Book Review: Menahem Begin A Life

Menahem Begin A Life Avi Shilon

On posting a book review of Menahem Begin A Life by Avi Shilon on Tisha B’Av: The Ninth Day of Av is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. For those that admired Menahem Begin, it may be appropriate to speak of a lost leader on this sad day. To those who disliked Menahem Begin, the book has plenty of sad, mournful topics. To those who know little of Menahem Begin, Avi Shilon’s biography is an informative and insightful review of his life.

The author compares the televised 1977 debate between Begin and Shimon Peres to the televised Nixon vs. Kennedy 1960 debate:

“What Americans perceived as a disadvantage was taken by the Israeli viewers as an advantage. The sweaty and excited Begin triggered sympathy. His appearance–which was ill-suited to the medium– actually made him seem to be a responsible and mature Jew who did not sleep at night because of his concerns for Israel.”

One of his greatest joys was the arrival of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He was also said to play a role in making sure the army re-captured Jerusalem in 1967. His positive relationship with Sadat of Egypt is both curious and heartening.

How did a young man from Brisk who lost his whole family except his sister in the Holocaust become the leader of a nation? I think the answer lies in his ability to sway public opinion. In particular, he related well to the Mizrachim, the Jews from eastern countries such as Morocco. It certainly wasn’t due to his economic prowess; he left those details to others who did a lousy job.

Leaving details to others happened again in the Lebanon War – one could argue this was even more disastrous. When protestors held up signs of those dead in the war outside his home, he let them remain.

Begin’s early associations that marked him as a terrorist by some, such as the hanging of British soldiers (in response to the hanging of three Etzel members) and the King David Hotel bombing (the hotel guests were supposed to be warned but were not), are explained in depth in the book. Later, when he becomes the leader of the country, he is the one to stress: no use of torture.

Begin showed the signs of a manic depressive. He became a recluse at the end of his life – was this due to his wife’s death, the tragic, lengthy and disheartening Lebanon war, part of the cycle of his manic depression, or all of the above and more?

At the end of the book, toward the end of his life, Begin allowed his name to be commemorated via a museum. My son in Israel visited the museum with his program this summer. I look forward to hearing how it went.

Conclusion to my book review: Menahem Begin A Life – If Avi Shilon decides to write any more biographies, for example, that of Begin’s frequent opposition leader, Shimon Peres, I would be happy to read them.

23 thoughts on “Book Review: Menahem Begin A Life

  • An interesting review with a great introduction. You know how to entice people to read your posts!
    For me Begin evokes The Camp David Accords.

    • That was probably his most famous event. My husband read The Revolt, which is about his early days. I would like to read that one next.

  • Begin wasn’t a terrorist; he was the ideologue of a group that at times had to take strong actions.

    Agree with his policies or not, he was an old style courtly gentleman. I met him a few times. Gentle and polite.

    • That’s great, that you got to meet him. I think I would have liked him as well (the old-style courtly gentleman).

      It seems he wanted so much to justify all the actions he and his group and taken, and his enemies wanted to paint him badly.

    • Next week I’ll go back to Nature Notes. Maybe some NJ flowers. Maybe more Israel pics …

      And then I’ll look for another book worthy of reviewing. That usually takes me a few months.

      Thanks for reading, Carver.

  • Sounds like an interesting book. Did you get the sense that the author admired Begin?

    Have an easy and meaningful fast. (I don’t want to rub it in or anything, and so I won’t mention that the fast ended here almost two hours ago… 😉 )

    • “Did you get the sense that the author admired Begin?” – excellent question. I think yes … as much as I do (especially now that I’ve read this book). I think the author saw his human side and his struggles. Shilon said at the end that he was Israel’s first “Jewish” leader, meaning Begin felt Jewish religion and tradition integral to the Jewish State. Previous leaders, such as Ben-Gurion, downplayed this connection.

      In regards to the fast, we did get a later start. What you have that I treasure is the dry heat instead of this disgusting humidity.

  • Funny you reviewed it…I recently borrowed it from my library.

    Your review is excellent, and I enjoyed how you held my attention in the first paragraph, making me want to read more.

    • Whenever I write something like that, I always hesitate, like, how will this be received? Often people like it (true even more so of the Fashion and Modesty post).

      Thank you for your kind words, Lorri (you are my role model for book reviews – you once told me to write what comes to mind, or something like that).

      • Try not to worry how people will take your opening line/s, article content or conclusion. Easy to say, I know. We can not please everyone, and in the end, we must be pleased with ourselves, where writing is concerned.

        Thank you for the kind words.

  • The Begin Heritage Center is fascinating, whatever one thinks of Begin.

    I recently bought a second-hand copy of White Nights, Begin’s account of his time in the Soviet gulag, although I have not had the time or the headspace to read it yet. I also managed to get a free copy of The Revolt some time back, Begin’s account of the Irgun’s campaign against the British, although I probably won’t read that from cover to cover.

  • I like how your review begins with situating the reader in a broader context against which to place the book. Smart move 😉 Memoirs are among my favorite types of books to read. There’s something about crafting a story out of a real life as opposed to a made-up one that I find endlessly appealing. It takes a skill akin to fiction, but it’s a much more delicate process to craft an engaging story from real events.

    • Thanks for the commentary both on my opening and on the art of the biography. I keep working at how to make a book review both interesting and worthy of the book.

      The hard part is finding a book that I want to review – hope to be back next month with a new one, after I’ve read many other books in between.

  • Dear Leora,
    Hope this finds you well.
    As the author of Begin’s Biography I want to thank you for your interesting review. I also want to add, in response to Mrs S question that I have appreciation to Begin, but I wrote the book as an independent scholar since I wanted to examine begin without being bias toward him. Begin was unique and important leader, and the book follows his greatness but also his shortcomings.

    • Thanks for the link, Erika. I note that all the documents on that post are from when he was Prime Minister. I am more curious about his life in Europe and in the early days of the State. And I didn’t know that particular blog existed (the Israel State Archives blog).

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