Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat during the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations at Camp David on September 6, 1978. White House via CNP/Getty Images.
On July 13, Mosaic subscribers joined together to watch the 2021 film Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin. Following a screening of the documentary, Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver convened a discussion of the question of how Begin relates to Israel’s founding. Joining him were the historians Martin Kramer and Avi Shilon, and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. A lightly edited transcript of their discussion follows, and a video recording of it can be watched below.
The life of Menachem Begin, commander of the Irgun, loyal opposition leader in Israel’s first many Knessets, architect of Israel’s electoral upheaval—as the consequence of which he would come to serve as the Jewish state’s sixth prime minister—is a life of tremendous consequence for Israel and the Jewish people.
Now, the discussion that we’re having tonight is centered on the question: how is Begin’s life and career related to the origins and founding of the modern state of Israel? We ask, if given all that he did for the Jewish state, he should be considered a founder of it, as men like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion definitely are. Rabbi Soloveichik, you’ve written extensively about Begin against the backdrop of the Shoah and Jewish history. How do you think about that question?
I want to express how excited I am to have this discussion with two other individuals from whose historical writings about the early state of Israel I have learned so much. . . .
When we consider what the phrase “founding father” means, at least the way we use it in English in America, it seems obvious to me that Menachem Begin should be considered a founding father of the state of Israel. The term founding father, when we apply it to, say, the events of 1776, or at least the period from 1776 to 1787—what we mean by the term founding father is someone who in a significant way helped bring the nascent United States about and had a profound impacted on in its infancy. And when we apply the same term or framework to the state of Israel, it seems obvious that Menachem Begin is a founding father of Israel. And I say this for two reasons: when I speak of Menachem Begin as a founding father of Israel, I mean both in terms of what he did, and also, and this for me is very significant, what Menachem Begin chose not to do. Let me explain both briefly.
The first, what Menachem Begin chose to do, was of course to lead the Irgun’s revolt against the British, which I think was a significant factor, if not the most significant factor, in Britain choosing to end the mandate for Palestine. And had that mandate not ended, by definition, the state of Israel could not have come into existence. I think here, the most critical book, which recently just came out, is the book by Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, which is a description of how the unremitting attacks of the Irgun against the British was the primary reason that they chose to leave. According to Hoffman, Ernest Bevin, who as late as 1946 had been the foreign minister of England, had been convinced that Britain could continue to control the Holy Land for some time and was utterly opposed to partition and to the creation of an independent Jewish state. In Hoffman’s words, Bevin had “Forcefully argued that Britain’s stature as a great power was inextricably linked to the maintenance of its Middle Eastern strategic and economic interests. The foreign secretary thus had clearly envisioned Britain remaining in Palestine for at least another decade and retaining military basing rights beyond even that timeframe. And his position,” he writes, “accorded completely with that of the chiefs of staff.”
Hoffman goes on to document how it was the Irgun’s actions that ultimately led to both Britain agreeing to let UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, actually come about, and was the primary or one of the primary factors in UNSCOP’s decision to recommend the partition of Palestine. So when we just consider it just based on that alone, it would seem that Menachem Begin and the Irgun were a primary factor in the very birth of the Jewish state.
If we consider, for example, from an American perspective, Alexander Hamilton, we refer to him as a founding father. Menachem Begin did a great deal more to bring the state of Israel about than Alexander Hamilton did to bring the United States as we know it about. He did more, I think, to bring the state of Israel into being than Benjamin Franklin did to bring the United States into being—and Benjamin Franklin did a significant amount to help the American Revolution—yet we certainly call Benjamin Franklin a founding father.
So it seems just based on that alone that we should call Menachem Begin a founding father. But I would note one other aspect, which I think is critical, and that’s not only what Begin chose to do, but also what Begin chose not to do.
If you visit the Capitol rotunda in Washington today, one of the paintings hanging there that’s significant to the way we tell the American story is John Trumbull’s depiction of George Washington resigning his commission. And we see Washington’s decision, effectively not to become the king of America, as one of the definitive moments in the birth of American democracy. It’s an essential aspect of his legacy as a founding father of the United States.
