At Straus Center Event, Author Daniel Gordis Discusses The Life and Legacy of Menachem Begin
A fiery revolutionary and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, a beloved founder of the State of Israel reviled by its first prime minister, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one: Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was all of this and more. On April 1, Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted an intimate evening of conversation at the Yeshiva University Museum with Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and Dr. Daniel Gordis, author of the recent book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Nextbook, April 2014), to discuss the complexities and contradictions of Begin’s life and legacy.
“The two words that probably meant most to Menachem Begin were ‘Israel’ and ‘Jewish,’ and in his mind they were inextricably linked,” said YU President Richard M. Joel as he introduced the evening’s speakers. “At Yeshiva University, we reinforce the notion that Israel and Jewish identity have to be absolute, indivisible twins. We begin tonight by celebrating this year as the hundredth anniversary of Menachem Begin’s birth.”
Led by Soloveichik, the evening’s discussion began with the historical and religious forces that shaped Begin as a person and as a Jewish leader. Soloveichik noted: “There was tension between Begin’s very Zionistic parents and the anti-Zionistic rabbinic leadership in his hometown of Brisk, yet he spoke about the distinguished rabbis there often with pride.” Gordis, who is the senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, agreed, pointing out that this apparent contradiction colored Begin’s actions through his life. He recounted a story Yehuda Avner, author of The Prime Ministers, told about Begin, in which, rather than reading intelligence dossiers while he waited for Israeli planes to hit Osirak in 1981, Begin paced back and forth reciting Psalms.
“He had a love of Jewish tradition but navigated it in his own way, which I think is part of his great legacy,” he said.
According to Gordis, that perspective influenced Begin’s insistence on the presence of Jewish values in Israeli public space even though he himself didn’t observe strict Halacha [Jewish law]. “That’s why he grounded the planes on Shabbat and the food in all the embassies had to be kosher—Begin’s argument was, ‘This isn’t about founding a democracy in the Middle East. This is about a Jewish state that is not Jewish just because there’s a plurality of Jews in it, but because there’s a sense of Jewish self to it inherently,’” he said. “The question remains: ‘What does it mean to protect the civil liberties of Jews in Israel who don’t want to be personally observant while using the public space to make clear that this is a Jewish state?’”
Soloveichik and Gordis also discussed Begin’s tumultuous relationship with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, arguing that the two disagreed vehemently on basic ideology but ultimately softened toward each other with the passing of time. “At the end of the day, you wouldn’t have the Jewish state without either Begin or Ben-Gurion,” Gordis said. “There’s a sort of epistemological humility that comes with the sense that even if you disagree with someone very strongly, history may show that both you and they were critical voices in the Jewish chorus of that time.”
For Begin, that voice was in many ways defined by the personal, national and cultural losses suffered by the Jewish people in the Holocaust. “Begin became the conscience of Israel,” Gordis said. “He was the clarion call to remember that the purpose of Jews in the 20th century was to defend the Jewish people—that without Jewish substance, there was no point in having a Jewish state.”
The event was one in a series of programs on Zionism and the Begin legacy sponsored by a grant the Straus Center received from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem to honor the former prime minister’s 100th birthday, which was commemorated in August. Hart Hasten, president of US Friends of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation and a friend of Begin’s, was instrumental in securing the grant.
“Menachem Begin was my hero before and after he became prime minister,” Hasten told guests at the event. “He was my commander and my guru. I’m envious of the insight into his life that these two brilliant intellectuals sitting here tonight can offer us.”
The evening also recognized other generous sponsors of the Straus Center’s Menachem Begin Initiative, including Ben and Lynda Brafman as well as Phil and Malki Rosen, whose sponsorship was in honor of their parents, Irving and Toni Rosen.
“Tonight was an amazing intellectual, cultural and educational opportunity given to us by the Straus Center,” said Susan Ulick, who jumped at the chance to learn more about Begin after reading Gordis’s work. “As an American, whether Israel’s something you’ve always been interested in or just started reading about, it’s critical to understand how quintessentially important Begin was to the development of the State of Israel. One even wonders if it could have existed without him.”
On April 17, the Straus Center will present its next event in the series at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, “From Brisk to Jerusalem: The Judaism of Menachem Begin.” The evening will feature presentations by Soloveichik and Gordis titled, “A Son of Brisk: How Begin’s Childhood Made Him Who He Was” and “The World Through a Biblical Lens: Why Begin was Israel’s Most Jewish Prime Minister,” respectively, as well as an introduction by Douglas Feith, former United States under secretary of defense.
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