by Steve Kramer (www.encounteringisrael.com)
Menachem Begin (1913-1992) is perhaps the most revered of all Israel’s leaders. Although David Ben-Gurion may be more renowned, Begin is the one politician who was the most loved, the most modest, the most principled, and the most unwilling to allow Jews to fight each other over ideals. He twice averted what could have become civil wars under Ben-Gurion’s leadership: the sinking of the Altalena weapons delivery ship and the acceptance of German reparations. Begin’s premiership (1977-1983) marked the first Israeli government not part of Ben-Gurion’s socialist labor movement. It was also the first government with whom Israel’s Mizrahi population (Jews from Arab/Muslim countries) identified.
In preparation for a tour in Tel Aviv telling the story of Begin, I’ve been asked to sketch his life before he arrived in Palestine during World War II.
Menachem Begin was born in Brest-Litsvok in Russia on August 16, 1913, where he attended heder (Hebrew school) and a religious Zionist middle school, eventually graduating from a government Gymnasium, a secondary school with an academic orientation.
While a student, Begin joined Hashomer Hatzair, the first Zionist youth movement. But after hearing a speech of the charismatic Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin switched to Jabotinsky’s Betar organization, a militant anti-communist movement.
The Significance of Ancient Betar in Jewish History
“The Jewish challenge to Rome that had begun in 66 CE was eventually led by the messianic general, Bar Kochba. The revolt, which was largely successful and constituted a severe and unprecedented challenge to Rome, lasted almost 70 years. It was not so much a fight over territory or property, as it was a fight over the very way of life. Monotheism and the laws of the Torah were so deeply ingrained in the Jews that any attempt to separate the people from the essence of Judaism was seen as the death of the very soul of the nation.
“Bar Kochba made his final stand in the city of Betar, which is to the southwest of Jerusalem. The city fell on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar—the 9th of Av (135 CE), the same day as the destruction of the First and the Second Temple and other calamities. The Romans sought to extinguish Jewish presence in Jerusalem by renaming it Aelia Capitolina, and by changing [its name] Israel to Palestine.
“Ultimately, the Romans failed. Perhaps that is why Jabotinsky chose the name Betar: the Jewish nation cannot be defeated, even by the mightiest secular forces.”
The Birth of the Betar Movement
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was the founder of the Jewish Self Defense Corps in Czarist Russia, the organizer of the Jewish Legion in World War I, and the first Jew to be imprisoned by the British in Akko Prison. He had been arrested and severely punished for leading Jewish defenses against the Arab Pogrom of 1921. He was released suddenly, after a groundswell of support by prominent British Christian-Zionists, including Lord Balfour. Jabotinsky urged the establishment European Zionist leadership to adopt an …read more