Israel’s founding generation is disappearing. In January, Ariel Sharon, who left an indelible mark on Israel’s map and history, finally passed away after spending eight years in a coma. Earlier this month, Meir Har-Zion, the fearless and controversial soldier who helped create the Sayeret Matkal, died at 80. And this coming summer, Shimon Peres, now 90 and the last surviving member of David Ben Gurion’s inner circle, will retire from Israel’s presidency and, presumably, begin to step back from public life.
Certainly there are politicians who can still claim direct connection to the founders’ generation, most notably Isaac Herzog—known as Buji—whose grandfather Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog was Israel’s first chief rabbi and whose father Chaim Herzog, a disciple of Ben Gurion, was the country’s sixth president. But in a sense, we are already living in a post-founder era: There is no meaningful way in which Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud, can be called an heir to the party’s founder, Menachem Begin.
The inexorable disappearance of those who lived through—and shaped—the heroic period of Israel’s establishment virtually begs us to ask: Why is it that no one in today’s generation of leaders, who of course are all deeply committed to the state of Israel and to the Jewish people, can truly claim the mantle of those who went before?
The answer lies, perhaps, in the difference between how the members of the Independence generation perceived their Jewishness. These were men who came out of a Europe whose sons were educated as Jews. They embodied a biblical sort of statesmanship, in which their stewardship of the new state was crucial to the rebirth of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.
This was true of no one so much as Begin, who saw the world through utterly biblical lenses. The Bible, he believed, was actually the Jews’ deed to the land. The Tanakh fed his adoration of Jewish fighters. And it gave context to Begin’s sense of time and purpose—in a way that has been true of none of Israel’s leaders either before or since. Devoted to the Jews, he believed with all his heart that those of other faiths were no less created in God’s image. A man of great faith, he understood the difference between a biblical worldview and a narrow ideology.
In Israel, it is rare to find leaders who couple such profound conviction to such generosity of spirit and nimbleness of mind. But Israel’s leadership no longer thinks of itself so consciously and unabashedly in biblical terms; Israel no longer produces people with the authority of biblical fluency, let alone conviction, at the core of their politics.
Begin was not “observant” in today’s sense, but he was always a person of deep Jewish faith, for whom the Tanakh was the roadmap of life. He often related the tradition of his parents’ house, in which the children would play a game with their father: They would recite the beginning of a biblical verse, and their father would have to complete it. It was almost impossible to stump him, Begin would later recall. The Bible was the text, the book.
When he was elected in 1977—a surprise not only to the nation but to him, as well—Begin was confronted by a group of reporters and asked if he had anything that he wanted to say to anyone. Begin reached into his pocket and took out a kippah, with a casualness unimaginable on the part of any non-Orthodox leader today, and replied that yes, he wanted to say something to Aliza, his wife and the love of his life: “I recall with favor, the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride—How you followed me into the wilderness, in a land sown with mines.” It was, of course, a conscious misquote of the famous verse from Jeremiah 2:2, in which God says to the Jewish people:
I recall with favor the devotion of your youth
Your love as a bride—
as you followed Me in the wilderness
In a land not sown.
Faced with cameras and the surprise of his election, Begin did the only thing he knew how to do: He drew his inspiration from the biblical well that he always nourished him. Much the same transpired in June 1981, when eight Israeli warplanes prepared to take off from an airfield in the Sinai to head to Iraq, where they destroyed the nuclear reactor at Osirak. Israeli Intelligence had prepared copious amounts of material for Begin to review, as part of an assessment of what Saddam Hussein might do in response to the attack. But as the planes took off, made their way eastward, bombed the reactor, and then raced home, Begin did not so much as crack one of the binders. Rather, he paced to and fro across his office, mumbling softly, apparently—according to Yehuda Avner, who was present and who related the story to me—reciting psalms. It was the height of tension, a moment of grave danger for the Jewish State. Rather than burying himself in classified data, Begin drew his calm from the Book of Books.
It wasn’t simply a question of faith. The Bible, after all, is a book with a majestic sweep and a grand view of history. It opens even before the world is created and imagines a re-perfected reality at the End of Days. The events related in the Tanakh—the beginnings of the Jewish people as a small family and then clan, Egyptian slavery and freedom, the march to the land, conquest, kingship, and loss of the kingdoms—were, though central to Jewish history, reflective of just a small slice of time in the unfolding of the cosmos. Begin saw the world that way.
