisory Committee to the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs finds Menahem Wolfovitch [= ben Zeev] Begin to be a dangerous element to society, and decrees that he be imprisoned in a correctional labor camp for a period of eight years.” Begin was held in Vilnius until June 1941, when he was sent to do hard labor in the Pechora work camp in northern Russia.
After the Germans attacked Russia, the Polish prisoners were released in order to enable them to join the war effort against the invader. Begin, never physically robust, returned from Siberia ill and exhausted.
However, with the help of friends, he managed to enlist in the Free Polish army, under the command of General Anders, together with whom he reached pre-State Palestine in April 1942, via Iran and Iraq. Many of the new recruits deserted the army upon their arrival, but Begin decidedly refused to follow suit. “I swore allegiance to the Polish army – I will not desert,” he resolutely told his friends when he was reunited with them on Jewish soil.
Begin served in the Polish army for about a year and a half with the rank of corporal. He acted as an interpreter in its Jerusalem headquarters, and lived in the city’s Rehavia neighborhood. From mid-1942 on, he also served shortly as the Betar Netziv in Palestine and maintained close ties with the IZL. During World War II, the organization took a respite in its war against the British Mandate in order to rally against the common German enemy. In 1941, the organization’s activities reached their nadir, especially after its leader David Raziel was killed. It was Ya’acov Meridor, who succeeded Raziel as commander of the organization, who told his fellow commanders, “Begin is the man we hope to see leading the crucial war the IZL is about to launch.”
At the initiative of Aryeh Ben-Eliezer and with the help of Mark Kahan, negotiations began with the Polish army regarding the release of five Jewish soldiers from the army, including Begin, in return for which the members of the IZL delegation would lobby in Washington for the Polish forces. The negotiations lasted many weeks until they finally met with success: The Polish commander announced the release of four of the soldiers. Fortunately, Begin was among them. Upon his release at the age of 30, Begin now faced what was perhaps the most important chapter in his life. He removed his Polish army uniform and became a “soldier without a uniform,” an underground fighter. The former corporal was now the commander of the IZL.
Commander of the Irgun
Begin hesitated to yield to the decision of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (IZL) command to appoint him commander of the organization, but the moment he uttered the words, “I accept,” the IZL took on a new spirit. It was completely reorganized: Begin was at the helm, Meridor was his deputy, and under them was the IZL High Command, which had been reduced to three officers: Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, Eliyahu Lankin and Shlomo Levy. A short time later, on February 1, 1944, the IZL published its first declaration, which clearly reflected the unique style and spirit of “Ben-Ze’ev,” Begin’s first nom de guerre. It was a “Proclamation of the Revolt,” against the British government, the same government that Begin, the man now leading the struggle against the British mandate, had been accused of serving by the Soviets just four years earlier.
“To the Hebrew Nation in Zion,” was the heading of the proclamation, the first of a long series of proclamations, declarations and communiqués made by the IZL, written by Begin. In it, he accused the British authorities of striving to destroy the last vestige and hope of state Zionism and of betraying the Jewish people, and that consequently, a war to the bitter end was no longer avoidable. “We will fight. Every Jew in the homeland will fight. The God of Israel, God of Hosts will come to our aid. There will be no retreat. Freedom or death!” said the proclamation. And the operations followed soon after.
His “army” numbered no more than a thousand persons, and of them only about 200 were actual front line fighters. But by 1947, the ranks had grown to 5,000. This “army” carried out almost 300 military-style attacks in the four years under Begin’s command, and great caution and profound discretion were exercised regarding all of them. Three of those actions stand out in particular: The bombing of the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as the central command of the British mandatory government; the storming of the Acre prison to release the IZL and Lehi prisoners held there; and the conquest of Jaffa. Begin did not personally participate in the fighting; he was in charge of leading a political struggle using military means. His main role was to outline the policies of the underground, win public support and run an effective organization. He was renowned for his concern for the lives and wellbeing of his fighters and he agonized over those that fell in battle, were wounded or imprisoned and exiled from the country to the camps in Africa. Most painful were the hangings.
