And Bitter Days
Menachem Begin's life spanned
the glories and tragedies of ionism.
He died this week at 78.
ARTHUR J. MAGIDA
Special to The Jewish News
ew were neutral about Menachem Begin
because there was little neutral about him.
There were few shades of gray in his life, few
gradations or nuances. For him, politics — and
everything it countenanced — was a galaxy of polarities a
series of tensions between contradictory forces.
Even White Nights, the title of Mr. Begin's account
of being incarcerated in Stalinist Russia during the
Second World War, refracted his world view: the
nights, turned white by the endless daylight of the
Siberian tundra and the constant floodlights of prison
interrogators, were also white because Mr. Begin's
world was informed by a need for constants. And
what better way to achieve this than by having a
night that was no more than a continuation of that
day that had preceded it?
If nothing else, this would negate the need to ac-
count for rival ideas and rival claims.
With Mr. Begin's death from a heart attack early
Monday morning at the age of 78 at Ichilov Hospital
in Tel Aviv, he emerged for one last time from the
shadows into which he had submerged himself for nine
years. Starting a few months before resigning as Is-
rael's prime minister in September 1983, and ex-
tending until the death watch that began last week,
Mr. Begin had been a virtual recluse.
His withdrawal from public life began when his wife
of 43 years, Aliza, died in November 1982. They had
been extremely close, and for all his tendency to dom-
inate conversations in public, he was, when he was
most himself, a fairly reticent and private person. He
had just weathered extraordinary criticism because
of Israel's war in Lebanon, and had no one with whom
to share his pain and anguish.
He was harassed: A scoreboard of the dead from the
Lebanese incursion faced him whenever he left his
He was confused: When asked whether he had a
message for a group of American Christians to take
home, he responded with his standard exhortation to
Diaspora Jews: "Learn Hebrew and come and live in
And he was in retreat: Seven weeks after he sub-
mitted his resignation, a memorial service was held
on the Mount of Olives upon the first anniversary of
his wife's death. The prime minister, slipping deeper
into his reclusivity, did not attend.
Life had not always been like this for Mr. Begin. He
had once been a wizard with words, a commanding
leader who would not take the Israeli equivalent, of
gufffrom anyone. It was no accident that followers try-
ing to persuade him not to resign as prime minister
paraded past his house, shouting "Begin, King of Is-
rael!" They remembered his glory days — and hoped
he did, too.
The leitmotif of Menachem Begin's life may well
have been — until the tail end of his years as prime
minister — an adamant certainty in himself and his
vision for his people. Some of this he may have gleaned
by environmental and ideological osmosis; some from
his instinctual leanings for the inviolability of hard-
ened, unbending principle. But regardless where it
came from, it eventually left an indelible mark upon
the people and the history of Israel and upon the Mid-
`Zionist From Birth'
enachem Begin was born on Aug. 16, 1913 in
the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk. According
to his biographer, journalist Eric Silver, Mr.
Begin "was in the most literal sense a Zionist from
birth. The midwife who delivered him was the grand-
mother of the future Israeli general and defense min-
ister, Ariel Sharon...Ze'ev Dov Bein [Menachem's
father] and Sharon's grandfather, Mordechai Shein-