Just as Washington’s achievements are not only what he chose to do—the crossing of the Delaware and leading the armies of the Revolution and being president of the Constitutional Convention—but also what he chose not to do that defined American democracy, in a similar sense what Menachem Begin chose not to do had a significant impact on the state of Israel in its infancy, before the founding and immediately after. By that, I mean, of course, his choice not to fight against other Jews when the Irgun itself was attacked, first during the Saison period when the Haganah helped round up and torture members of the Irgun on behalf of the British, even though Ben-Gurion knew very well that the British had turned to the Haganah following the assassination of Lord Moyne, in which the Irgun was not even involved—that was carried out by the Stern Group. And then of course, soon after Israel’s founding when the Altalena was shelled.
It’s precisely because of Begin’s decision not to fight back and not to have civil war that, when we think about the larger sweep of Jewish history and we consider the fact that the Second Jewish Commonwealth fell, as Josephus and the Talmud describe, because of infighting among the Jews of Jerusalem, we can understand that it’s because of what Menachem Begin chose not to do in the early moments of the Jewish state that defined it, as evidenced by Menachem Begin’s very famous statement, “never a war between brothers,” in contrast to Ben-Gurion’s terrible statement that the canon that fired upon the Altalena deserved to be part of the Third Temple or the Beit ha-Mikdash.
So, if we think both in terms of what Begin chose to do and in terms of what he chose not to do, it seems to me that by any standard he deserves to be known as a founding father. Of course, one might wish to argue that when we speak of the founding fathers of Israel, we’re referring not to those who led Israel at the time of the founding but the founding fathers of Zionism, and the true founding father of Israel then is Theodor Herzl. But of course, by that definition, Ben-Gurion or Weizmann are not founders of Israel either. Certainly not Ben-Gurion.
And so I would say that if David Ben-Gurion is a founder of the state of Israel, then so is Menachem Begin. And if Menachem Begin is not a founding father of Israel, then neither is Ben-Gurion.
Who were the founders of Israel? The most evocative description may be found in Amos Elon’s 1971 book The Israelis: Founders and Sons. Elon opened with a description of Israel’s twentieth-anniversary parade in 1968, the first after the Six-Day War. He described the aged men and women in the VIP reviewing stand:
Their skins are parched, their taut faces lined by deep furrows, their heads snow-white or bald. They are now stooped, burned out by the fires of their youth, and yet surrounded by the sovereign power of a nation which half a century before had been but a figment of their wild imagination.
David Ben-Gurion, at that point past eighty, was among them. These were the founders, and this was their moment of triumph. And with rare exceptions, all their work was well behind them.
On that day, Menachem Begin’s great successes (and failures) were still well ahead of him. So should we regard him as a founder of the state of Israel? My answer to that question is “no.” I grasp the need of a huge segment of the Israeli public to have a hero present at the founding in 1948. So it is politic to call Begin a founder. But as history, it isn’t accurate, for two reasons.
The first argument is almost too simple: Begin didn’t belong to the founding generation. The founders were born in the 1880s or 1890s. They came mostly from Russia before or just after the First World War. By 1948, when Israel declared independence, they had spent much if not most of their lives in Eretz Israel.
In 1948, Ben-Gurion was already the “Old Man,” ha-Zaken, age sixty-one. He had been in the land for 42 years. The founder of the Haganah and the Palmach, Yitzḥak Sadeh, was fifty-seven. He had been in the country for 28 years. Already in 1948, both Ben-Gurion, with his tufts of white hair, and Sadeh, with his flowing white beard, looked like ancient prophets. So did many of the founders.
Thanks to their efforts, a Jewish state existed years before it was declared. When they arrived in the land, the number of Jews hovered between 60,000 to 100,000, far too few to constitute a state in any configuration. Even to imagine Jewish sovereignty, the would-be founders had to settle immigrants, lay out cities, build collective farms, pave roads, drain swamps, bring electricity—and, on top of that, establish democratic political institutions and an army-in-waiting. The prospect of statehood rested squarely on these foundations.
Twenty years after the Balfour Declaration, much of that work had been done. So concluded the British Royal Commission Report of 1937:
[The Jewish Agency] has created a complete administrative apparatus. This powerful and effective organization amounts, in fact, to a Government existing side-by-side with the Mandatory Government.
Even before World War II, this “powerful” apparatus governed and defended the lives of half a million Jews.
