The former prime minister of Israel was 79 years old and in frail health when, according to Avi Shilon, author of Menachem Begin, A Life, he did one of his last television interviews. The TV reporters were following him down a small staircase in his home filming him as he made the painful journey. His doctor said, “Lean over to the left and grab the railing.” Begin said, “I never lean to the left.”
Today, when a critic reviews a book about a great man, he seems to inevitably conclude that the subject of the biography was gay and bipolar. As Oscar Wilde once remarked, “Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.”
All this bullshit notwithstanding, I believe Shilon has painted his masterpiece here. He objectively explores the life of a man who became a myth in his own lifetime, whose wit and wisdom, guts and glory are perhaps largely unknown to many in America, but whose firm hand helped lead to the creation of the State of Israel and whose spirit continues to guide its future. “The captain becomes known in the storm,” Begin, who died 21 years ago this week, once said, “the maestro in the playing, and the statesman in his observations, his foresight.” In reading Menachem Begin, A Life one cannot help but be struck by how well, and how with near-perfect humanity, Begin assumes these roles and more.
Like a martyr who refused to die, Begin came to belong in the firmament with Churchill and Mandela, an old-school, naively macho, Jewish John Wayne—the flesh and blood tie that would irrevocably bind Israel to the Diaspora and the Holocaust. Shilon deftly brings to light his fantastical, tortured childhood that reads like something out of Candide. Growing up beaten and bullied by gangs of Polish peasants; raised by a strict father who worshiped the wonderful German “culture” all his life and then was killed by the Nazis along with Begin’s mother and brother; escaping the Nazis only to wind up in a Russian gulag. Like a literary Virgil, Shilon guides the reader in a measured objective style through concentric circles of shit and fire—the Poles, the Nazis, the Russians, the British, the Arabs—all with a fine eye for detail and a broad view of what one solitary, singular man possessed of a great spirit can achieve.
Though Begin was not particularly blessed with good looks, strong physical stamina, or any real talent for interpersonal relations, he was a great storyteller and he could really stir up a crowd. Quite often, Shilon points out, he related to an audience far better than to the individuals around him. He seemed to be drawn to attractive people and to military types—the very qualities he himself did not possess. But this is only human, a small knock on a great man.
Another great quality of Begin’s was his Gen. Patton-like ability to be in this world but not necessarily of it. He was sometimes given to blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. He reports as a child seeing 500 Jewish men in Brist, Poland, all singing “Hatikva” as they were being drowned in the river by the Germans. His sister Rachel says, “It never happened.” But, as Jackie Mason might say, “It could’ve happened, it might’ve happened, maybe it happened … ”
In 1942, the Anders Army, a Polish brigade in the Red Army containing about 5,000 Jewish volunteers, reached the Middle East. Begin, along with others, bailed out to join the Jewish underground in its desperate, scrappy fight against the British and the Arabs to reclaim the land of their fathers. The captain soon became known in the storm; Begin’s leadership, pugnacious, determined spirit, and colorful, bellicose speech-making catapulted him before long into the role of a commander in the underground. Ironically perhaps, he had never shot a firearm in his life.
Shilon details Begin’s rough-and-tumble life in the Jewish underground from 1942 to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. It was a life of exile, hiding, changing addresses, wearing disguises and adopting false identities, forging loyalties, evading the British custodial government, strengthening his own gang, Etzel, while feuding incessantly with the other two underground factions, Lehi and Hagannah. It was basically a deadly game of guiding and inspiring the Jewish underground against those whom Begin called “the Gentiles,” a group he rarely trusted during the course of his life.
Uniquely equipped by these experiences, Begin, like Winston Churchill, was to discover that his path to political power was not to be strewn with roses. Much of his days in the Knesset were spent languishing in the opposition, being called “the Clown” by the more dignified David Ben-Gurion, and having his fiery speeches likened to those of Hitler, the man he despised above all others. “Power does not mean gaining control of the people,” said Begin, “but rather serving the citizens.”
In 1977 he achieved the unthinkable—he was elected prime minister of Israel. His detractors predicted that disaster would be the only result of the election of such a one-dimensional, right-wing ideologue, but they were wrong. In September of the following year, Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. It was a document with Begin’s fingerprints all over it, largely engineered by him personally, side-stepping the military and many right-wingers in his own party. It was a landmark treaty whose tenets would often be emulated in future diplomatic endeavors.
Later that year Begin and Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize for their good works. It was one of the rare occasions upon which the Nobel Peace Prize Committee got it right. Begin was also the first Israeli ever to receive the award. Never one to value material possessions, Begin gave the $85,000 prize money to a foundation for disadvantaged students.
And something else came out of the groundbreaking treaty with Egypt: Begin and Sadat, the two passionate partisans, developed what could only be called a beautiful friendship. In 1980, after suffering two heart attacks and a stroke, and facing myriad political and economic troubles, Begin chose to share his innermost thoughts with, of all people, Sadat. Upon observing an X-ray image of his heart, he wrote to his former enemy: “I will allow myself to tell you something that is on my mind in light of the sudden illness that has struck me. … Well then, what is the human heart? Simply put, it is a pump. I thought, Lord in Heaven, as long as this pump is working, a human being feels, thinks, talks, loves his family, smiles, cries, enjoys his life … but when the pump stops, this is no more. What a wonder of the cosmos is the fragility of the human body, without which even the mind becomes dormant, helpless.”
Less than a year later, Sadat was assassinated by a radical Islamist organization. Begin attended the funeral in Egypt. When he returned to Israel, he recalled to friends what Jehan, Sadat’s widow, had told him after the funeral. Sadat had become interested in Judaism, she’d said. He even recited the Ten Commandments to himself.
Shilon’s comprehensive and beautiful book should be a blessing to Jew and Gentile alike, even though Begin never trusted the latter. It provides a fascinating inside look at Israeli politics, which, like most everything else in Israel, is tougher than the American version. It will also be an inspiring book for misunderstood geniuses everywhere. For Begin, like Churchill or Mandela, got to the real battlefield late in his life, but he made the most of the opportunity when it finally came. He was an old-fashioned, traditional man who followed his heart, led his people, and walked his own road wherever it took him. In Israel and in America, we do not see men like Begin in politics today, and the world is all the worse for it.
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