Menachem Begin witnessed and experienced the Holocaust, a black period in Jewish History, about which one is permitted to ask questions, but can expect no answers. He experienced the suffering of the Jewish People in full measure, but maintained his faith in his Creator and in his people. He was one of the Great Jewish Leaders, certainly of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time. He was born in Brest-Litovsk in 1913. He became very familiar with the classic Jewish sources: the Bible, the Mishnah and Gemara, and the Siddur. He became intimately familiar with Jewish History. A passionate Zionist from his youth, he joined Z’ev Jabotinsky’s Betar Youth Movement in his teens, becoming the leader of Betar of Poland, an organization of 100,000 members, organized to defend Polish Jewry and to help provide the transport of “illegal” immigrants to Israel.
Begin became the operational head of the “Irgun Z’vai Leumi,” the National Military Organization that confronted the British, in their attempts to suppress Jewish immigration to Palestine after the Holocaust. He organized the Akko prison breakout and the destruction of the central administrative offices of the British at the King David Hotel, providing early warning to the British so that they could save their lives. Although some make foolish comparisons, it is clear that it as an obscenity to mention Begin’s name in the same sentence as today’s bloodthirsty terrorists.
In Israel’s War of Independence, Begin combined the forces of the “Irgun” with those of the “Haganah” (the official defense force of the fledgling state), and after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Begin disbanded the “Irgun” and led the opposition party in the Israeli government for 29 years, until he became Prime Minister in 1977. Some of his diplomatic achievements that may some day bear fruit were his initiation of the “peace process” with Egypt and his invitation to the late Anwar al-Sadat, President of Egypt, to address the “K’nesset,” the Israeli Parliament. One of his greatest acts as Prime Minister was ordering the destruction by the Israeli Air Force of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osiraq in 1981, an act that saved the world from calamity at the hands of a rogue Iraqi nuclear power, an act which was, naturally, roundly condemned by the United Nations.
He encouraged Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel, resulting in Operation Moses, that brought thousands of Jews to Israel.
When he spoke at the U.N., his speech and its poor translation highlighted a problem of the Jewish State. Many of his references to Jewish sources went right over the heads of the Israeli translators, and foreshadowed the need and the struggle in Israel for more intensive Jewish education.
In a poignant demonstration of the truth of the idiom that behind every great man stands a great woman, following the death in 1982 of his beloved wife, Aliza, Begin retired from public life. He passed away in 1992, and was buried on the Mount of Olives in his beloved Jerusalem.