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Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul

Reviled as a fascist by his great rival Ben-Gurion, venerated by Israel’s underclass, the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one, Menachem Begin was both complex and controversial. Born in Poland in 1913, Begin was a youthful admirer of the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev 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 1943, he achieved instant notoriety for the organization’s bombings of British military installations and other violent acts.

Intentionally left out of the new Israeli government, Begin’s right-leaning Herut political party became a fixture of the opposition to the Labor-dominated governments of Ben-Gurion and his successors, until the surprising parliamentary victory of his political coalition in 1977 made him prime minister. Welcoming Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel and cosigning a peace treaty with him on the White House lawn in 1979, Begin accomplished what his predecessors could not. His outreach to Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese “boat people” was universally admired, and his decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 is now regarded as an act of courageous foresight. But the disastrous invasion of Lebanon to end the PLO’s shelling of Israel’s northern cities, combined with his declining health and the death of his wife, led Begin to resign in 1983. He spent the next nine years in virtual seclusion, until 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. Daniel Gordis’s perceptive biography gives us new insight into a remarkable political figure whose influence continues to be felt both within Israel and throughout the world.

“Distinguished academic Gordis distills the essence of Begin’s long, storied, and contentious career [in this] concise and exciting political biography.”
—New York Journal of Books

“Gordis writes well about Begin’s personal qualities . . . capturing both his character and his place in Israeli history.”
—Publishers Weekly

“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.”
—Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War

“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.”
—Deborah Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial

“Daniel Gordis’s new and wonderfully written biography of Menachem Begin makes the case for a fresh look at the Israeli prime minister who made peace with Egypt. The portrait he paints of Begin is that of a man of singular devotion not just to the State of Israel, but also to the Jewish people. His passionate belief in both drove him, and it’s that passion and the intellectual depth behind it that Gordis finds appealing and in need of resurrection in Israel’s political class today. After reading this compelling book, most readers are likely to agree.”
—Dennis Ross, The Washington Institute

“A unique biography of a seminal leader many Jews think they know but don’t really understand. Like the best works of history, Gordis’s intellectual biography of the man who helped restore Jewishness to Israeli identity is of urgent contemporary relevance, as American Jews struggle with the meaning of Jewish people hood in their own lives. Passionately argued, beautifully evoked, this biography will become an indispensible part of the contemporary Jewish bookshelf.”
—Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation

“Writing a balanced, eloquent biography of one of the most polarizing figures of our time would seem impossible, but Gordis has done it. This is a riveting recounting of the passionate, meticulous, triumphant, dark, pivotal peacemaker, Menachem Begin.”
—David Wolpe, rabbi, Sinai Temple, and author of Why Faith Matters

Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul

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


Critical Acclaim

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.”

 

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