Begin and the other members of the IZL made every effort to save the lives of IZL fighters that had been sentenced to death by hanging, as in the case of Dov Gruner. But after Begin – with a heavy heart – gave the order to hang two British sergeants in retaliation for the hanging of Weiss, Habib and Nakar, the hangings by the British stopped.
Begin set down very strict guidelines in the IZL’s war, which was directed entirely against the British army, its facilities and soldiers, the police and secret police as well as other official representatives of the mandatory government. The civilian population was completely excluded from this “game” and was not targeted, even if civilians occasionally came unintentionally in the line of fire. The members of the organization were pursued by the organized Jewish settlement of pre-State Israel, especially by the Haganah, but Begin forbade his people to retaliate, and in doing so, prevented civil war from breaking out a number of times: during the “Saison” (Open Season) – when members of the IZL were captured by members of the Haganah and handed over to the British, from late 1944 to mid-1945 – and in the Altalena affair in June 1948.
Despite the rivalry, Begin advanced the concept of a united front, and his efforts produced results: For nine months the Jewish Resistance Movement, an alliance made up of the Haganah, IZL and Lehi, struck vigorously at the British, and only “Black Saturday” and the bombing of the King David Hotel caused the leadership of the Jewish community in pre-State Palestine to reconsider the framework and cut all ties with the “dissenters,” as the IZL and Lehi were called then.
In the White Paper of May 15, 1948, the British admitted that they had been unable to further endure the activities of the underground, and that their decision to leave Palestine and give up their mandate over it was due to their loss of control and the deaths of over 300 British soldiers and security personnel. The revolt contributed to the battle to liberate the Land of Israel from foreign British control. On June 3, 1948, an agreement was signed to transfer the IZL units to the Israel Defense Forces.
The Altalena Affair
After arriving at previously agreed upon Kfar Vitkin beach, according to the decision reached with the senior officials of the Ministry of Defense, the IZL arms ship, Altalena, having sailed from France with 900 fighters on board and with a large cache of arms and ammunition in its hold, was given an ultimatum to immediately hand over the arms to the government despite an understanding reached earlier with government officials. Stunned at the incomprehensible demand, Begin boarded the ship which then sailed to the Tel Aviv beach area. He was on board when the order was given to shell it from the beach and the ship began to burn. He ordered that no one return fire from the ship as he did earlier when the ship was sniped at by small arms fire from the Palmach headquarters.
Later, Eliyahu Lankin, the captain of the Altalena, would relate, “When the flames spread throughout the ship, rescue boats began to arrive from the beach, mostly rafts, whose sailors were risking their lives under a barrage of bullets. They yelled: ‘Where is the old man?’ Bring the old man!’ They were referring to Begin, who at the time was doing whatever he could to get the wounded off the ship. Only after he had removed the last of the wounded did he agree to be evacuated himself from the Altalena.”
The Altalena affair, which occurred after the establishment of the State, preceded the dissolution of the IZL, which had begun in June 1948, when its units were absorbed into the IDF. Begin’s final official announcement to his comrades and troops was broadcast the day after the declaration of the State, on May 15, 1948, from the IZL’s radio station. In his speech, which he noted as the most important of all the speeches he ever gave, he said: “Our only reward is that we are privileged to see the nation truly liberated and all fighting together for its freedom. Our true reward will be when we are able – if we return alive from the front – to freely travel among the cities, mountains and valleys of our land and see Jewish children playing without fear, and above the heads of the beloved toddlers will fly a plane that is a Jewish plane, and guarding them will be a soldier who is a Jewish soldier, and in the distance the sound of a train will be heard, and it will be a Jewish train. Ah, can there be any greater joy than that?” And he continued, “The State of Israel has been established, but we must not forget that our homeland has not yet been liberated… Those who do not recognize our right to our entire homeland do not recognize our right to any part of it, and we will not relinquish our natural and eternal right… Israeli soldiers will yet fly our flag in the Tower of David, our plows will yet cultivate the fields of the Gilad.”
