Searching For the Soul of Menachem Begin

Daniel Gordis's Biography Revises Vision of a Revisionist

When Shall We Three Meet Again? Menachem Begin is flanked by future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and General Avraham Yoffe in 1969.
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When Shall We Three Meet Again? Menachem Begin is flanked by future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and General Avraham Yoffe in 1969.

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published June 07, 2014, issue of June 13, 2014.
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Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul
By Daniel Gordis
Schocken, 320 pages, $27.95.

Menachem Begin was one of the more complex personalities in Zionist history. Certainly, he was among the most controversial, and his story has been oft-told. Amos Perlmutter’s 1987 “The Life and Times of Menachem Begin” was conceived as a political biography, and offers a highly critical assessment of Begin as political leader. Ned Temko’s 1987 “To Win or To Die: A Personal Portrait of Menachem Begin” was intended to be a personal biography of the man rather than a critique of his ideas, and and depicts Begin in a more positive light than does Perlmutter. Relatively unbiased but woefully lacking in detail was Eric Silver’s 1984 “Begin: The Haunted Prophet.” Journalist Avi Shilon’s recent “Menachem Begin: A Life,” unveils Begin the man as much as Begin the warrior and politician, but does little in the way of elucidating Begin’s influence on contemporary Israel.

And lest we forget, Menachem Begin himself wrote two memoirs: “Ha-Mered,” “The Revolt,” a chronicle of his years leading Etzel, the Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi (the military arm of the Zionists-Revisionists in Palestine), and one of the few “insider” books on the Jewish revolt against the British in Palestine; and “White Nights,” the narrative of his experiences as a Zionist in the Russian prison system.

Now, Daniel Gordis offers up “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” a volume in Schocken’s Nextbook biography series.

Israel’s sixth prime minister, Begin, came to power in 1977 in nothing less than a political revolution that unseated the socialist labor party Mapai, regnant in Palestine and Israel for decades. Begin, who died in 1992, is well-positioned in the pantheon of legendary Zionists who shaped Israel’s destiny and, by extension, Jewish history.

But he was a Revisionist Zionist ideologue who fought British rule with what we would call today the tools of terror, who fought Arabs with the determination of someone who came out of the Holocaust, and who fought Labor Zionist rule with defiance and rhetorical resistance. He was the quintessential outsider who became the insider.

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