Menachem Begin Biography
Menachem Begin was active in both the movement to establish an independent Jewish state in Palestine and in the early Israeli government. After serving many years in the Knesset ( the Israeli legislature ), Begin became Israel’s prime minister in 1977.
Menachem Begin was born the son of Zeev – Dov and Hassia Begin in Brest – Litovsk, White Russia ( later Poland ), on August 16, 1913. He was educated at the Mizrachi Hebrew School and later studied law at the University of Warsaw in Warsaw, Poland. Begin had witnessed many acts of violence against Jews in Europe. He went to work for a group associated with the Revisionist Zionist Movement, which Vladimir Jabotinsky had founded. The movement called for the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine, which at that time was controlled by Great Britain.
In 1939 Begin married Aliza Arnold, with whom he had three children. Later that year the British moved to put limits on the immigration ( coming to a country of which one is not a native ) of Jews to Palestine. Begin organized a protest in Warsaw in response and was imprisoned by the Polish police. Begin escaped, but he was arrested in 1940 by Soviet authorities. He was held in Siberia from 1940 to 1941, but was released because he was a Polish citizen. In 1942 Begin arrived in Palestine as part of the Polish army.
Active in Palestine
In 1943, after his release from the Polish army, Begin became commander of the Irgun Tzevai Leumi, a military organization dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. He declared “armed warfare” against the government in Palestine at the beginning of 1944, and led a determined struggle against the British. With the independence of the State of Israel in 1948, Begin founded the Herut ( Freedom ) Party and represented it in the Knesset of Israel, starting with its first meetings in 1949. He became known as a gifted public speaker, writer, and political leader.
Begin remained in the legislature until he joined the Government of National Unity on the eve of the Six – Day War of June 1967. In that war Israeli forces gained control from Arab groups of two major sections of Palestine. Begin and several others resigned from the government in August 1970 over opposition to Israeli acceptance of U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers’ peace proposal, which suggested that Israel should return territories taken over during the Six – Day War. Begin stayed active in politics as leader of the Likud group that opposed the ruling party.
As prime minister
In May 1977 Begin became Israel’s prime minister. In November of that year he became the first Israeli prime minister to meet with an Arab head of state, when he welcomed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ( 1918–1981 ) to Jerusalem. In March 1979 he and Sadat signed the Egypt – Israel peace treaty on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. For Begin, and for Israel, it was an important but difficult accomplishment. Although it brought peace with Israel’s main enemy, it forced Israel to give up some of the land for which it had fought.
Begin again became prime minister after the Knesset elections of 1981. In June 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon, causing a war that led to much criticism from other countries, including the United States. Many of these problems eased over time, but the effects of the war were felt long after Begin retired from public life. Still, he remained the most popular of Israeli politicians. The standard of living in Israel rose under his rule, and although the United States and Israel often disagreed about the issues of the Arab – Israeli conflict, assistance and political support from the United States to Israel rose to all – time high levels while Begin was in office.
Begin’s decision to resign as prime minister of Israel in September 1983 brought to an end a major era in Israeli politics. It was a shock to Israelis despite Begin’s earlier statements that he would retire from politics at age seventy. Begin apparently believed that he could no longer perform his tasks as he felt he ought to. Plus, he seemed to be deeply affected by both the death of his wife the previous year and by the continuing losses of Israeli forces in Lebanon. Begin spent most of his remaining years in his apartment, and was seldom seen in public. Often he left home only to attend memorial services for his wife or to visit the hospital. He died of complications from a heart attack on March 9, 1992, in Jerusalem.
In August 1948, Begin and members of the Irgun High Command emerged from the underground and formed the right – wing political party Herut ( “Freedom” ) party. The move countered the weakening attraction for the earlier revisionist party, Hatzohar, founded by his late mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky. Revisionist ‘purists’ alleged nonetheless that Begin was out to steal Jabotinsky’s mantle and ran against him with the old party. The Herut party can be seen as the forerunner of today’s Likud.
In November 1948, Begin visited the US on a campaigning trip. During his visit, a letter signed by Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, and other prominent Americans and several rabbis was published which described Begin’s Herut party as “closely akin in its organization, methods, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties” and accused his group ( along with the smaller, militant, Stern Gang ) of preaching “racial superiority” and having “inaugurated a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community”.
In the first elections in 1949, Herut, with 11.5 percent of the vote, won 14 seats, while Hatzohar failed to break the threshold and disbanded shortly thereafter. This provided Begin with legitimacy as the leader of the Revisionist stream of Zionism.
Between 1948 and 1977, under Begin, Herut and the alliances it formed ( Gahal in 1965 and Likud in 1973 ) formed the main opposition to the dominant Mapai and later the Alignment ( the forerunners of today’s Labour Party ) in the Knesset; Herut adopted a radical nationalistic agenda committed to the irredentist idea of Greater Israel. During those years, Begin was systematically delegitimized by the ruling party, and was often personally derided by Ben – Gurion who refused to either speak to or refer to him by name. Ben – Gurion famously coined the phrase ‘without Herut and Maki’ ( Maki was the communist party ), referring to his refusal to consider them for coalition, effectively pushing both parties and their voters beyond the margins of political consensus.
The personal animosity between Ben – Gurion and Begin, going back to the hostilities over the Altalena Affair, underpinned the political dichotomy between Mapai and Herut. Begin was a keen critic of Mapai, accusing it of coercive Bolshevism and deep-rooted institutional corruption. Drawing on his training as a lawyer in Poland, he preferred wearing a formal suit and tie and evincing the dry demeanor of a legislator to the socialist informality of Mapai, as a means of accentuating their differences.
One of the fiercest confrontations between Begin and Ben – Gurion revolved around the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany, signed in 1952. Begin vehemently opposed the agreement, claiming that it was tantamount to a pardon of Nazi crimes against the Jewish people. While the agreement was debated in the Knesset in January 1952, he led a passionate demonstration in Jerusalem in which he attacked the government, calling for a violent overthrow of the elected government. Incited by his speech, the crowd marched towards the Knesset ( then at the Frumin Building on King George Street ), throwing stones and injuring dozens of policemen and several Knesset members.
Many held Begin personally responsible for the violence, and he was consequently barred from the Knesset for several months. His behavior was strongly condemned in mainstream public discourse, reinforcing his image as a provocateur. The vehemence of Revisionist opposition was deep; in March 1952, during the ongoing reparations negotiations, a parcel bomb addressed to Konrad Adenauer, the sitting West German Chancellor, was intercepted at a German post office. While being defused, the bomb exploded, killing one and injuring two others. Five Israelis, all former members of Irgun, were later arrested in Paris for their involvement in the plot. Chancellor Adenauer decided to keep secret the involvement of Israeli opposition party members in the plot, thus avoiding Israeli embarrassment and a likely backlash. The five Irgun conspirators were later extradited from both France and Germany, without charge, and sent back to Israel. Forty years after the assassination attempt, Begin was implicated as the organizer of the assassination attempt in a memoir written by one of the conspirators, Elieser Sudit.
Begin’s impassioned rhetoric, laden with pathos and evocations of the Holocaust, appealed to many, but was deemed inflammatory and demagoguery by others.
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