So what of Menachem Begin? He only arrived in Palestine in 1942, at the age of twenty-nine. A few years later, when Israel declared independence, he had been in the country all of six years, most of them in hiding. He was only thirty-four. (By the way, the average age of the signers of Israel’s declaration of independence was fifty-three.) In relation to the real founders, he was a new immigrant, a young upstart, and an underground shadow.
Begin in fact belonged to the next generation—not the founders, but what I would call the builders. Most of them were born in the decade around World War I, some already in Eretz Israel. Many became commanders in 1948. Here is the cluster, with birthdates.
- 1911: Yisrael Galili, builder of the Haganah.
- 1912: Isser Harel, builder of the Mossad.
- 1913: Menachem Begin, builder of Etzel (also known as the Irgun).
- 1915: Moshe Dayan, builder of the IDF.
- 1915: Abba Eban, builder of the foreign service.
- 1915: Yitzḥak Shamir, builder of Leḥi.
- 1917: Yigael Yadin, builder of the IDF.
- 1918: Yigal Allon, builder of the Palmach.
- 1918: Chaim Herzog, builder of IDF intelligence.
All of these people were in the cradle when the founders were lobbying Lord Balfour, fighting in the Jewish Legion, or settling Tel Ḥai. They were the disciples and successors of the true founders.
Begin was also a disciple and successor to a founder: Vladimir Jabotinsky. Certainly that is how Begin saw himself. The fact that Jabotinsky died too soon, in 1940, didn’t catapult Begin into the position of a founder in his place. There was simply an empty leadership gap, in the 32 years in age that separated Jabotinsky from Begin, and in the twelve years during which neither was in the country.
So much for simple chronology, although it should suffice. Let me now come to my second argument. Yes, someone might say, Begin was a latecomer. But the Etzel under his command drove the British out of Palestine. By acts of violent resistance, the Etzel broke the British will to stay in Palestine. Surely that makes Begin a founder.
Did the Etzel (and Leḥi) drive the British from Palestine? Here we are in the realm of interpretation. The evidence doesn’t lie in the stories we tell ourselves, or in histories of the Etzel, or in studies of terrorism. The evidence lies in British archives, as interpreted by historians of the British empire.
My own sense, from reading them, is that the British weren’t nearly that fragile. They did not come to rule a quarter of humankind by being squeamish about taking casualties. They had just lost almost 400,000 fighting men, not only to defeat Hitler but to preserve the British empire.
They had also lost 70,000 civilians. Ben-Gurion visited London at the start of the Blitz. This is what he wrote: “I am dumbfounded by the inner confidence of this wonderful nation. It is as if nothing can shock it and nothing undermines its faith.” For which, in 1942, the entire Yishuv praised God when the British Eighth Army turned back Rommel in the Egyptian desert.
It is hard to prove that the battle-hardened Great Britain of those days was driven out of Palestine by some bombs and assassinations. At least these don’t loom large in British internal debates. What did loom large was the problem of Jewish refugees. The British worried that if Jewish refugees were allowed to enter Palestine under the Union Jack, the British position in the Arab world would collapse.
Yet pressure was building to allow just that, especially from America. Torn between Americans and Arabs, the British chose to leave Palestine to the UN. That still left them with Suez, the oil, and their bases in Arab lands, while preserving their “special relationship” with America.
The heroism of Begin and his comrades in taking on the British empire is undeniable. And the idea that the British lion ran off before a handful of resolute Jews gave much-needed pride to many other Jews, post-Holocaust. But with the perspective of time, is it solid history? The kindest one can say is: unproven.
I will conclude with this speculation. If Ben-Gurion had died at the age of sixty-three, how would he be remembered today? That would have been 1949—after the declaration of the state. It’s obvious he would still be revered today as the founder of modern Israel.
And if Begin had died at age sixty-three? I didn’t choose that age at random. In April 1977, the sixty-three-year-old Begin suffered a massive heart attack. This was a few weeks before the electoral “upheaval” which finally took him to the premiership. He was too ill to campaign. Assume, for argument’s sake, that he hadn’t survived that heart attack. How would he be remembered today?
I submit we would recall him as a bit player in the lead-up to 1948, and as a failed politician thereafter. Which is to say that his greatness lay not in what came before 1948 or before 1977, but what came after. That is when he forged ahead to Israel’s first and most important peace agreement, his most lasting legacy.
Indeed, if there are two photographs that frame Israel’s rise in the world, it is Ben-Gurion declaring independence at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948, and Begin in 1979 in a three-way handshake on the White House lawn with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and American president Jimmy Carter.
