Menachem Begin gets a reboot

Menachem Begin, front right, with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during a joint session of Congress , 1978. Public domain

Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, is enjoying something of a moment. During Israeli elections this year, the right-wing Likud and left-wing Meretz both used imagery of Begin to win over voters — Likud seeking to tie itself to the widely respected founder of the party and Meretz highlighting Begin’s successful push to make peace with Egypt.

“I compare him to Lincoln,” said Herzl Makov, CEO of the Menachem Begin Heritage Project. “They both were not the first president or prime minister, but they shaped the society and the country. That’s why Begin is so remembered in Israel when you don’t remember who the sixth president was.”

(Israel’s sixth president, for those keeping track, was Chaim Herzog.)

When Begin swept Likud into power in the 1977 elections, he was viewed by much of the media and Israel’s elite as a hardline radical. Begin rose to prominence in the 1940s as a leader of the Irgun, an underground militia that fought the British in Mandatory Palestine and often found itself in conflict with mainstream Jewish leaders.

“In the beginning he was a victim of propaganda, which really described him as a fascist,” Makov said. “There was no man further away from fascism than him. He was a liberal in the real sense of liberalism, in the European sense of liberalism.”

Makov said that in a country with left-wing roots, Begin caused waves with his 1962 political manifesto calling for individual freedom and liberty.

“That, in socialist Israel, was a revolution to speak about,” Makov said.

Begin’s term as prime minister, which lasted until he resigned abruptly in 1983, was marked by economic liberalization and an aggressive national security stance that included the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. But far from governing as a radical, Begin reached a peace agreement with Egypt — then Israel’s most powerful enemy in the region — and became known for his modesty and courtliness.

Makov’s parents worked with Begin in the Irgun and the future leader was a frequent guest in his childhood home.

Begin makes a speech, 1948. Public domain

“When he entered the room you felt electricity,” Makov recalled. “He immediately hugged you, he kissed you on the forehead — maybe right now he would face issues with the fact that he kissed everybody — but he was a very warm person and you felt that.”

Now, a group of Americans and Israelis are hoping that Begin’s status as underground-fighter-turned-peacemaker can gin up sympathy for Israel on an international stage.

Makov spoke at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac last week as part of a tour organized by the Hidden Light Institute. The organization is producing a documentary about Begin, scheduled for release next year and narrated by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and actress Mayim Bialik.

“The great contributions of Israel … are often overlooked,” the group states on its website. “The success of Israel is the story of the liberation of the Jewish people. This is epitomized in the story of the life of Menachem Begin.”

Makov, who served as a reconnaissance pilot during the nuclear reactor strike in 1981 and later served as chief-of-staff to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, said that Begin is often remembered for his humble nature.

Makov said that for most of his political career — 29 years as the leader of the political opposition — Begin lived in a rented two-room apartment in Tel Aviv.

“It was suggested to him by supporters that it’s not right for the leader of the opposition to live in these conditions,” Makov said. “[Begin] said, “It’s fine with me and the only place I’m going to move would be the residence of the prime minister.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.

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