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In 1948, after Israel had declared independence, Menachem Begin brought his wife to meet the landlord of the two and a half room Tel Aviv apartment he and his family had been living in for a year.  He knocked on the door and the landlord opened it. Begin said, “We came to personally give you the rent and to introduce ourselves.”

Like a Polish gentleman, Begin kissed the landlady’s hand and said, “I’d like you to meet my wife Aliza Begin and I’m Menachem.”  The landlord and his wife stared open-mouthed in amazement.

Begin had rented the apartment a year earlier under an assumed name.  The landlord just couldn’t believe that Menachem Begin, the most wanted man in Palestine for leading Jewish resistance against British rule, had been living openly in Tel Aviv and not in some underground hiding place.  The British had widely publicized a price of 10,000 pounds sterling on his head. (Today’s equivalent of 10,000 pounds sterling would come to $3.5 million!)

Born in Poland, Menachem Begin had arrived in Palestine age 29 in May 1942.  After the Soviet Union had occupied the eastern part of Poland, he had been sent to a Siberian labor camp, as punishment for his Zionist activities.  When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Begin had been allowed to enlist in the pro-Allied Polish army which was sent to Palestine.

Once in Palestine, he deserted to join an illegal underground organization called the Irgun whose goal was to force the British to leave Palestine.  Members of the Irgun were anti-British because the British refused to allow those Jews escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe to settle in Palestine.

To the romantic, Begin appeared a most unlikely candidate for leader of the underground.  His physical presence betrayed no aura of intense fire or charisma.  He was not a poet of revolution.  With his round wire-rimmed glasses, he closely resembled a small-town lawyer or school teacher.  He was slender, immaculately dressed and had impeccable manners.  He had a keen analytical mind and believed, even with the Irgun’s limited resources, that they could kick the British out of Palestine.

Begin proposed a series of spectacular underground operations that would humiliate the British, forcing them to resort to repressive measures.  This in turn would antagonize the Jews living in Palestine and alienate Britain’s anti-imperialist allies, the U.S. and Russia.  The British security forces would become involved in repression – imprisonment, mass interrogation, martial law and executions – all violating the British sense of justice.  Eventually, he believed, that the British, an enlightened people, would choose withdrawal over continued repression.

During most of the period 1943 to 1947, there were about 600 activists in the Irgun. They stole arms from British installations and set up underground factories to produce explosives and grenades.  They robbed banks and extorted money from Jewish businesses to finance their operations.

The Irgun was not all that popular with the general Jewish population.  They kidnapped British officers and even hung two sergeants in retaliation for four Jewish deaths.  Ironically, Menachem Begin, who was the uncontested leader, never fired a gun, laid an explosive nor personally participated in an operation.
Throughout the revolt, Begin lived openly with his family – changing his address, identity and appearance when necessary.  He did not have a bodyguard, nor did he carry a weapon.  He lived in neighborhoods around Tel Aviv where “everyone knew everything about his neighbors.”

In one neighborhood his cover story was that he was a student preparing for law exams.  This was to explain why he, with a wife and a son, was not going out to work every day.  When word spread that he was studying law, some of his neighbors came to ask for legal advice.

In another neighborhood, Begin took on the identity of a doctor named Koenigshoffer. That’s because a member of the Irgun had found Dr. Koenigshoffer’s identity card in a library book!

According to Begin’s autobiography, The Revolt, his closest call was in July 1946 after the Irgun had blown up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.  There were 91 dead, including British officers and civilians.  A 24-hour curfew was proclaimed and the British threatened to shoot anyone leaving his home.  There was a house to house search in all Jewish neighborhoods.
Begin hid in a secret compartment, while the British were searching the cupboards and knocking on walls.  Begin wrote that they knocked so hard on his secret compartment, he could hardly restrain himself from knocking back.

Menachem Begin always claimed that the explosion at the King David Hotel and the mass break out from the Acre Prison were the two events that caused the British to throw up their hands and appeal to the United Nations for a resolution on the fate of Palestine.  This is debatable.

On May 14, 1948, when the British flag was lowered for the last time from the High Commissioner’s House at the Hill of Evil Counsel in Jerusalem, Begin and his comrades emerged from the underground.  They then joined forces with Hagana forces led by David Ben Gurion to defend the new Jewish nation against a combined attack by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
After the war, the first elections in the new state of Israel were held in 1949. David Ben Gurion was elected prime minister with a majority of the vote. Menachem Begin became leader of the opposition with 11% of the vote. From 1949 until 1977, in almost thirty years, Begin lost eight elections!

Then in 1977, in an unexpected reversal of fortune, the ruling party was defeated by charges of rampant corruption and Menachem Begin was elected prime minister.  Shortly there afterwards, along with President of Egypt Anwar Sadat, he changed the history of the Middle East.  He signed a peace treaty with Egypt – the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt since the time of Solomon.

Begin deeply valued his friendship with  Sadat.  When the Egyptian leader was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists

Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Israel Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan arriving in the U.S. in 1978

in October 1981, Begin went to Cairo and

Photo:  Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

walked to the funeral, which was held on
a Saturday.  (Observant Jews do not use transportation on the Sabbath which is a

March 1978:  Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin (left) arrives in the U.S.
Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan is at right

day of rest.)  

