The Book of the Week is “Menachem Begin, The Battle for Israel’s Soul” by Daniel Gordis, published in 2014. This career biography described how Begin advanced from Zionist pioneer to Israeli prime minister. It was redundant in spots- as though the author thought the reader might have memory loss or distractions while reading, or perhaps it was just sloppy editing.
Anyway, Begin was born in 1913 in Brest-Litovsk– then a region in Poland. In the 1920’s, he joined a youth group called Betar, a Zionist group led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. While there, Begin developed his speaking and writing skills. In 1939, Jabotinsky appointed him Commander of the group’s seventy thousand members in Poland.
For his anti-Communist political activities, in 1940, Begin was arrested by the Soviet secret service and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. He had just gotten married, too. There, but for the grace of WWII, by September 1941, Begin was out of prison and starting the next chapter of his life. He joined the Free Polish Army (a military group from Poland, not no-cost cleaning fluid).
Just before Begin turned thirty, he was already making his way to Palestine. In the first half of the twentieth century, scholarliness on Jewish statehood was all the rage. Three major documents outlined three different possibilities for what to do with Palestine in the future. They were: the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1937 Peel Commission’s paper, and the 1939 MacDonald White Paper. Zionists were conflicted. The British were their enemy in Palestine but would be their ally fighting against the Nazis.
Begin decided the British were foes because they opposed allowing Jewish refugees– which included his own parents– to flee to Palestine, or settle there after WWII. Toward the end of the war, he led an armed rebel group (the Etzel, aka Irgun) who rivaled David Ben Gurion’s (the Haganah). The latter thought that the Jews would be unable to achieve statehood without help from the British.
Begin planned a bomb attack on a British-intelligence-documents storage area (namely, the King David Hotel) in Jerusalem in July 1946. The two other major underground resistance groups called off the operation. Due to a cluster screw-up, the explosion occurred, anyway. Civilians of various ethnic groups died, including tens of Englishmen, Arabs and Jews; 92 civilians in all.
Ben-Gurion caused a days-long international incident, when he ordered his henchmen to intercept a Palestine-bound, refugee-and-arms smuggling ship that had sailed from France. Begin knew about the ship but there was miscommunication over where the ship was, when. Ben-Gurion launched a vicious propaganda attack on Begin for atrocities his own men committed while trying to comply with the law against Palestine’s accepting arms and refugees. Jews killed Jews (!) Begin told his men not to be vengeful– to cede to Haganah’s demands.
Ben-Gurion used draconian means to consolidate the several military outfits into one Israeli military, and successfully slurred Begin’s name in the process. This hampered Begin’s ability to raise funds for his new political party, Herut (Freedom).
Read the book to learn of major issues on which Begin and Ben-Gurion disagreed; how Begin’s political career progressed; his views on Israel’s people and lands; his aggressive action with regard to Lebanon, and Iraq’s nuclear program; and the consequences of his always dogmatically “playing the Jewish card” to keep Israel in existence.