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Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

In Memoriam -- Menachem Begin

Daniel J. Elazar

It is becoming clear that the two people who stand head and shoulders above the other founders of Israel are Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion. In that sense, Begin has come into his own only in the last few years.

Each of these two great men drew a very important lesson in their own lives and behavior from the failures of the Jewish people at the time of the Second Commonwealth, failures that indeed led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Commonwealth. The lessons they learned, as they themselves have written, were important operative principles in their lives.

Ben-Gurion drew the lesson from the fall of Judea that the Jewish people as a small people and the Jewish state as inevitably a small state could not afford to be at odds with the superpower that dominated in its sphere, and that the Judean challenge of Rome was a dreadful mistake. For Ben-Gurion this meant that with the United States dominant in the eastern Mediterranean, Israel had to somehow come under the protective American umbrella and maintain reasonably good relations with the United States. He had terrible fights with what was at that time a far more left-oriented Labor camp which included strong Marxian-socialist parties that still thought of Stalin as a great hero and were not to be disabused of that for another eight years after the state was established. Ben-Gurion fought with them to bring Israel into a better relationship with the United States and he followed that as his principle all of his life. Indeed, his thinking ultimately led him to announce publicly after the Six-Day War that he thought Israel should return all the territories except Jerusalem and the Golan and get rid of the problem quickly.

The lesson Menachem Begin drew was that the major reason for the destruction of the Second Commonwealth was civil war among Jews. Since we Jews have a propensity for it, he vowed that he would do everything in his power to prevent such a thing. One of the greatest moments in his life, certainly the most significant for Jewish history, was when he boarded the ship Altalena after it came under attack from the Israeli army, at Ben-Gurion's direct order, to prevent it from bringing in needed arms for the Israeli forces in violation of the UN-imposed truce in 1948, and refused to give the order to fire back. For Ben-Gurion, he was willing to take that risk rather than risk alienating the United States, so he ordered opening fire. Israel Galili and his other advisors at that time were ready to go to the limit. But Begin would not fire back.

So, too, when the Haganah was pursuing Etzel members at the orders of Ben-Gurion and the others of the Jewish Agency Executive, the governing body of the Yishuv at the time, Begin did not reply in kind. Indeed, Begin, who was so vocally critical of the Ben-Gurion government and the other Labor governments in the 1950s and 1960s, never said a word against the Israeli government outside the borders of Israel. Whatever criticism he would make within Israel, he took the proper position that outside the country, a member of the loyal opposition is not only opposition but is also loyal and does not attack his government in public.

Begin, indeed, was a great democrat. He believed very strongly in parliamentary democracy, perhaps excessively in some ways. As we now see, there are more flaws in the parliamentary system than perhaps he was willing to face, but, in public and quiet ways, he was one of the major architects of the idea of parliamentary democracy in Israel and was important in its becoming rooted in the country. His contributions in this area have yet to be fully recognized.

Begin was also the leader most responsible for closing the gap between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israel. By making political space and giving political opportunity to the Sephardic olim of African and Asian background, he ended what would have been more than a festering sore in the body politic. We should remember that before the state, the Etzel was the force where there was most equality between the communities, not the Haganah. That also was Begin's doing. So his association as a bridge-builder between the communities goes way back to his first coming to Israel. When he declared, as he frequently used to, "Yehudim Anakhnu!" (We are Jews!), he meant it. He saw the world that way.

Finally, Menachem Begin closed the gap in Israel's public life between Israeli civil society and Jewish tradition. Every society has a civil religion, those symbols and expressions which are the property of the commonality of the whole country and which evoke the emotions that make people feel that they belong to each other and to the country. In the days of Labor movement dominance of the state, Labor, which was very secular in its earliest years, tried to pour new wine into old bottles by taking symbols such as Jewish holidays and trying to give them socialist Zionist content. Labor tried to separate, as it were, traditional Judaism from the expressions and the symbols of the new Israel. Begin ended that.

Begin deliberately and consciously made every effort to identify the civil religion of the state with traditional Judaism and that, too, was a major step. He even acted on this belief after his death by having arranged his burial next to his wife in the traditional Jewish burial place on the Mount of Olives, in what is today an exclusively Arab section of Jerusalem, with a simple, traditional Jewish funeral. The country was ripe for this identification with tradition and Menachem Begin made another major contribution in this way. Yehe Zikhro Baruch (May his memory be a blessing).

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