Which is to say that Begin wasn’t a founder of Israel. But he deserves to be remembered and revered as the builder of peace.
I think that yes, for sure, Menachem Begin was one of Israel’s founding fathers, but not through the angle from which Rabbi Soloveichik is looking, but from a different angle. Who is Israel today? The results caused by Begin are, to my mind, the most influential, the most instrumental to the creation of the Israel of today. And when I am saying today, I mean for at least the last five decades.
Ben-Gurion’s vision for Israel was in a totally different fashion than how it was eventually created. Ben-Gurion wanted Israeli society to be secular, pioneering, a socialist society. In fact, his vision in terms of the society of Israel has failed. Israel today, and again, when I’m saying today I mean for at least the last five decades, is a totally different society. It was shaped in accordance with Begin’s vision. Most Israelis are traditionalist Jews in the Orthodox fashion. Israel has been governed, at least for the last five decades, by a right-wing government. And those right-wing governments are the result of the alliance that Begin created between the Likud, and earlier Ḥerut, and the religious parties. We couldn’t have Naftali Bennett, the first religious Jew as prime minister, without Begin. I think that Israel has undergone a process of Easternization in the last two decades, and the one who enabled this process, when he opened the ranks of the Likud to the Mizraḥim, was Begin. I can also give you a folkloristic example. Since 1977, the day after being elected each and every prime minister goes to the Western Wall, to the Kotel, to pray. This is something that started with Begin.
I think that Begin is the most influential figure with respect to the shape of Israeli society. Again, with respect to traditionalism, with respect to the Mizraḥi Jews, with respect to the alliance between the Likud, the right-wing and the religious parties. We can even take security issues. Maybe the most important issue in terms of security in the last two decades is Iran. That Israel’s security establishment is so focused on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is part of Begin’s doctrine, when he decided that no enemy state of Israel could possess a nuclear weapon. Ehud Olmert in 2009 actually imitated Begin’s doctrine. Netanyahu followed Begin. And obviously, the current prime minister takes the same approach. Now, it isn’t so easy because we doubt Begin. For example, if it was Ben-Gurion, maybe the Israeli security establishment would have preferred to contain a nuclear Iran state. But because of Begin, he established this doctrine that we can’t enable an enemy state to have a nuclear weapon.
[This security doctrine is related to the] internalization of the importance of the Holocaust in Israeli society. And again, this is the product of Begin. If we take Ben-Gurion, for example, in the formative years of Israel one of Ben-Gurion’s aims was not to forget the Holocaust, of course, but to give it a different role in shaping Israeli society and the Israeli consciousness. It was Begin who established this idea that the most important historical lesson for each and every Israeli leader is not to forget the Holocaust. For Ben-Gurion, it was a totally different story. He rejected the option to think of ourselves as victims, and he preferred to diminish the role of the Holocaust in Israeli society.
This is why I think that if we want to analyze, to understand Israeli society, we must understand that Begin was the one who shaped the current Israeli society most. Now, I’m rejecting Rabbi Soloveichik’s argument that it was the Irgun that expelled the British. I think that it would be much more accurate to claim that the Irgun pushed the British to understand a lot of other major reasons why they should leave the Land of Israel—it wasn’t [solely] the result of the Irgun’s action. But I think in this issue, it was very important then and it is important to each and every nation to establish a narrative of a fight for freedom. And in this respect, the importance of the Irgun was very, very, decisive and influential. I mean, Begin actually created the Israeli narrative. And even if Martin is correct, that historically or chronologically speaking, we shouldn’t think Begin as a founding father, if we think about narratives, if we think about conscience, it was Begin who was the most influential and most instrumental in shaping Israeli society.
In organizing this discussion and in asking this question about Begin and Israel’s founding, I should perhaps acknowledge my own distinctly American preoccupation with founding. And that has to do with the way Americans understand the origins and defining features of our own constitutional system. America remains, 245 years after our Declaration of Independence, uniquely interested, I think, in the personalities of the women and men who established our regime. Rabbi Soloveichik has already referred to the musical adaptation of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Come to think of it, it makes me look forward to the time, hundreds of years in the future, when Israelis convene en masse to enjoy a rap musical about their own first minister of finance, Eliezer Kaplan.