Founder of the Herut movement
Begin left the underground at the age of 35. A new chapter had opened in his life – the political one. He founded and headed a new political party –Herut – based on the principles and ideals of the IZL. In the first Knesset elections in 1949, his movement won 14 seats. Begin, now a member of Knesset and the chief opponent of the ruling MAPAI and other leftist parties, was one of the Knesset’s most outstanding members in its history. Herut remained faithful to its principles and presented itself as an alternative to the socialist government headed by David Ben-Gurion.
In 1961, Herut won 17 Knesset seats, and it became clear to Begin that, his party, by itself, would not be able win enough seats to replace the government. In 1965, Gahal was founded – the Herut-Liberals bloc – which won 26 seats, and from 1973, the framework was further expanded to form a larger camp, the Likud, in which “the followers of both Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion had joined forces together.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, when Begin headed the opposition to Ben-Gurion, life in the Knesset was never dull. The two constant rivals were sharply divided on almost every issue related to the past and present. Ben-Gurion, who coined the slogan “Without Herut and Maki” (the Israeli Communist Party), used a wide variety of epithets when referring to his great rival, and Begin gave as good as he got.
Nevertheless, the rivalry did not prevent Ben-Gurion from inviting Begin to his home on the eve of the Sinai Campaign in 1956 and revealing to him the details of the plan, which he kept from many of his cabinet ministers. On the other hand, it was Begin who in May 1967, during the nerve-racking waiting period on the eve of the Six Day War, proposed to the then prime minister Levi Eshkol to call in Ben-Gurion, the prime minister until 1963, to stand at the head of a national unity government. Ben-Gurion did not return to the premiership, but Begin, for the first time in his life, participated in a cabinet session on June 1, 1967, and from June 5 on, following Knesset approval, became minister-without-portfolio.
This appointment finally shattered the wall of isolation that had surrounded Begin’s movement and Begin personally for so long. Begin served as a member of the national unity government headed by Eshkol for three years, from the outbreak of the Six Day War on, and it was Begin, together with Yigal Alon, who initiated the debate in which the historic decision was made to liberate East Jerusalem, a move that even Uri Avneri praised in his Knesset speech on June 27, 1967.
In August 1970, Begin resigned along with the other Gahal members from the government (which by then was headed by Golda Meir – following Eshkol’s passing) on a matter of principle: He refused to accept the Rogers Plan, which included a commitment to withdraw from Judea and Samaria.
Opposition to the Reparations Agreement With Germany
Begin’s rhetorical skills, his fiery speeches and pathos riveted his listeners – even when the content of his words and their vehemence could be anticipated. His critics accused him of being a demagogue, but all agreed that rather than being a politician of narrow interests, he was a national statesman for whom the good of the nation and the country took precedence over everything else. Consequently, when visiting abroad, he meticulously refrained from even a whisper of criticism at the government.
Despite accusations from his political rivals that he was a “dangerous man who supported hooliganism,” only once did he stretch the boundaries of the rule of law to the limit. In January 1952, while the Knesset was debating the agreement with Germany regarding the payment of reparations by Germany to Israel for the Holocaust, Begin addressed an angry crowd demonstrating closde to the Knesset, which was later forcibly dispersed by the police after he had left. Before the tens of thousands that had gathered in Zion Square, many of them Holocaust survivors and not all Herut members, Begin said, “When you fired your cannon at us [in reference to the shelling of the Altalena], I gave an order: ‘No!’. Today, I will give an order: Yes! We know that you will show us no mercy, but this time, we too we will show no mercy to those that sell the blood of our brethren and parents – this will be a war of life and death!” In the Knesset plenum, MK Begin hurled harsh words at Ben-Gurion in response to a slur by the Prime Minister, and when he refused to retract his remarks, he was barred from all Knesset sessions for three months.
Later, Begin admitted his failure in the matter of the German reparations payments, but added, “It would have been an immeasurable humiliation of the Jewish people if no one had arisen from among us to express opposition to that agreement, which as we warned, became an agreement of rehabilitation and appeasement of the German people, the very nation that murdered six million Jews. If I contributed to this opposition, from then to this day, I am proud of that.”
