Menahem Begin and Israel's Independence

By Zimmerman, Michael | Midstream, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Menahem Begin and Israel's Independence


Zimmerman, Michael, Midstream


Although Menahem Begin is well known in our time as a prime minister of Israel, his place among at. great Jewish leaders already was established by 1949. By then he was a historic figure, because it was Begin the underground leader who led and focused the force that impelled Israel to independence. Afterwards, he founded the political party Herut (Freedom), served as Knesset opposition leader, joined the government prior to the Six-Day War, was elected prime minister in 1977, and led Israel for six years.

Begin became commander of Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organization) in 1943. The underground force often referred to as Irgun or Etzel (acronym), like Haganah, allied with England at the outbreak of World War II. At the time, the British tightly restricted Jewish immigration to Eretz Israel, defying a key term of its League of Nations governing mandate. By February 1944, when it was clear the Allies would defeat the Nazis, Begin's Irgun formally declared war on Great Britain. Its goals: to open Jewish immigration, resettle Eretz Israel, drive the British out, and declare Jewish statehood. A few thousand Jewish fighters waged the revolt/independence war with great courage and audacity until an exasperated Britain quit the area west of the Jordan River in 1948 and Jews established the State of Israel. A war initiated by the Arabs overlapped and followed.

The chasm between the Shoah's depths of defeat and despair and the long-shot, life-affirming exhilaration of homeland victory in 1948 (partial but profound) was beyond imagining.

CONTRIBUTIONS THROUGH 1948:

Menahem Begin's distinct contributions to Jewry and Israel before 1949: 1) Leading the war against Britain for independence 1944-48, making British governance/occupation politically difficult, costly, and embarrassing; 2) Restoring martial pride to Jewry through Irgun actions and behavior during its war for independence; 3) Although severely provoked, acting decisively to avoid civil war several times during 1944-48; 4) Relentlessly challenging mainstream Jewish leadership to declare independence, still far from certain in spring 1948; 5) Conceiving, organizing and ordering difficult Irgun military actions against Arab forces during winter-spring 1948, each key to liberating or holding a strategic area.

FORMATIVE YEARS:

Menahem Begin was born 1913 in Poland. His extended family included many rabbis; his merchant father was a community leader and admirer of Herzl. As a boy, Begin witnessed pogroms. Educated at yeshiva, then in secular schools, he eventually earned a law degree. Active as a teenager in Zionist activities, Begin became head of Poland's Betar, a youth movement of 70,000 members that trained Jews to settle Eretz Israel. By 22, Begin was a community leader and had shared a speaker's platform with Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Both his parents would be murdered in the Shoah.

Upon Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland, Begin left for Lithuania. Soviet secret police arrested and accused him of being a Zionist and working for "imperialist" Britain. Later, Begin would comment on the irony that in the 1940s he was accused of being a British agent and later hunted as an anti-British terrorist.

Sentenced to eight years in Siberia, Begin was imprisoned until after Germany invaded Russia, and then discharged when he volunteered for a new Soviet-sponsored Polish army, and sent via Iran, Iraq and Transjordan to fight alongside the British. "Begin ... remembers ... taking his first steps on the soil of the Jewish homeland, and one of the Polish soldiers, not a Jew, saying to him, 'Good to be home, eh?'"

Once in Palestine with the Polish Army, Begin contacted Betar friends. By this time first reports of the "Final Solution" with its mass deportations and extermination camps were surfacing. Meanwhile, Britain was enforcing its 1939 White Paper (mirroring its Munich sell-out of Czechoslovakia), severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

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