A life of Menachem Begin (1913–1992) considers his legacy.
With multiple biographies of Begin published in the last 10 years, Gordis (Senior Vice President/Shalem Coll.; The Promise of Israel, 2012, etc.) re-examines the controversial Israeli leader in order “to look at his life through the lens of the passion he still evokes” and to ask, “What was the ‘magic’ of his draw?” Born in Poland, Begin joined the Zionist Betar movement, founded by the charismatic Vladimir Jabotinsky. Serving in a leadership position in that organization, Begin honed his skills as a public speaker and committed himself to two basic ideas: the Jews must have their own state; independence required military strength. In 1939, Begin and his wife fled Poland for Palestine but got only as far as Vilna, Lithuania. There, Begin was arrested by the Soviets; although sentenced to 8 years in a labor camp, he was released after six months, joined the Free Polish Army and was sent as a soldier to Palestine. For the next 50 years, Begin was an outspoken, galvanizing and divisive force in Israeli politics. Gordis delineates the fierce controversies within the Zionist communities and focuses especially on the rivalry between Begin and David Ben-Gurion, a battle between Begin’s “romantic preoccupation” with Jewish victimization and Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic belief that Israel needed to move beyond the past. That essential difference resulted in opposing military, political and social strategies. In 1977, after losing eight consecutive elections, Begin finally achieved high office and became, as Gordis puts it, “the most Jewish of Israel’s prime ministers.” His first act was to give asylum to 66 Vietnamese refugees, and he insisted on welcoming Ethiopian Jews. Signing a hard-won peace treaty earned both Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat a Nobel Peace Prize.
For Gordis, Begin stands as an exemplary leader whose selflessness and deep loyalty to the Jewish people and to Israel should inspire any who may question “the legitimacy of love for a specific people or devotion to its ancestral homeland.”