Jewish Studies Menachem Begin
by
Avi Shilon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0170

Introduction

Menachem Begin (b. 1913– d. 1992) was a pillar of the Betar Youth Movement in Poland in the late 1930s, leader of the Etzel paramilitary organization (also known as the Irgun) during the Yishuv period (1944–1948), and the sixth prime minister of Israel (1977–1983). He was born in Brisk (in early-21st-century Belarus) and joined the Revisionist Movement in his youth after hearing the speeches of its founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and being captivated by his arguments and personality. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Begin fled to Vilnius where he was arrested in September 1940 by the Soviet NKVD. He was sentenced to eight years for his Zionist activities, but he was released in the winter of 1941 in order to enlist as a soldier in Ander’s Army, the Polish force established to fight the Nazis, and whose prospective route would pass through Palestine. In late 1943, after his discharge from Ander’s Army, he was appointed the commander of the Etzel, the underground paramilitary group that was associated with the Revisionist Party but not under its direct control. At the end of January, he ordered the Etzel headquarters to publish a “declaration of revolt” and to begin a violent campaign against the British that would cease only with their removal and the end of the British Mandate, despite the fact that the Yishuv, headed by David Ben-Gurion, opposed this step. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Begin founded the Herut movement from the ranks of former Etzel members and Revisionist supporters, which raised the banner of the Greater Israel ideology combined with liberal socioeconomic positions. After twenty-nine years, most of which he spent in the opposition, the Likud party, with Begin at its head, won the 1977 elections. This was the first time that Israel had been headed by a Revisionist leader, and for that reason the victory was coined “the upheaval.” His tough rhetoric notwithstanding, Begin surprised many in 1979 when he agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for the first peace accord signed between Israel and an Arab state. In his second term as prime minister (1981–1983), the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began what was meant to be a limited incursion forty kilometers into southern Lebanon. However, Operation “Peace for Galilee” led to Israel’s entanglement in war in Lebanon. Against the backdrop of these bloody events, Begin resigned before the end of his term, in August 1983, and lived a reclusive life until his death.

Works by Begin and Anthologies of Primary Sources

Begin did not keep a diary or leave behind a complete autobiography. However, he wrote two books of an autobiographical nature, Begin 1978a and Begin 1978b, that end in the period before the establishment of the state. Begin 2011 gathers his selected speeches as leader of Herut in the 1950s in a booklet that expresses his worldview on national, social, and economic topics. The books in series Begin 1956–1975 includes many records and proclamations that Etzel published and that were, for all practical purposes, written by him. They are thus instructive of Begin’s early worldview. The more recently published Israel State Archives 2014 contains a selection of primary-source records and documents that provide a survey of his lifetime of activity overall.

  • Begin, Menachem. Ba-mahteret: Ketavim. 4 vols. Tel Aviv: Hadar, 1956–1975.

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    A collection of proclamations and documents published by Etzel in four volumes. As the commander of the organization, Begin was deeply involved in writing many of the proclamations—even though he did not sign them with his name—and reading them aids in understanding the motivations behind his actions.

  • Begin, Menachem. The Revolt: Memoirs of the Commander of the National Military Organization in the Land of Israel. New York: Dell, 1978a.

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    This book recounts, from a personal perspective, the history of the underground under Begin’s leadership (1944–1948). The first edition was published on 1950. The book does not refer to any documents but instead relies on Begin’s own recollections and is full of anecdotes and historical polemics with the organization’s opponents.

  • Begin, Menachem. White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia. Translated by Katie Kaplan. London: Futura, 1978b.

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    This book, too, was written in the early 1950s and deals with a formative period in the young Begin’s life, from the occupation of Poland by the Germans until his enlistment in Ander’s Army. The main part of the book concerns the account of his arrest, trial, and imprisonment by the NKVD for the crime of Zionist activity and collaboration with British imperialism. The central tenets of his Zionist worldview are presented in the framework of debates with his interrogators.

  • Begin, Menachem. Mori, Ze’ev Z’abotinsky. Edited by Ephraim Even. Jerusalem: Begin Heritage Center, 2001.

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    Despite this book’s ideological goal—proving the intellectual continuity between Jabotinsky and Begin—which is not historically accurate, it contains articles, documents, and speeches by Begin that shed light on his opinions. The book includes an introduction by Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir.

  • Begin, Menachem. Hashkafat hayim ve-hashkafah le’umit. Jerusalem: Menachem Begin Heritage Center, 2011.

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    This is a collection of speeches delivered by Begin in the early 1950s on the topics of nationalism, society, economics, and politics, and helps clarify his worldview as a politician. In his speeches, he emphasized personal liberty and minority rights in a democratic society, as well as the need for an independent judiciary, while at the same time presenting a hardline perspective on questions of state and security.

  • Israel State Archives. Menachem Begin: The Sixth Prime Minister; Selected Documents from His Life (1913–1992). Jerusalem: Israel Government, 2014.

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    A collection of records and documents encompassing Begin’s life from beginning to end. The majority are devoted to the period of his premiership, 1977–1983: the peace process with Egypt; neighborhood renewal projects; “Operation Moses,” which began the significant immigration of Ethiopian Jews; the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor; and the First Lebanon War. In Hebrew.

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