Eight consecutive election campaigns dealt Begin one disappointment after another, although the support for the bloc of parties he headed kept growing and the disparity in the number votes received by his party and the Alignment increasingly diminished. He never lost his optimism and never fell into despair. As he liked to say, “One can lose an election 20 times and win the 21st time.” But Begin did not have to wait quite that long for victory.
Begin invested enormous physical energy in every election campaign. He gave hundreds of speeches, appeared at numerous election meetings and met with very varied audiences. On more than one occasion, tens of thousands gathered to hear the captivating speaker when he appeared in public places, such as Mograbi Square in Tel Aviv and Menora Square in Jerusalem. At such gatherings, enthusiastic cries could be heard from the crowd, “Begin for prime minister!”
The political reversal
Menachem Begin’s motto of “From the opposition to the premiership” became a reality on May 17, 1977, a short time before his 64th birthday.
The night following the closing of the polls was the greatest night of Menachem Begin’s life. He remained at home to watch the results on television until two o’clock in the morning, agreeing to come to the movement’s headquarters in Beit Jabotinsky only after he was convinced beyond any doubt that he had really won the election. Seemingly restrained, his words at three-thirty in the morning were stirring. “Today is the beginning of a turning point in the history of the Jewish people and the Zionist movement, unlike anything we have seen for 46 years, since the 17th Zionist Congress in 1931 when Ze’ev Jabotinsky proposed declaring that the goal of Zionism is the establishment of a Jewish state in our lifetime… In the name of his principles and in order to realize those principles, his followers fought to liberate the nation and aspired patiently and out of a complete belief in democracy to change our state. We have gotten to where we are today by means of the ballot box, and only by means of the ballot box. They came based on a faithful covenant with the students of Chaim Weizmann, Menachem Usishkin, Abba Hillel Silver and David Ben-Gurion.”
The internal political upheaval in Israel – even if expected – surprised the citizens of the country that made it happen, and stunned the world. Initially, the designated prime minister was portrayed in articles and newspaper reports as a “terrorist,” a “hard-line fanatic” and “intransigent zealot.” The British were especially upset by the results of the election, and were reluctant to forgive Begin for defeating them.
On June 7, 1977, President Aharon Katzir invested Begin with the task of forming the government. Immediately afterwards, Begin went to the Western Wall to read Psalms and kiss its stones. From there, he continued to the home of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, to receive his blessing. Menachem Begin presented his government to the Knesset on June 29. In his speech before the vote, he said, “The voters placed their trust in us, but we will not rest on our laurels. We know full well that the most difficult tests are still ahead of us. Because this is a new government, I would like to ask the Knesset and the nation to give us moral credit for at least the first year of its term.” After reading out the government’s basic guidelines, the hands were raised – 63 for, 53 against. Begin and the others swore their oath of allegiance as cabinet ministers of Israel’s 19th government.
Among the 53 MKs that opposed the new government were 15 members of the Dash party, with whom coalition negotiations had failed. Despite that, the contacts continued with the country’s third largest party, which played a major role in bringing the Likud to power. Begin even left four portfolios in his cabinet vacant – until October 24, when the efforts finally met with success. Dash joined the government, widening its base, making it, with the exception of the national unity governments, the Israeli government based on largest number of Knesset members ever.
Even before the new government was confirmed, the designated prime minister stirred up a furor when he decided to appoint Moshe Dayan, whom many people considered responsible for the tragic outcome of the Yom Kippur War, as his foreign minister. Begin touched off another furor when even before the vote of confidence in his government he declared at the site of the Elon Moreh community, “In the future, there will be many Elon Morehs.” And indeed, on a visit to Kedumim in February 1981, Begin proclaimed, “I promised at the beginning of my term that there would be many Elon Morehs, and they indeed arose. Today, lights can be seen at night in dozens of Jewish communities in Samaria.”
