Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is born, 1913
On This Day in Jewish History: August 16, 1913
Warrior, that is the word we can use to describe one of Israel’s most legendary leaders, Menachem Begin, whose birthday we remember on this day in Jewish history. But we have already told you his story and biography in previous posts, so today we will dive into some deeper waters, into the historic figures and key moments that formed his fierce, lion-like character. Thrown into the fiery furnace of war since he was very young, well acquainted with antisemitism, he not only learned the value of Jewish strength but sought to uplift his fellow Jews around him and equip them with the strength to fight back, command respect, and win their freedom and dignity in the eyes of God and humanity.
To understand Menachem Begin is to know a political dynasty of military leaders, each of whom believed the time had come to break the shackles of antisemitism and humiliating subjugation which Jews had worn for centuries, and remind the people of Israel of their Biblical identity, not as sheep but as lions, not as weaklings, but as Hebrew Warriors, the people of Samson and Devorah, of Gideon, David, Esther and Bar Kochba. The first one to light the fires of Jewish warriors in the early 20th Century was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose life and legacy has also been covered in previous posts. Jabotinsky was responsible for forming the Jewish Legion of the British Army during World War I, insisting after the war that Jews had to fight for their freedom in Zion. So they did, as he helped found both the Haganah and the Irgun. Begin, on the other hand, had already received a strong religious Zionist education as a child, joining the HaShomer HaTzair (Zionist Boy Scouts) when he was just 13 years old and Betar (Zionist Revisionist Youth Movement) when he was 16.
It was circa 1935 that he befriended none other than Jabotinsky himself, whose influence and mentorship, as well as those of other Jewish military leaders of the time, formed much of Begin’s mentality and fortitude. But nothing could prepare them for the fires of the Holocaust, where the Nazis murdered Begin’s own parents and older brother. Begin himself fled the Nazis, only to be captured by the Soviets and sent to the Gulags of Siberia, where he was starved and tortured for about 2 years, after which Germany turned on Russian and Begin was released, fleeing with the Polish Anders Army along the Persian corridor and arriving to the Holy Land soon after.
The Holocaust deeply impacted Begin and only strengthened his resolve for the Jewish cause. Combined with how the British Empire later mistreated Jewish refugees and actively opposed their fight for independence, Begin grew tired of what he considered the Haganah’s soft tactics in diplomacy with Britain, believing that his fight would be against both the Nazi influence among the Arabs inhabitants of the Middle East as well as the British Empire. He joined the Irgun in 1942 and quickly became its leader and spokesman in 1944.
His role in controversial incidents which claimed the lives of military personnel and civilians alike, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel and the Deir Yassin Massacre, established Begin’s reputation as a ruthless military leader, whom the British Empire considered a wanted terrorist. David Ben Gurion and the Haganah themselves sometimes allied with British forces to arrest members of the Irgun and Lehi, even if it meant Jewish prisoners would be hanged. The rivalry between Ben Gurion and Begin was so fierce that Ben Gurion was sure Begin was planning a military coup upon the independence of Israel. Ben Gurion ordered the newly established Israel Defense Forces to open fire upon the ship Altalena, which carried Irgun fighters and their weapons, 16 Jewish Irgun members were killed and 200 were arrested. Despite all this, Begin ordered the Irgun fighters not to seek revenge or fight against the Haganah, viewing Jewish unity as a crucial element for the survival of the newly reborn Jewish State of Israel.
Despite his brutal tactics, and despite fierce opposition from Israel’s socialist Labor founders, the majority of Israel’s Mizrahi and Sephardic population from the lower and middle working class loved and supported him as a warrior and defender of his fellow Jewish people. To everyone’s shock, he managed to rally his political base and other right wing parties under the banner of Likud (Consolidation) and became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1977. Among Begin and Jabotinsky’s greatest proteges was an accomplished Jewish author, historian and patriotic Zionist by the name of BenZion Netanyahu, whose son Binyamin Netanyahu would come to lead the Likud as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister until his defeat early this year in 2021. He continues as the party’s chairperson to this day.
This gives you an idea of the political ideology that formed the basis of modern Religious and Revisionist Zionism, a non-apologetic attitude of leading by strength instead of appeasement, which is even shared by Israel’s current Prime Minister Naftaly Benet, although he had long split from Netanyahu’s coalition. Even so, nearly 30 years after the passing of Menachem Begin, his example and legacy continues to influence contemporary Israeli leaders like the ones mentioned above. And despite his war torn past, it is ironic that Begin was the first Israeli leader to sign a peace deal with an Arab country, Egypt in 1979, an example followed by Netanyahu with 2020’s historic Abraham Accords, creating peace in a region long known for war.
Instead of telling you the kind of leader Begin was, we’ll let his own words tell you themselves. On June 22, 1982, Joe Biden wasn’t president yet, but a senator from the state of Delaware. He confronted Prime Minister Begin during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony where he threatened Begin with the US cutting off aid to Israel. Begin’s response continues to inspire Jews around the world today. He said, “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”