A biography of the sixth prime minister of Israel that explains how the pre-state “terrorist” became the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty with an Arab country.
Reviled as a fascist demagogue by his great rival Ben-Gurion, venerated by Israel’s underclass, internationally admired as a statesman who became the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one, Menachem Begin was a complex and controversial figure.
Born in Poland in 1913 into a family with strong Zionist leanings, Begin became a youthful admirer of the Revisionist Zionist ideologue Zev Jabotinsky, and soon became a leader within Jabotinsky’s Betar movement.
A powerful orator and mesmerizing public figure, Begin was imprisoned by the Soviets in 1940, joined the Free Polish Army in 1942, and arrived in Palestine as a Polish soldier shortly thereafter.
Joining the underground paramilitary Irgun in 1944, he achieved instant notoriety for the organization’s devastating bombings of British military installations and other terrorist acts. Intentionally left out of the newly established Israeli government, Begin’s right-leaning Herut political party became a fixture of the opposition and a perennial thorn in the side of the Labor-dominated government of Ben-Gurion and his successors.
The surprising parliamentary victory of his political coalition in 1977 made him Prime Minister of Israel and brought him an international respectability he could never have imagined during the years that the British government had a £10,000 price-tag on his head.
Welcoming Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977 and co-signing a peace treaty with him on the White House lawn in 1979, Begin accomplished what his predecessors could not. His welcoming of Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese “boat people” was universally admired, and his decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 was condemned in public while being applauded in private.
But the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to end the PLO’s shelling of Israel’s northern cities was a failure from which he never fully recovered. Debilitated from the effects of a stroke, devastated by the death of his wife, emotionally and physically exhausted, Begin resigned in 1983 and spent the next nine years in virtual seclusion.
Mourned by Israelis from both the Right and the Left upon his death in 1992, Begin was buried not alongside Israel’s prime ministers, but alongside the Irgun comrades who died in the struggle to create the Jewish national home to which he had devoted his life.
Menachem Begin’s Life & Times: An Interactive Timeline
Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War
“The story of Menachem Begin is an inspiring story of Israel, and his legacy is one that lives with us still. Daniel Gordis expertly recreates that epic and passionately passes that tradition on to his readers. Anyone wishing to understand Israel—its past as well as it current affairs—must turn to Gordis’s Begin.”
Deborah Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial
“Whether you adored Begin or reviled him, whether you thought he was the best prime minister Israel ever had or the worst, you will appreciate and learn from Gordis’s fascinating portrait of a memorable man.”