Within a short time, the new government won confidence and trust, especially after the new prime minister’s first official visit in the United States, as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. A unique personal relationship development between the two leaders who had never met before. Years later, however, it was learned that the president was suspicious of the prime minister, and in private meetings, demonstrated hostility and even animosity towards Begin, who refused to halt the continued establishment of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and prevented, in Carter’s view, the creation of a “Palestinian homeland.’ Despite this, it was said that there was “chemistry” between them. Begin especially captivated the hearts of the American Jewish community, as one of its leaders explained: “Begin is a Jew, and that is how he succeeded in winning the hearts of American Jewry, after Israel has already sent to us talented military officers, politicians and statesmen.”
Just as the public quickly grew accustomed to the new government, it also grew accustomed to the “new style” inspired by Begin: demonstrable politeness, European manners and Jewish expressions such as “with God’s help” became frequent aspects of daily life. Menachem Begin slipped into his new role naturally: “It is true that I have been in the prime minister’s office for only about two months,” he said in August, “but sometimes I feel as if I have been working here for at least ten years”.
The Peace Accord and the Nobel Peace Prize
As the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel, Menachem Begin will be remembered first and foremost thanks to an event that culminated on March 26, 1979. On that day, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the first peace agreement ever signed between Israel and an Arab country, was signed on the White House lawn in Washington. It followed dramatic negotiations, which began with secret contacts held in Morocco between Moshe Dayan and Hassan Tohami, continued during Begin’s visit to Romania and his talks with President Nicolae Ceaosescu, and when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited in Israel.
The Sadat initiative is closely tied to Begin’s personality. Sadat, who heard good reports on Israel’s new prime minister from Carter and Ceausesco, realized that Menachem Begin was a strong leader who would be able to convince his people of the justice of his decisions. He recognized that Begin had very clear views and that he was someone Sadat could trust and with whom he could reach an agreement. Only someone like Begin – realized Sadat – could make such a great concession in return for true peace. As someone who for so many years had been vilified as a “war monger,” a “fanatic,” who “believed in a policy of power,” Menachem Begin certainly wanted history to remember him as a leader who had brought peace to his nation, broken the circle of violence in the Middle East and put an end to bereavement in Israel.
Anwar Sadat’s declaration on November 9, 1977 – “I am willing to come to them, to their home, to the Knesset itself and argue with them” – was not left unanswered. In an appeal broadcast to the Egyptian people via an American television channel, Begin said, “Let us say to one another, and let it be a silent oath between our two nations, Egypt and Israel: No more war, no more bloodshed, no more threats… Only peace, true peace, and forever.”
One week later, on Saturday night, November 19, 1977, Begin received his former enemy at Ben-Gurion airport. In five private talks held during the two days of the historic visit, “chemistry” was created between the two leaders and both agreed: “No more war.”
Begin’s peace plan – which was presented to Carter in Washington and Sadat in Cairo – triggered harsh criticism in Israel, and especially in his own party, because it involved the return of most of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt and negotiations for the autonomy of the Arabs of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He told his critics in Herut, “I do not need a seal of approval for my loyalty to Eretz Israel – neither from Gush Emunim nor from the Movement for the Greater Land of Israel or from certain people in the Herut movement. He was criticized from the right by Professor Yuval Ne’eman, founder of Techiyah, who said, “In my darkest nightmares, I never imagined that Begin would reach that very same situation that he fought against his entire life.” And from the left, the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said, “Begin has an advantage – that as prime minister he doesn’t have Begin in the opposition.”
However, the growing friendship between Begin and Sadat did not prevent disagreements between them and the negotiations did not go as smoothly as hoped. Momentum was gained at the Camp David summit outside Washington in September 1978, where the Israeli, Egyptian and American delegations isolated themselves for 11 days to continue talks, which produced framework agreements for peace. These agreements were made possible in part due to difficult concessions that Menachem Begin agreed to make. The greatest was the agreement to carry out a complete, phased withdrawal from the entire Sinai Peninsula, which included the evacuation of the Jewish communities there, including the Naot Sinai moshav, which Begin had joined as a member at the beginning of that year.
