• Arrival Ceremony for State Visit of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel on south lawn on September 9, 1981 | Photo: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989

Menachem Begin Made History

Tal Hartuv - 9 November 2022

Until today, the most often-quoted and most popular Prime Minister to ever lead the State of Israel, is the late Menachem Begin. He was a man who led a roller coaster of a life. Despised by the British who considered him a terrorist, Begin’s determination and unflinching vision of a Greater Israel left his values and legacy on his beloved people: as well as a peace accord with Egypt, the first such pact with an Arab country.

“When set free from a Russian labour camp , he joined the Free Polish Army in July 1941 which enabled him to enter into Eretz Yisrael under the noses of the British”

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, United States, in 1978 | Photo: MSGT Denham

Born into poverty in pre-WWI Poland, Begin was mesmerised with the message of his hero Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose famous motto “Even in distress the Jew is a prince.” He joined Jabotinsky’s Betar youth moment, who famously, a few years later, would bravely fight to the death against the Nazis. By the time he was twenty-five, Begin was heading up Betar in Poland. It impressively had 100,000 members. He spent his time training his compatriots to defend themselves, and work in agriculture to prepare for Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael  – considered a punishable offence  under the British.

In September 1939, after an agreement with the Nazis, the Russians occupied Eastern Poland. Begin was taken prisoner and put in a labor camp in Siberia. When he was finally set free months later, he joined the Free Polish Army which enabled him to enter into Eretz Yisrael under the noses of the British.

In Eretz Yisrael he immediately started a paramilitary group called the Irgun. Begin started to plan a Jewish uprising against the British who were still refusing entry to Jewish refugees despite the massacres of Jews in Europe. When Begin attacked British targets, he became one of the most hunted men in British Mandate Palestine. The British even put a ‘dead-or-alive’ bounty on his head amounting to a staggering £10,000. But Begin out smarted the British. To evade capture, he took on different names and disguises. He even dressed up like an Orthodox Jew.

When the state of Israel was reborn in 1948, and the British finally left, Begin disbanded the group and set up the political party “Herut.” Simultaneously, the horrors of the Holocaust hit home. His mother, father and older brother had all been murdered by the Nazis.

“Begin was often a lone voice, speaking on behalf of the forgotten, the forlorn and the poor”

His terrible personal loss was to influence all of his political decisions which led to a difficult relationship with Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Perhaps the most bitter divide was with the Reparations Agreement, when Ben Gurion agreed to accept money from Germany following the Holocaust. It wasn’t just a personal disagreement, it was arguably the most divisive and controversial issue the State of Israel has ever experienced. His objection to the agreement was a cause he was passionate about and one that people did not forget.

Begin was often a lone voice, speaking on behalf of the forgotten, the forlorn and the poor. But his voice did not go unnoticed. In 1977, a political upheaval saw him elected as Prime Minister.

One year into his term, he took the biggest risk of his political life: following the devastating losses of the Yom Kippur War, he made peace with Egypt. It was a lasting, albeit, cold peace, and Begin had many critics. Some of those who had voted for him found it hard to reconcile with his concessions in giving up the Sinai Peninsula. It was the beginning of the endear of Begin. A war in Lebanon and the death of his wife plunged him into depression from which he never recovered.

But despite his tragic last few years, Menachem Begin is still considered by most Israelis as one of the greatest Jews that ever lived.

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