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.