Even before the peace agreement was ratified and signed, Menachem Begin earned international recognition and honor when he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1978 together with his Egyptian partner to the peace efforts. However, Sadat himself did not travel to Oslo to accept the prize and instead sent a representative. Begin went to Oslo and in his acceptance speech, he said, “The prize is not only mine; it belongs to my nation, for the terrible suffering it has undergone, for its many losses of life, for its love of peace and deep longing for it.” In his speech at the signing of the peace agreement three months later, he admitted: “This is the third greatest day in my life. The first was on May 14, 1948, when our flag was flown and our independence declared in the land of our ancestors… The second was when Jerusalem became an undivided city… Now, I have signed a peace agreement with our neighbor, Egypt. My heart overflows.”
The assassination of President Sadat by fanatical Muslims on October 6, 1981 during a military parade in Cairo marking the eighth anniversary of the “October War,” as the Yom Kippur is known as in Egypt, awakened fears for the fate of the peace agreement. But Menachem Begin did not hesitate to declare that the evacuation of the Sinai would be completed on schedule in accordance with the commitment Israel took upon itself in the agreement, and that is exactly what happened. In April 1982, nine years after it was established, the city of Yamit was completely demolished, bringing an end to all the communities in the flourishing district. The bitter struggle of those that opposed the withdrawal from Sinai did not lead to bloodshed, but the sights deeply pained the “member of Naot Sinai,” sitting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.
At that time, Begin was already standing at the head of his second government, after leading the Likud to its second victory in elections that had been moved up to 1981. The cries of “Begin! Begin!” once again reverberated in Israel’s streets and squares. This government was based on the narrow Knesset majority of 61 seats, which forced Begin to make far-reaching concessions to his religious coalition partners in various areas of legislation. The internal conflicts in the nation deepened in the election campaign. The increasingly sharp “traditional” differences between right and left were overshadowed by the rancor between Israel’s religious and secular communities, and between its Ashknazi and Sepharadi populations.
Operation Peace for the Galilee
After securing the peace agreement with Egypt – even after it “cooled down” quite a bit after Hosni Mubarak became president – Menachem Begin found the time to deal with other issues on which his positions were no less firm. He set in motion the application of Israeli law on the Golan Heights; Israeli air force planes bombed the Iraq’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad; and in the ancestral lands of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the establishment of Jewish communities was considerably stepped up.
And there was yet another front where Begin left his mark – the internal, social one. It was Menachem Begin that removed the division between the Ashkenazi elites of “First Israel,” and “Second Israel,” promoted the advancement of the development towns, launched the nation-wide Project Renewal to rebuild poor neighborhoods and injected the poorer members of Israeli society with new pride.
As an ingrained seeker of justice and truth, in March 1982, Menachem Begin set in motion the establishment of a national commission of inquiry into the murder of Haim Arlozorov, whose killing triggered terrible strife and hostility in the Zionist camp for many, many years. The commission determined that despite the accusations at the time, the Revisionists had had nothing to do with the murder of the great Jewish leader in 1933.
As the terrorists stationed in Southern Lebanon escalated their attacks on Israel’s northern settlements, and in the wake of the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London, the Israel Defense Forces was given orders on June 5, 1982 to launch Operation Peace for the Galilee. Menachem Begin hoped that the campaign would last but a few days and would not reach beyond a radius of 40-45 kilometers from Israel’s border. He even declared that after it, “The land will rest for forty years.” Unfortunately, that is not how it turned out.
Despite the destruction of the terrorists’ bases in Southern Lebanon and forced removal of the PLO terrorists from Beirut, and notwithstanding the agreement Israel made with Lebanon, the war dragged on for many months. The continuing war, the large number of Israeli casualties (666 killed) and the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian phalanges in the Sabra and Chatilla camps all left their mark on the tormented prime minister of Israel.