But now our discussion has led me to wonder if we can say something about what, as a conceptual matter, a founder is and what a founding is. Did the founders of Israel think of themselves as founders? And did Begin think of himself as a founder of Israel?
Now, in the American case, by way of contrast, I think the answer is no, not really. Founders, as an idea of political science, referred [at the time of the American founding] to the lawmakers of antiquity: Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta, Solon, the founder of Athens, Moses, the founder of the nation of Israel. I’m not sure that the Americans who met in Philadelphia in 1787 conceived of the constitutional convention in that way. And I should say, this is an argument of the eminent political scientist James Ceaser that I’m following. It was Madison who reintroduced the idea of founding into American politics, who took this very old idea and put it at the center of American politics, who taught the country in The Federalist Papers and elsewhere to think of those men as founders. He, Madison, compared the American founders to Lycurgus and Numa and the rest of them. And it was he, Madison, who suggested that they had in fact improved upon ancient foundings.
But it wasn’t just that Madison and Hamilton tried to portray themselves as founders. It was that they were in fact revered and venerated by their countrymen, and this gets to an obvious point. They elevated, you could say, the Constitution that they had created, their achievement, and they protected it above ordinary politics. And that allowed their constitutional achievement to endure over time. The founding shaped the people in the American context, then the Americans in turn elevated the founders, who, as a consequence continue to exercise some influence over the people’s understanding of the spirit of the country. In other words, to think about and understand the full meaning of the Madisonian or American way, which in this conversation [is how] we’re using the term founder, we have to see not only the actions of the man at the time, but his lingering effects in public life and the way he shaped the nation many years into the future.
Referencing the American founding is actually a very helpful framework, Jon, so let’s use it when we consider the arguments that are being put forward. Professor Kramer has argued that to speak of Begin as a founder is an exercise in ideology rather than history. Well, let’s take examples of American founders. Thomas Jefferson is universally acknowledged as a founder. Everything that Professor Kramer said about Begin I could say about Thomas Jefferson in a slightly different context. Thomas Jefferson in 1776 had his best work as a politician and leader in public life ahead of him. It would be many, many decades later when Jefferson would be elected president and a little bit after that when the Louisiana Purchase would take place. Jefferson was not the one laying the framework for the revolution. He was largely silent in the debates of the Continental Congress. And for much of the revolution, he was serving in a non-military capacity and did not deeply influence strategic questions about the battle against the British, but he did do one significant thing, which was to enshrine certain ideas at the heart of America in composing the Declaration of Independence.
I can make the exact arguments. He was a newcomer. He’s nothing like Franklin or some of the other important statesmen, and his entire public life was ahead of him. A public life, which like Begin in Israel would fundamentally redefine the American experience. Just as Menachem Begin’s Mahapakh [upheaval] led to the rise of the Likud and ultimately the almost permanent sidelining of Avodah, of Labor, Jefferson’s ultimate rise would lead to the triumph of the Democratic Republicans over the Federalists and the ultimate sidelining of the Federalists. So, by that standard, Thomas Jefferson should not be a founder, but I think historians would find it very odd and very strange to say that Thomas Jefferson was not a founder.
I struggle to understand why relative age—the fact that Ben-Gurion was called “the old man” whereas Menachem Begin was obviously very young—is a reason to invalidate him as a founding father. Alexander Hamilton is called a founding father. He arrived in America relatively recently as far as the American Revolution is concerned and is still hailed as a founding father. Professor Kramer asks how Menachem Begin would be remembered if he had died at the age of sixty-three. Well, we have an example of an American founder who died with the best of his life ahead of him. Alexander Hamilton could have impacted America in much more profound ways had he not violated the one central rule which all of you know, which is never go to New Jersey. But nevertheless, he chose to go to New Jersey and to engage in a duel. And because of that, most of his future career in public life, which could have been incredible, was lost. But we still recognized the impact that he had on America at the beginning. So I don’t really see what age has to do with it.
And I would note as an aside that it was Menachem Begin who, before World War II, was the one as a member of Betar and as a leader in Betar who first suggested to Jabotinsky the very idea of rebelling against the British. This was an idea that he had earlier as a very young man. So we apply the term founding father—a phrase which is I think essentially is, as you know, Jon, an American phrase—equally to aged men and young people in the story of America. In fact, that’s part of the wonder of the American story, that it incorporates both people who were seen, as it were, as old men, like Benjamin Franklin, and very young people who had just arrived recently, such as Alexander Hamilton. We apply the term equally, and I think it would come as a surprise to historians to hear that age should be a consideration or criteria when we consider who’s a founding father.