When negotiations between Israel and Egypt stalled in late 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter tried to press Begin, then physically ailing, into making concessions. It was, Carter entreated the Israeli leader, “an opportunity that may never come again.” But Begin’s view of the world was too biblical, too vast, too grounded in a sense of endless possibility of Jewish rebirth for that warning to strike a chord. Responding to Carter on Israeli television, Begin evoked a biblical perspective when he retorted, “Our people lived thousands of years before Camp David, and we will live thousands of years after Camp David. … If we are told that this is the last chance to arrive at peace, we shall not agree: There are no ‘last chances’ in life.”
If Begin was uncowed by American or international pressure, it was because he had inherited a biblical notion that it was the role of the Jew to be utterly alone. Reagan could pressure him; the world could hate him. Carter could lean on him and, when Begin refused to budge, call him a “psycho.” Time magazine could write of him, upon his election, “Begin, rhymes with Fagin.” But none of that got to him. For how was that different from the hatred and dismissiveness to which the Jews had always been subjected? “There is a nation that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations,” said Balaam when he was dispatched to curse the Israelites (Numbers 23). And there was Ahasuerus, to whom Haman famously said, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples … whose laws are different … and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3). Yet Balaam, in the end, did not curse the Israelites, and the Jews hanged Haman on the very tree that he had prepared for Mordecai. To be in the business of Jewish leadership, Begin understood, was to be treated as marginal. Either one was up to it, or one was not—and he was.
Yet Begin invoked theological certainty with relative infrequency. When the air force planes returned from their mission to Osirak, he deftly side-stepped the question of whether the accomplishment was a miracle, or “only” an extraordinary military feat. “Thank God we have pilots like these,” he said, neatly covering his bases.
He believed in irredeemable evil, and he believed that the Jews were the rightful owners of the Land of Israel. But for all that seeming theological certainty, he was a much more nimble thinker and deft actor than most ideologically driven political personalities today, in Israel and beyond. He illustrated the difference between dogma and belief. And thus, over the course of his career, his keen adherence to one overarching purpose—the safety and security of the Jewish people—led him to take actions that have made him anathema to both sides of the Israeli political divide ever since.
When the British controlled Palestine and sealed its borders, there was no place to which the Jews of Europe could escape. So, the British had to be dislodged; Jews needed to be saved. Begin led the Irgun, bombed the King David Hotel and—along with the Haganah and Lechi—did what was needed to open the shores. He thus became anathema to Ben Gurion’s Mapai and, later, to the entire Israeli political left. But decades later, when he saw the opportunity to save Jewish lives by making a deal with Anwar Sadat, he gave up the Sinai, enraging the right. In his own mind, he was being entirely consistent. In the eyes of lesser and more ideological players, he violated sacred principles of both the left and the right—an unforgivable betrayal in today’s increasingly partisan, increasingly polarized politics.
Menachem Begin was undoubtedly a man of the political right. But he also inherited the Bible’s universalism and, with it, a respect for the gentile world far too rarely found, especially on today’s Israeli right. It was Begin who welcomed the Vietnamese refugees who were found without food and water on the South China Sea; the Bible insisted that one could not ignore the plight of the stranger, because the Israelites, too, had been strangers, and he knew what he had to do. Compare that with Israel’s deportation of Sudanese refugees today and the derision with which too many of Israel’s contemporary leaders speak about them.
Begin believed that God had given the Jews Judea and Samaria, so he unabashedly supported the settlement movement. But when Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that Elon Moreh had been built on land illegally expropriated, Begin relented immediately. “There are judges in Jerusalem,” he said, in an almost biblical syntax, channeling the Tanakh’s insistence that law and judges must be at the core of society—and reflecting the fact that he took the law and judges of the State of Israel seriously. Compare that commitment to law with both the Haredim in Israel today, with their willingness to use violence against the state, or the more radical settlers on the West Bank, and their burning of mosques and uprooting of Palestinian-owned olive trees. That anyone could do such things and invoke the name of the Jewish people, would have left Begin utterly confused and dejected.
But Begin himself resisted cultivating protégés. In 1983, when he resigned his position to Yitzhak Shamir, Shamir’s inner circle begged Begin to give the new prime minister his public blessing. “I’m not a king,” Begin replied as he refused. “I have no heirs.”
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