Forty years ago this June, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the Israeli Air Force to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. After the mission succeeded—and the pilots survived, despite unenviable odds—Begin announced publicly what had happened, hoping to send a strong deterrent message. Meir Soloveichik observes that this secular prime minister also stated that “only by the grace of God could we have succeeded in that mission.”
Yehudah Avner, Begin’s speechwriter, reported that as the planes took off, Begin said to himself “Hashem yishmor aleihem,” may God protect them. And when he was informed that the strike was successful, he instinctively exclaimed two words that Jews have said every day for centuries, but that no other Israeli prime minster would have instinctively uttered: Barukh Hashem, thank God. A month later he met with the American Jewish leader Max Fisher and reflected further on the religious meaning of the moment.
Was the assault on Osirak a strategic achievement, or was it a miracle? For the prime minister, it was both. On Yom Kippur 1973, Israel had been caught napping; on Shavuot 1981, Begin announced to the world that Israel would not be caught asleep at the wheel again. And he believed that if Israel avoided somnolence, then its people would also have the right to pray to the God Who, according to the Psalms, is the protector of Israel that neither slumbers nor sleeps. No other Israeli leader so seamlessly merged the Zionist present and the diasporic past, simultaneously making manifest Jewish independence and humble faith.
Since 1981, Israel has acted several times to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons, and it is much stronger—both militarily and diplomatically—than it was in Begin’s day. This is a wonderful thing. But what is missed is the man—a leader who joined strong action with communion to the past, a Jew who could order an ingenious operation and then pray to God for its success.