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, 1978

Photo:  Courtesy of U.S. Government

Anwar Sadat (left), Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin (right) at Camp David

For us in Israel, he was the first conspicuously observant prime minister.  It was said that he felt at home in both the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) and the Beit Knesset (the synagogue).  He kept the laws of kashrut. He was comfortable with a prayer book.  On Yom Kippur, the holy day of atonement, I worship in the Great Synagogue, around the corner from the prime minister’s residence.  I remember noticing from where I would sit in the women’s gallery, that Begin, like me, pretty much knew the whole service by heart.

Every Saturday night Begin hosted a Bible study discussion on the portion of the Torah (five books of Moses) read that week.  Leading Bible scholars and archeologists, as well as their most talented graduate students were invited to give presentations.  In the middle of one heated discussion about a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy, Begin received a message that the U.S. President was on the phone.  Begin supposedly replied, “Tell him I’m in a very important meeting and to call back in two hours!”

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Menachem Begin was the first Israeli Prime Minister to forge an active alliance with Christian evangelicals.  They believed, as he did, that the Bible gave Israel a deed to the Holy Land.  Begin appreciated their unconditional support for Israel and the prime minister’s office became a destination for visiting Christian Zionist celebrities.

According to Zeev Chafetz, head of the government press office, one day Johnny Cash and June Carter came to the prime minister’s office for a photo op.  They had just come directly from touring Masada where the Jewish zealots had held out against the Romans for three years until they committed mass suicide, rather than become Roman slaves.  When Johnny Cash told Begin that he had just been on the summit of Masada, the prime minister slammed his hand down on his desk and proclaimed, “Masada will never fall again!”  Chafetz writes, “The Man in Black was so startled he nearly jumped out of his cowboy boots!”
On a more somber note, once Begin shocked the nation when he testified on the subject of the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps.  He said that he had first learned about the massacre from the BBC, which he had been listening to on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“What?” everyone exclaimed in disbelief.  “Menachem Begin was listening to the radio on Rosh Hashanah?”  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a solemn holy day, when it is forbidden to turn on the radio or TV, or even turn on any kind of electricity. Begin then admitted that he was addicted to the BBC from the time he was in the Underground!
Despite his non-descript appearance, Begin was a charismatic orator.  My upstairs neighbor Ziona, who was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, tells stories about going downtown as a teenager with her future husband to listen to Begin speak.  That’s what they did on a date in the 1950s!

Once in 1981, I took a shared taxi (sherut) to the airport with 6 other people.  I was going to pick up a group.  A young man sitting beside me in the taxi was fiddling with a tape recorder.  After a few minutes he introduced himself as a journalist.  He said he had just come from the Western Wall and had recorded a speech Begin had given there.  It was Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The journalist asked the rest of us if we minded if he played a bit of his recording to check the quality.  We all said OK.  He turned it on, listened for a few minutes and then turned it off.  One of the passengers asked if he would turn it on again.  There we were, seven strangers in a taxi, all listening to Begin speak about the killing of the children during the Holocaust.  For a full forty-five minutes, he held us spell-bound and in tears.

In August of 1983, Menachem Begin resigned the office of prime minister, saying merely, “I can’t take it any more.” He was overcome with grief at the death of his beloved wife Aliza, who had shared so many dangers, disappointments and triumphs with him.  And he was depressed by his role in the war in Lebanon.  Every night there were demonstrations outside his house, the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, protesting Israel’s involvement in the war in Lebanon.

One night the demonstrators would shout “553, 553, 553.”  All night long.  A few nights later it would be “554.”  A week later it would be, “561.”  The number signified how many Israeli soldiers had been killed in Lebanon.

Once Begin resigned, he never again appeared in public with the exception of visiting his wife’s gravesite on the Mount of Olives on the anniversary of her death.  Some say that he imposed a punishment of house arrest upon himself for his role in the first Lebanese War.
During the first Gulf War in January-February 1991, Menachem Begin was recuperating from a broken hip on a geriatric ward in a Tel Aviv hospital.  When the Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv, hospital staff suggested that Begin be put in a special safe room by himself.  After all, he had been prime minister.
But Begin refused and demanded to go into the large shelter with all other patients. Imagine the scene: ex-prime minister Menachem Begin in a wheel-chair, wearing a gas mask listening to Scud missiles exploding in the nearby vicinity, in the company of other patients.  They were petrified.  According to witnesses, Begin, the consummate leader, kept his cool and persuaded the others that there was nothing to fear from the Iraqis.

Menachem Begin's grave on the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

In the foreground:  Menachem Begin's grave on the Mount of Olives

In March 1992, Menachem Begin died a natural death, aged 79.  He was buried in a simple Jewish ceremony at his chosen plot, next to his wife, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  According to Jewish tradition, when the Messiah comes, Menachem Begin will be among the first who will rise from their graves!

Menachem Begin’s most enduring achievement has been the peace treaty with Egypt for which he shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize with President Anwar Sadat.

On the Great Day of God Almighty, the dead will rise up from their graves

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

When the Messiah comes, it's believed the dead will rise up fully dressed
 from their graves on the Mount of Olives!


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