Friday, March 03, 2006

This Shabbos, the 4th of Adar, is the yahrzeit of Menachem Begin. Below is an article that reveals why I have always admired him:

Sniffing the foul air of prejudice
Yehuda Avner
The Jerusalem Post
Feb. 16, 2004

It was an exquisite June morning. Sun shafted on the upper reaches of the Western Wall, enhancing its luminous cinnamon hue and brightening its bouquets of caper bushes that sprouted from high crevices. Kvittelech - those ubiquitous snippets of scribble stuffed into cracks and chinks and bearing the petitions of the pious - profiled the Wall's lower tiers, most of whose immense antique blocks looked almost fresh from the quarry.

A crowd of black-clad worshipers, Hawaiian-topped tourists, and a host of other sundry onlookers gawked at the sudden appearance of the prime minister emerging from a gray Chevrolet, ringed by a squad of security men.

Women ululated in excitement. Yeshiva boys sang and danced. A gleeful throng quickly surrounded the premier's party, already swelled by a clutch of obtrusive newsmen and a huddle of pigheaded photographers who walked backwards, shooting every stride the prime minister took.

Step by step, Menachem Begin made his way toward the Wall, his bespectacled, patrician features alive with a dazzling smile as he waved and nodded heartily to the hand-clapping and singing assembly pressing in on him from every side. There, at the Wall, he laid his head to rest on a weathered stone, a gesture so spontaneously spectacular in its symbolism it sparked a blaze of photo flashes, which startled a flock of starlings and sent them wheeling and screeching off the strata above.

From his pocket Menachem Begin solemnly drew a tehilim, a book of Psalms, and recited its lamentations and thanksgivings with reverence. For, on this day in June 1977, he, the veteran Likud leader, would mount the Knesset podium to assume the burden of the nation's premiership for the first time. Hence his pilgrimage to the Wall, to pray and parade his profound passion that because of what happened here, at this exact location once upon a time, Jerusalem was Jerusalem, Israel was Israel, and Jews were Jews.

BEGIN'S DISCIPLES watched in devoted silence as he worshipped. But when he patted the Wall for the final time and turned to go back to his vehicle, they formed a chanting chain around him, singing "Begin, King of Israel" at the tops of their voices.

Above the din, an audacious Jerusalem Post correspondent yelled, "What does it feel like, Mr. Begin, to become prime minister after 30 years in opposition?"

Begin's smile widened in recognition of the journalist. Old-timers knew that look of good-humored seriousness and easy rapport. It made him a press favorite. So pencils bristled eagerly in anticipation of an impromptu press conference.

"What does it feel like, you ask?" Begin pushed his bottom lip forward in thought and, in a tone of total conviction, said, "I feel like the hazan [cantor] on the High Holy Days, when he stands alone before the Holy Ark in the synagogue and he appeals to the Almighty in the name of the whole congregation. And he says to G-d: 'I have come to plead before You on behalf of Your people, Israel, who have made me their messenger, even though I am unworthy of the task. Therefore, I beseech You, O Lord, make my mission successful.'"

Begin's voice had gone husky with sincerity, and there was an air of consecration about him, his hands clasped, and his eyes lowered.

With Haaretz pugnacity a woman sporting a man's haircut challenged, "So, does that mean that from now on you're going to be planting settlements all over the occupied territories, introducing Israeli law into the occupied territories, and annexing the occupied territories?"

Begin pensively stroked his chin and embraced the woman with his dark, watchful eyes. Benignly, he replied, "You good people of Haaretz have been calling them 'occupied territories' ever since they were restored to us in the Six Day War. Call them Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, please. That, after all, is their original and proper name."

Then, unequivocally, "No, they are not occupied territories, they are liberated territories. And, yes, a Jew has every right to settle in the liberated territories of the Jewish homeland. And, no, you annex foreign land, not your own country." "So, under these circumstances, how do you visualize a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem?" asked a paunchy fellow with bushy eyebrows and a baggy suit, on whose lapel hung a New York Times tab. "

"I see a ready solution," sparred Begin, taking the world by the nose. "In 1948, on the day of our independence, five Arab armies invaded us. We defeated them at great human sacrifice. As a result of that aggression not one, but two refugee problems arose - Jewish as well as Arab. An almost equal number of Jews fled Arab lands to Israel, as did Arabs to Arab lands. Hence, a de facto exchange of populations has taken place."

"And would you be willing to negotiate this and other matters directly with Mr. Yasser Arafat and his PLO?" asked a tall, gray-haired Christian Science Monitor fellow in the precise tones of a Brahmin Bostonian.

Something flickered far back in Begin's eyes. The sun caught his glasses, sending a fierce flash across his face, and in a tone reserved for stubborn doctrines, replied:

"No, sir - never! That man is the godfather of international terrorism. His organization, the so-called PLO, is a gang of murderers bent on destroying the State of Israel. We will never conduct talks with that arch-criminal about our own destruction."

"And were Mr. Arafat to recognize Israel's existence - would you negotiate with him then?"

"No, sir!"

"Why not?"

"Because I wouldn't believe him. It would be a trick, a subterfuge, a stage in his plan to destroy the Jewish state in phases, bit by bit."

