When, as Israel’s then-opposition leader, Menachem Begin first visited the U.S. in 1948, a group of Jewish intellectuals—among them Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt—wrote a fervid letter to the New York Times condemning him and comparing him with the Nazis. Milton Viorst has revived these charges and added fresh and still more preposterous ones in his recent book Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal, arguing that Begin’s prime-ministership initiated Israel’s transformation from a bastion of peace and tolerance into a militaristic and belligerent state. To the contrary, writes Moshe Fuksman Shal:
[Begin’s] Ḥerut party, [the precursor to the Likud], became a principal voice for democracy and liberty in Israeli politics. It was Ḥerut that was one of the leading opponents of the martial law that had been imposed on Israel’s Arab population until 1966. This opposition was consistent with Begin’s principled belief in equal rights for all of the country’s citizens.
The party also played a major role in defending freedom of the press, [including for] media outlets on the opposite side of the political map. . . .
Contrary to Viorst’s assertion that Begin was somehow the instigator of a new anti-peace Israel, when Begin agreed to hand over the Sinai peninsula to Anwar Sadat he demonstrated his commitment to peace as an ideal, even at the cost of giving up a key territorial asset. This can be contrasted with the famous statement from the previous Labor government that it would be “better to have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.”