And let me just say something briefly about the question of the British. I don’t believe, of course, that Menachem Begin expelled the British. It wasn’t that the British were fleeing on the day that they lowered the Union Jack, at the beginning Iyar, and departed with Menachem Begin chasing them. But of course he did play a role. And I would add, the fact that he was in hiding during this—I also struggle to understand why that should matter. I mean, the founders of America spent a lot of their time fleeing from the British and, had they been caught, like Begin, they would have been hanged. John Adams would have been hanged. He was on the list of people who would have been hanged. By the way, and this gets to the question that you mentioned about the founding, Jon. Begin used to make references to the American founding, as well as to [the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe] Garibaldi. So he did identify as it were with people who are known as founders of modern republics, and that was something with which he himself identified.
I’ll just add also that when it comes to the question of the British, I’m not arguing that the Irgun expelled the British, but I do believe that Hoffman has argued incredibly impressively, and I want to emphasize that he is not a Revisionist Zionist historian. He’s argued based on the evidence that the revolt was a seminal factor. It is true of course that the Britain of Churchill in 1942 was one of immense fortitude, but the UK of 1946 to 1948 was not the same Britain. It was a Britain whose empire was being lost. It was a Britain that was losing India, and it was a Britain which, thanks in part to the Irgun’s efforts, had its own governmental policy in Palestine attacked in parliament by members of its own party, not just by the opposition, as the losses piled up and as the attacks piled up.
So in my own view, the historical evidence that Begin played a role in the British choosing to leave is incredibly impressive. I happen to note, the Hoffman book was interestingly one of the few books on Israel that was positively reviewed by both the left and the right. I went online and in the New York Times it was reviewed by Tom Segev, who had a line somewhere where he said something like, “And for Hoffman’s book, you would think that the Irgun alone expelled the British,” or something like that. And then Segev writes, “But it wasn’t only the Irgun. The Haganah also played a role.” If you’re already at that point where you’re willing to say in the phrase, “The Haganah played a role too”—which of course the Haganah also played a role in the founding of the state of Israel—we’re already at a historical marker where based on the way we use the term founding father, Menachem Begin certainly deserves that title.
Let me just say, as a point of the chronology of things, there is an expansive way that Americans uniquely understand this term founder. We should be honest about that. The term founder in the American context refers to the heroes of the Revolutionary War, all the way through the passage of the Bill of Rights in the first Washington administration.
That’s right. But I would just add to further that point, I entirely agree that Shimon Peres is not a founding father of the state of Israel. Shimon Peres and his achievements in public life could be compared to the generation that follows. Shimon Peres could be compared, if you will, to use the American context, to somebody like John Quincy Adams, or James Monroe, if we want to give Monroe instead of John Quincy Adams the credit for the Monroe doctrine. They were the next generation. Menachem Begin of course played a role in both generations, just as Jefferson played a role in the founding, but also in the political history that is post-founding of 1800 through the entire presidencies of his colleagues; Madison, Monroe, et cetera, et cetera. So I entirely agree that Peres would not be, but I think Begin, because of his unique historical achievements at the moment of Israel’s founding, still deserves that title.
A funny fact about Begin: Begin was also named “the old man,” but because he had such a bitter relationship with Ben-Gurion, he said, “I don’t want to be termed the old man because I don’t want anything to do with Ben-Gurion.”
I also agree that Begin’s role with respect to the British was important, mainly because he put pressure on Ben-Gurion to do something against the British. And we can also think about the fact that chronologically, at the same time, once Begin became the commander of the Irgun, Weizmann lost his political power because he was thought of as someone who was too much in favor of cooperation with the British, while Begin was leading the revolt against the British. So Begin’s actions against British hegemony also changed the Zionist leadership, even though he didn’t expel them alone, as we all agree.