Resignation and Seclusion
The developments in the wake of the controversial Peace for the Galilee war and the increasingly acrimonious internal debate, and the conclusions of the Kahan commission report into the massacre in the refugee camps (“We found no reason to acquit the prime minister of responsibility for not showing any interest in the actions of the Phalange fighters in the camps during the cabinet sessions and afterwards. […] We are unable to accept his explanation that he was entirely unaware of the danger of a massacre”) greatly disheartened the prime minister. To this should be added his profound sorrow over the death of his beloved wife, Aliza, on November 13, 1982, while he was abroad on official business, and his own increasing physical weakness.
Indeed, Begin’s poor health, heart problems and the major surgery he had to undergo following a fall in the bath, after which he was forced to use a walking stick, all restricted the prime minister’s movements, often keeping him at home. They did not, however, undermine his leadership or affect his ability to make decisions although a deep gloom overtook him and severely interfered with his work as prime minister, and – it was said – with his attentiveness at cabinet sessions.
Begin celebrated his 70th birthday in the presence of just a few close friends and family members, and exactly one month and five days later, on September 15, 1983, he announced his resignation. To the cabinet, he uttered but one sentence: “I feel that I can no longer continue,” thus bringing to an end a brilliant political career and closing an important chapter in the history of the State of Israel.
Many expected Begin to write a book about the generation of Holocaust and rebirth to which he so often alluded. When first elected prime minister in 1977, he declared that he planned to serve until the age of 70, when he would devote himself to writing his great book on “the generation of Holocaust and rebirth.” Begin, after all, had been a prolific writer and over the years had written hundreds of articles and two books, “White Nights,” and “The Revolt,” and a collection of underground posters and radio broadcasts that he wrote called “Writings from the Underground” was also published.
His resignation marked the final chapter in Menachem Begin’s biography, a sad one of seclusion and isolation in his apartments at 1 Tzemach Street in Jerusalem and 4 Glicksberg Street in Tel Aviv, where he spent the final year and a half of his life.
Begin consciously and determinedly resolved to completely cut himself off from all public and political activities. These were years of almost total and ascetic seclusion, which saddened all his friends and comrades in arms as well as the general population, who expected some kind of explanation from him for his sudden departure from public life. None, however, was forthcoming.
To his dying day, Begin refused to respond to appeals from friends, reporters or public figures to sum up his term in office in a speech, article or letter and thereby satisfy the curiosity of the public as to why he had suddenly abandoned the helm of his ship. He took his secret to the grave. It is doubtful if any of the few people that continued to frequent his home in those final years of silent and obscure decline – Yehiel Kadishai, Dan Meridor, Ya’acov Meridor, Harry Hurwitz and, of course, his devoted family members – heard any explanation from him that they may one day reveal to the public.
The public was able to catch glimpses of Menachem Begin only thanks to the hoards of press and television photographers and cameramen that hounded him on those very few occasions when he left his home – for the annual memorial service for his late wife Aliza and when he was hospitalized due to illness or when he needed an operation on his knee following a second fall in his apartment.
Menachem Begin moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on August 20, 1990. He had been hospitalized for a few weeks in the capital’s Shaare Zedek hospital and from there, was taken to Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv.
The newspaper photographs showed Menachem Begin being taken in a wheelchair. “I felt that I was taking part in the history of the State of Israel,” said the female soldier that helped wheel Begin on his return to Tel Aviv after 13 years of service and activity in Jerusalem.
Many ordinary citizens wrote to him during the years of his retirement and seclusion to invite him to various events. He responded to all these letters with brief words of thanks, sometimes adding relevant commentary on the events of the distant path or the present. On his birthdays, on Shabbat Nahamu each year, he opened his home to friends, the members of the “fighting family,” who, deeply moved and stirred, came to his home to meet once again with their commander and leader. On such days, letters and telegrams of congratulations filled his home. On Shabbat Nahamu of 1988, when Begin turned 75 years old, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wrote him: “Each year when this day arrives, all his friends, admirers, disciples along with multitudes of Jews in Israel and the turn their thoughts to Menachem Begin – the man, the commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the prime minister of the State of Israel, the great disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the man who carried out his teachings. There are few people that have left their mark on the history of the Jewish people in our generation as Menachem Begin has been privileged to do. He fought for the establishment of the state, saw it arise and participated in shaping its character and leading it to great deeds and enormous achievements. Very many among the Jewish people remember and will continue to remember his great deeds and accomplishments.”
