Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Review: Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul

Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (Jewish Encounters Series)Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul by Daniel Gordis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel Gordis presents us with a picture of Menachem Begin as a complex, principled, sometimes paradoxical man. Gordis shows us the full humanity of Begin. Gordis shows us why Begin ought to be honored and praised as one of the re-founders of Israel, while avoiding hagiography. Equally, Gordis presents us with many reasons to be sharply critical of Begin without lapsing into vilification or demonization.

The central theme of Gordis’ book is that Begin was deeply committed to the Jewish people and the restoration of the Jewish homeland. So much of what animated and informed Begin’s actions and decisions was Jewish history and thinking. The history of Jewish suffering and oppression was never far from his mind: he experienced all the 20th century threw at the Jews. He suffered the pogroms of Poland; the murder of his family by the Nazis, the tyranny of the Soviet Union, the restrictions and oppression of the British, and Arab hatred. Throughout it all, he remained steadfast in the need for Jewish freedom and Jewish sovereignty. These principles shaped the man and through him, they helped shape the country.

Another interesting motif running throughout the book is the troubled relationship between Begin and David Ben-Gurion. Though they at times despised each other; the two needed each other: Begin the principled and steadfast idealist; Ben-Gurion the pragmatist single-mindedly focused on building the state. Unsurprisingly in his own biography, Begin comes out getting the better of this fraught relationship.

Begin is sometimes and unfairly presented as harshly militant (even a terrorist). True, he did not shy from the use of force, especially when fighting the British. But he was willing to take big swings at peace (e.g. Egypt). He argued against the military administration for Israeli Arabs, engineered the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and was the first major political figure to reach across Ashkenazi and Mizrahi lines.

Though his legacy was permanently tarnished by the Lebanon War, Begin’s impact on Israel is uncalculatable. Gordis’ biography captures this important man’s life and historic contributions.

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