I just want to add one, I think, interesting comment with respect to the comparison between the American founding fathers and the Israelis. It is a totally different story because America was something new. You need the founding fathers. But Israel is the continuation of Judaism, so if you would ask Begin himself, he would have told you, “I am just a chain in the Jewish leadership throughout history.” So the meaning of founding fathers of Israel, because it is mainly the continuation of Jewish history, is totally different than the meaning of founding fathers of the United States, which was really something new. We need to think differently about these two terms with respect to Israel and the U.S. And this difference is why we’re able to term Begin as one of the founding fathers and not as Martin very interestingly explained.
In my remarks, I didn’t use the phrase “founding fathers.” I spoke about “founders” because I didn’t want to invite the American analogy. The situation was very different. America was settled when American founding fathers raised the flag of independence. In order to found Israel, the country first had to be settled. The Land of Israel had all of 60,000 Jews in it at the beginning of the British mandate.
And so the real pioneering effort had to be made to take the 60,000 to the 600,000 who would become the first citizens of Israel in 1948. A lot of the “founding” thus happened before the creation of the state. It wasn’t a matter of simply mobilizing existing population. It was creating the citizenry which would then wage the war to claim independence.
That’s why I brought the example of the British Royal Commission report of 1937, because it said, “This is already happening. This has already happened.” In 1937, the British commission already recommended the creation of a Jewish state, in large part because its sinews were already there. The institutions were there, the settlements were there, the outlines of the borders were apparent. And so the founding of the state actually begins long before the state is declared.
Now, the pre-state struggle for independence is a short episode in time, because the British were leaving. Two thirds of the American Declaration of Independence is a tirade against British injustice and usurpations. Israel’s Declaration of Independence has not a word of that, because the British were leaving. The reasons they were leaving had less to do with attacks on them, and more to do with the images like the refugee ship Exodus, which were creating American pressure on Britain.
Rabbi Soloveichik is right. Britain was much weakened, but it was weakened by the United States, which increasingly dictated where the British could stay and where the British had to leave. So they had to leave India and they had to leave Palestine. They could stay in Ireland and they could stay in Cyprus. When later, in 1956, they claimed the right to stay in Egypt, the Americans told them they had to leave there too, and they did.
The pre-war struggle for Israel’s independence was short. It was followed by the struggle to defend the state against the Arab armies. This was far more important than the struggle against the British, and this is what Ben-Gurion worried about. He knew that underground militias—the Haganah, the Palmach, the Irgun, the Lehi—were not up to this task. Some of these large Arab armies were British-trained. So the founders of the IDF were in many respects the preeminent defenders of Israel’s creation, not the heads of the pre-state militias, whether of the right or the left.
Ben-Gurion made that transformation; that was his work. The act of “founding” is thus divided into three stages: settlement, the pre-state struggle for independence, and the defense of the new state. Begin played a role in the second, the shortest, and arguably, I think, the least significant of the three.
I want to just say by way of conclusion that you often see Menachem Begin juxtaposed against Ben-Gurion, as two titans in Israeli politics from the get-go. It’s not true. Begin’s Herut party, in the first Israeli parliamentary elections in 1949, came in fourth place. In 1951, the second election, in fifth place.
The major opposition to Ben-Gurion was from Mapam; it was from the left. Mapam was twice as big as Herut in the first Knesset. And it was Ben-Gurion who put Mapam in opposition. It was Ben-Gurion who brought the religious parties into the very first government: four of them in the framework of a unified coalition. It was Ben-Gurion who kept the socialist far left in opposition (along with Begin). It wasn’t Menachem Begin, but Meir Ya’ari, head of Mapam, who led the opposition in the Knesset for the first seven years of the state.
What does that tell you about Begin? Usually people reward founders in a democracy with votes. Herut didn’t get those votes. Begin didn’t emerge as the leader of the opposition until the mid-1950s, and then only because Mapam split. So there was, in the Israeli body politic, in those years, a sense that Begin was marginal.
That will change; he will find those voters eventually. They weren’t the voters that Jabotinsky and Begin initially would have had, because those voters were exterminated in Treblinka and Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto. It was Poland which was the core of the strength of the Revisionist movement, not Palestine.
Begin found others to fill those ranks: Jewish immigrants who came from Arab countries. But for Begin to build that coalition, he had to spend 30 years in the wilderness, just as Ben-Gurion had to spend 40 years under British auspices slowly building up, settling the land, and institutionalizing the state. So there’s an interesting parallel between the two. For Begin finally to lead Israel, he had to undergo a transformation. In his case, it didn’t happen before 1948. It happened after 1948.