Menachem Begin Was Israel Leader True to Convictions

On Centenary of Birth, Premier Still Icon of Hardliners

No Subtlety: Menachem Begin made no apologies for what he saw as his firm stand for Israel and the Jewish people. Like him or hate him, he was an open book.
getty images
No Subtlety: Menachem Begin made no apologies for what he saw as his firm stand for Israel and the Jewish people. Like him or hate him, he was an open book.

By Yehuda Avner

Published August 16, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On a day in June 1977, in a Knesset buzzing with excitement — every seat taken, senior officials cramming reserved sections, and the galleries packed with ambassadors and other dignitaries — Menachem Begin, a picture of confidence and robustness, mounted the podium to present his newly elected government for parliamentary approval. He dryly outlined the democratic processes that led to the changing of the guard from Labor to Likud for the first time in Israel’s history, and then, with mounting passion, delivered the most ideological speech on the Jewish right to the whole of the Land of Israel the Knesset had ever heard.

“There are those who question our right to our ancient homeland, and even our right to exist within its sacred boundaries.” he said contemptuously. “How dare they? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American to request recognition of its right to exist? Their existence per se is their right to exist!”

He paused to make a Norman arch out of the tips of his fingers as if to collect himself, and then, in thunderous peroration, declared: “Let the world know that we were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization 4,000 years ago. The Jewish people have a historic, eternal and inalienable right to the whole of the land of our forefathers. And for that right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unprecedented in the annals of nations.” He pronounced these last words with the fervor of a patriarch, causing some of his disciples to jump to their feet in irrepressible ovation.

There was this something about Menachem Begin, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 16, that aroused mighty and conflicting passions. Admirers adored him irrationally, and detractors loathed him irrationally. He was so iron-cored that he was neutral in nothing.

All his predecessors had been illustrious, pioneering, Zionist socialist, secular diehards, while he perceived himself as a liberal democrat, very much in the mold of a Jewish traditionalist of the old school, with an infectious common touch that made Jews everywhere feel they really mattered. This goes some way in explaining why many still recall his name with affection — that and the peace he forged with Egypt, the largest and most powerful of all the Arab states.

A good many of his critics had branded him a war monger, chief among them President Carter. He never did like Begin, and it was only much later that Begin realized the innate prejudices that Carter harbored toward Israel. It was Begin, however, at Camp David in 1978, who, rising to the heights of Nobel Prize statesmanship, negotiated accords from which the peace treaty eventually emerged. To make it happen, Begin conceded the whole of the Sinai Peninsula (now a tinderbox of Islamic militants) and dismantled all its Jewish settlements there.

But there was nothing concessionary about him when dealing with “the Jewish people’s inalienable rights to the whole of the biblical homeland.” Once asked by The New York Times if he intended to actually annex the West Bank, he curtly replied: “You annex foreign territories, not your own country whose territories have been liberated. A Jew has every right to settle in the liberated territories of our Jewish homeland.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.