Menachem Begin, a founder of Israel?

On July 13, Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver convened a discussion of the question of how Menachem Begin relates to Israel’s founding. I joined Begin biographer Avi Shilon and Begin admirer Rabbi Meir Soloveichik in debate. You can view and read the entire exchange at this link. Below, my opening case for why Begin shouldn’t be counted among Israel’s founders.

Who were the founders of Israel? The most evocative description may be found in Amos Elon’s 1971 book The Israelis: Founders and Sons. Elon opened with a description of Israel’s twentieth-anniversary parade in 1968, the first after the Six-Day War. He described the aged men and women in the VIP reviewing stand:

Their skins are parched, their taut faces lined by deep furrows, their heads snow-white or bald. They are now stooped, burned out by the fires of their youth, and yet surrounded by the sovereign power of a nation which half a century before had been but a figment of their wild imagination.

David Ben-Gurion, at that point past eighty, was among them. These were the founders, and this was their moment of triumph. And with rare exceptions, all their work was well behind them.

On that day, Menachem Begin’s great successes (and failures) were still well ahead of him. So should we regard him as a founder of the state of Israel? My answer to that question is “no.” I grasp the need of a huge segment of the Israeli public to have a hero present at the founding in 1948. So it is politic to call Begin a founder. But as history, it isn’t accurate, for two reasons.

The first argument is almost too simple: Begin didn’t belong to the founding generation. The founders were born in the 1880s or 1890s. They came mostly from Russia before or just after the First World War. By 1948, when Israel declared independence, they had spent much if not most of their lives in Eretz Israel.

In 1948, Ben-Gurion was already the “Old Man,” ha-Zaken, age sixty-one. He had been in the land for 42 years. The founder of the Haganah and the Palmach, Yitzhak Sadeh, was fifty-seven. He had been in the country for 28 years. Already in 1948, both Ben-Gurion, with his tufts of white hair, and Sadeh, with his flowing white beard, looked like ancient prophets. So did many of the founders.

Thanks to their efforts, a Jewish state existed years before it was declared. When they arrived in the land, the number of Jews hovered between 60,000 to 100,000, far too few to constitute a state in any configuration. Even to imagine Jewish sovereignty, the would-be founders had to settle immigrants, lay out cities, build collective farms, pave roads, drain swamps, bring electricity—and, on top of that, establish democratic political institutions and an army-in-waiting. The prospect of statehood rested squarely on these foundations.

Twenty years after the Balfour Declaration, much of that work had been done. So concluded the British Royal Commission Report of 1937:

[The Jewish Agency] has created a complete administrative apparatus. This powerful and effective organization amounts, in fact, to a Government existing side-by-side with the Mandatory Government.

Even before the Second World War, this “powerful” apparatus governed and defended the lives of half a million Jews.

So what of Menachem Begin? He only arrived in Palestine in 1942, at the age of twenty-nine. A few years later, when Israel declared independence, he had been in the country all of six years, most of them in hiding. He was only thirty-four. (By the way, the average age of the signers of Israel’s declaration of independence was fifty-three.) In relation to the real founders, he was a new immigrant, a young upstart, and an underground shadow.

Begin in fact belonged to the next generation—not the founders, but what I would call the builders. Most of them were born in the decade around the First World War, some already in Eretz Israel. Many became commanders in 1948. Here is the cluster, with birthdates.

  • 1911: Yisrael Galili, builder of the Haganah.
  • 1912: Isser Harel, builder of the Mossad.
  • 1913: Menachem Begin, builder of Etzel (also known as the Irgun).
  • 1915: Moshe Dayan, builder of the IDF.
  • 1915: Abba Eban, builder of the foreign service.
  • 1915: Yitzhak Shamir, builder of Lehi.
  • 1917: Yigael Yadin, builder of the IDF.
  • 1918: Yigal Allon, builder of the Palmach.
  • 1918: Chaim Herzog, builder of IDF intelligence.

All of these people were in the cradle when the founders were lobbying Lord Balfour, fighting in the Jewish Legion, or settling Tel Hai. They were the disciples and successors of the true founders.

Begin was also a disciple and successor to a founder: Vladimir Jabotinsky. Certainly that is how Begin saw himself. The fact that Jabotinsky died too soon, in 1940, didn’t catapult Begin into the position of a founder in his place. There was simply an empty leadership gap, in the 32 years in age that separated Jabotinsky from Begin, and in the twelve years during which neither was in the country.

So much for simple chronology, although it should suffice. Let me now come to my second argument. Yes, someone might say, Begin was a latecomer. But the Etzel under his command drove the British out of Palestine. By acts of violent resistance, the Etzel broke the British will to stay in Palestine. Surely that makes Begin a founder.

Did the Etzel (and Lehi) drive the British from Palestine? Here we are in the realm of interpretation. The evidence doesn’t lie in the stories we tell ourselves, or in histories of the Etzel, or in studies of terrorism. The evidence lies in British archives, as interpreted by historians of the British empire.

My own sense, from reading them, is that the British weren’t nearly that fragile. They did not come to rule a quarter of humankind by being squeamish about taking casualties. They had just lost almost 400,000 fighting men, not only to defeat Hitler but to preserve the British empire.

They had also lost 70,000 civilians. Ben-Gurion visited London at the start of the Blitz. This is what he wrote: “I am dumbfounded by the inner confidence of this wonderful nation. It is as if nothing can shock it and nothing undermines its faith.” For which, in 1942, the entire Yishuv praised God when the British Eighth Army turned back Rommel in the Egyptian desert.

It is hard to prove that the battle-hardened Great Britain of those days was driven out of Palestine by some bombs and assassinations. At least these don’t loom large in British internal debates. What did loom large was the problem of Jewish refugees. The British worried that if Jewish refugees were allowed to enter Palestine under the Union Jack, the British position in the Arab world would collapse.

Yet pressure was building to allow just that, especially from America. Torn between Americans and Arabs, the British chose to leave Palestine to the UN. That still left them with Suez, the oil, and their bases in Arab lands, while preserving their “special relationship” with America.

The heroism of Begin and his comrades in taking on the British empire is undeniable. And the idea that the British lion ran off before a handful of resolute Jews gave much-needed pride to many other Jews, post-Holocaust. But with the perspective of time, is it solid history? The kindest one can say is: unproven.

I will conclude with this speculation. If Ben-Gurion had died at the age of sixty-three, how would he be remembered today? That would have been 1949—after the declaration of the state. It’s obvious he would still be revered today as the founder of modern Israel.

And if Begin had died at age sixty-three? I didn’t choose that age at random. In April 1977, the sixty-three-year-old Begin suffered a massive heart attack. This was a few weeks before the electoral “upheaval” which finally took him to the premiership. He was too ill to campaign. Assume, for argument’s sake, that he hadn’t survived that heart attack. How would he be remembered today?

I submit we would recall him as a bit player in the lead-up to 1948, and as a failed politician thereafter. Which is to say that his greatness lay not in what came before 1948 or before 1977, but what came after. That is when he forged ahead to Israel’s first and most important peace agreement, his most lasting legacy.

Indeed, if there are two photographs that frame Israel’s rise in the world, it is Ben-Gurion declaring independence at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948, and Begin in 1979 in a three-way handshake on the White House lawn with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and American president Jimmy Carter.

Which is to say that Begin wasn’t a founder of Israel. But he deserves to be remembered and revered as the builder of peace.