"May I butt in at this point," insinuated a tall, debonair, rakishly good-looking chap in a bow tie, with a deep, perfectly-pitched BBC announcer's voice. "Mr. Arafat's asserts that the Jewish state is an illegitimate entity with no right of existence in international law. Arab governments hold to that same view. What say you to that?" His rich English accent was saucy and provocative.

Begin sniffed the foul odor of prejudice. But, honed by years of training and shrewd intuition, he restrained himself, and, with the demeanor of a practiced lawyer, said, "Traditionally, there are four major criteria of statehood under international law. One: effective and independent government. Two: effective and independent control of the population. Three: a defined territory. And four: the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations.

"Israel is in possession of all four and, hence, is a fully fledged sovereign state and a fully accredited member of the United Nations."

And, with that, he left. About an hour later an envelope reached my desk, addressed, "To Shakespeare from Shylock." It was written in Begin's taut and cramped handwriting.

(The man's wit was impish. Why Shakespeare? Because one of my tasks was to stylize - or, as he put it, shakespearize - his excellent English, he nicknamed me after the Bard of Avon. And why Shylock? Because ever since an Egyptian newspaper had contemptuously called him Shylock he would, on occasion, gamely sign off thus).

IT WAS clear that the BBC man's acerbic comment on Israel's right to exist had infuriated Begin. So he penned a last-minute addition to his Knesset speech, which he was about to deliver, and he wanted it translated into English for the foreign press.

Thus, a few hours later, in a Knesset already buzzing with excitement, every seat taken, the president in his chair of honor, senior officials cramming their reserved sections and all the galleries packed with ambassadors, senior officers and other dignitaries, Menachem Begin, a picture of confidence and robustness, mounted the podium to present his cabinet for approval. Old-timers, noting that he held in his hand a sheaf of papers, called out to each other in jocular surprise, "Look, he's going to read a speech!"

Begin had not read a speech since addressing his compatriots over the Irgun underground radio on the day of Israel's birth. Now, 29 years later, in deference to the magnitude of the parliamentary moment, he, undisputed master of the impromptu word, began reading his address.

He dryly outlined the democratic processes that had led to the present changing of the guard from Labor to Likud. But as he went on to tell of Israel's inherent right to exist, passion crept into his voice.

Wagging a finger, his eyes defiant, he asked in a sonorous and trembling tone: "The right to exist? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist? Their existence per se is their right to exist!"

And as he said these words he rose up on his toes, and every chattering voice in the chamber stilled. He made a Norman arch out of the tips of his fingers, glared at his text, and thundered, "We were granted our right to exist by the G-d of our fathers at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization 4,000 years ago.

"And so it is that the Jewish people have a historic, eternal and inalienable right to Eretz Yisrael, 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 unexamplified in the annals of the nations."

Spontaneous applause rose from the benches. Many got to their feet in full-throated acclaim. It was a stirring moment to observe - as if beholding a crowd spurring on a nation whose independence was then only 29 years old, but whose roots in the Land were 4,000 years deep.

The writer, a veteran diplomat, was an adviser to four prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.


At March 3, 2006 at 11:45:00 AM EST, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

When Anwar Sadat was assassinated, Begin and Burg went to Egypt for the funeral, which was on a Shabbos. They were advised to travel in the motorcade because there were threats on their lives. But they refused; instead walking because it was Shabbos.

At March 3, 2006 at 12:07:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thanks for sharing that, David. Back in the 90's I had the pleasure of meeting Eli Tavin, who once was on the high command of the Irgun. After I told him about my interest in the Irgun he arranged to get me Menachem Begin's autograph. A few month's later he sent me a signed Rosh Hashanah card from Menachem Begin that I treasure to this day.

At March 3, 2006 at 2:08:00 PM EST, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

That reminds me of when I learned in KBY. The father of one of my roommates was a prominent Rabbi, so he got to go to Begin's Motzei Shabbos Parsha shiur. (I think that's what he did. He'd give a dvar Torah to a select audience.)

At March 3, 2006 at 2:13:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Are you saying that Menachem Begin gave a parsha shiur? Was that after he was prime minister?

Of course his book "The Revolt" recounts how when he was hiding from the British he was known as "Rabbi Israel Halpern"

At March 3, 2006 at 3:08:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't he also pretent to be a Kohen to throw people of his trail?
I once heard that he later said that he was given Aliyos as a Kohen then... Nu, Nu...

At March 3, 2006 at 3:14:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Anonymous: I have not heard this. What is the source of your information?

At March 4, 2006 at 7:13:00 PM EST, Blogger Alice said...

Very cool.

At March 4, 2006 at 7:29:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thanks Alice.

And one correction, Menachem Begin's alias while he was in hiding was Rabbi Israel Sassover (I just looked it up)

At March 6, 2006 at 11:20:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think anon is correct about the Kohen story - I think it's in MB's book.

The story is very moving and still applies today. How unfortunate it is the Begin was unable to maintain his stance, and ultimately gave away the Sinai, setting into motion unending demands for land-for-peace... sigh.

Gold Meir said it best: "Why would I exchange land for peace? How about we exchange peace for peace?"

Where are the leaders today? I think we can clearly recognize that the "aschalta d'geula" dream has been disproven.

At March 6, 2006 at 11:30:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Zezmir: I must have forgotten that part.

I too lament the fact that it was Begin who gave back the Sinai.

I also tend to agree with your last sentiments.


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