Menachem Begin made his last journey to Jerusalem on a winter day when he returned his soul to his Maker – just before dawn on Monday, 2 Adar II, 5752 – March 9, 1992. In accordance with his wishes, he was not given an official state funeral, instead laid to rest in a simple, dignified Jewish ceremony without eulogies, wreaths or foreign dignitaries. Tens of thousands accompanied him on his final journey and the streets of the capital overflowed with the legions of mourners that came to show their love and admiration for him, walking many kilometers to Mount of Olives, where he was buried next to the grave of his beloved wife. The graves of Menachem and Aliza Begin on the Mount of Olives are located next to those of two underground heroes, Moshe Barazani of the Lehi and Meir Feinstein of the IZL, overlooking the Temple Mount.
His son, Binyamin Ze’ev Begin, said the traditional Kaddish and Yehiel Kadishai, his devoted aide, recited the El Maleh Rahamim prayer. The Betar anthem, whose third verse had become the IZL anthem, was softly chanted by those present and the ceremony ended. Tens of thousands filed passed the fresh grave to pay their last respects to a beloved leader, the sixth prime minister of the State of Israel, a Jewish commander, soldier and statesman of the generation of Holocaust and rebirth.
David Ben Gurion
David Ben-Gurion long dreamed of the creation of an independent and sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel. His conviction and efforts paid off when, on May 14th, 1948, it was he who read the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. Following that declaration, Israel was attacked by the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In the ensuing conflict – Israel’s War of Independence – it was Ben-Gurion who oversaw the state’s military operations.
One of his first orders as de facto head of state was to call in all of the militias that existed in Israel at the time and replace them with a national army. Ben-Gurion’s vision paved the way for what is known today as the Israel Defense Forces.
The Irgon and The Haganah
Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin
Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin was one of the IDF’s most admired leaders and one of Israel’s most memorable prime ministers. He joined the Palmach (the elite fighting force of the underground Jewish army, Haganah, during the British Mandate for Palestine) in 1941. Rabin commanded some of the most impressive operations in Israeli military history, including assisting the Allied invasion of Lebanon in 1941, directing Israeli operations in Jerusalem during the War of Independence, disrupting Egyptian control of the Sinai Peninsula during that war and forcing the Egyptian government to negotiate a truce.
In 1964, Rabin was appointed Chief of the General Staff and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. In June 1967, he successfully led IDF forces in the Six Day War.
Before the start of the war, Egyptian forces had begun to accumulate in the Sinai region and tensions increased. At the time, Egypt ordered the withdrawal of UN forces from the Sinai Peninsula and blocked Israel’s shipping access to the the Straits of Tiran. Egypt solidified its alliances with Syria and Jordan, while threatening Israel with war.
War was imminent, but Lt. Gen. Rabin’s confidence in the IDF’s abilities spread to all the citizens of Israel. Victory became the only option. He called up reserve forces and, on the morning of June 5, 1967, he began an operation that enlisted most of the IDF – air, ground, and navy forces. Within just six days, Israel had won a decisive land war. Israeli forces took control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Following the Six-Day War, the triumphant Lt. Gen. Rabin said the following during his famous speech on Mount Scopus:
“The world has recognized the fact that the Israel Defense Forces differs from other armies. Although its first task is the military task of ensuring security, the Israel Defense Forces undertakes numerous tasks of peace, tasks not of destruction but of construction and of the strengthening of the nation’s cultural and moral resources. The Six-Day War revealed many instances of heroism… the IDF soldier was revealed as heroic in spirit, in courage and in perseverance, which can leave no one who has witnessed this great and exalting human endeavor indifferent.”
Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors
The Evolution of the Israeli Right: From Jabotinsky to Begin to Netanyahu