• U.S.


4 minute read

His first name means “comforter.”

Menachem Begin (rhymes with Fagin) has been anything but that to his numerous antagonists. To the British in the 1940s, he was Public Enemy No. 1 in Palestine, with a $30,000 price on his head. To the Arabs, he was a ruthless terrorist responsible for the massacre of innocent Palestinian villagers. To Israel’s first Premier, David Ben-Gurion, he was a dangerous fascist who threatened to overthrow the newborn nation’s fledgling government in 1948.

In recent years Begin’s virulence has largely been confined to the opposition benches of the Knesset, where he has been a caustic gadfly to several Labor governments. He can be a fierce debater: when Ben-Gurion’s government supported German war reparations for Jewish property, Begin’s rhetoric grew so rabid that he was suspended from the Knesset for three months. In 1974, after Yitzhak Rabin became Premier, Begin remarked, “We haven’t seen a dovecot like Rabin’s Cabinet since Noah’s ark. I consider it a national duty to bring this government down.”

Born in Poland in 1913, Begin, then a law student at Warsaw University, joined the youth organization of the Zionist-Revisionists, a group of right-wing militants who condemned the regular Zionist leadership as misguided and soft. While fleeing the Nazis in 1940 (his parents and a brother were killed), he escaped to Lithuania but was arrested by the Russians for Zionist activities and briefly imprisoned. After his release, he joined the Polish army and was sent to Palestine where, in 1943, he deserted and joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi.

Begin soon became commander of Irgun, which was diametrically opposed to the methods of the Jewish Agency, headed by Ben-Gurion and other Zionist socialists. The agency sought a Jewish homeland through negotiation with the British and was willing to settle for a Jewish state coexisting with an Arab one in Palestine. The Irgun demanded all of Palestine and Transjordan; its motto: “Judea collapsed in fire and blood.

Judea will rise in fire and blood.”

Irgun and a smaller group, the Stern Gang, began a campaign of terror designed primarily to drive the British out of Palestine. In 1946 Begin’s men blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which was then British government headquarters. Ninety people—Jewish and Arab employees, in addition to British officials—were killed. The Irgun also tortured two British soldiers to death, then strung up their booby-trapped bodies in an orange grove. –

An incident that shocked the world was an assault on the Arab village of Deir Yassin in April 1948. Begin claimed that the Irgun warned the villagers to leave Deir Yassin before the attack; in fact, the truck carrying the hit team’s loudspeaker fell into a ditch. Using Sten guns, rifles, hand grenades and long Arab knives, Begin’s men massacred more than 200 villagers, mostly old men, women and children. Many were mutilated and the women raped.

Two months later the Irgun-owned freighter Altalena, loaded with arms and ammunition and 900 men, steamed into Tel Aviv. Convinced that the Irgun intended to overthrow his government, Ben-Gurion ordered his front-line commander Yigal Allon (now Israel’s Foreign Minister) to prevent the arms from being unloaded. In the subsequent battle, the ship was set afire and sunk, and a number of Irgun members were killed. Begin, screaming defiance at the “mad dictatorship” of Ben-Gurion, ordered his forces underground. “If we go down,” he yelled shrilly, “we will see to it that the state of Israel sinks with us!”

Begin eventually thought better of this approach. He disbanded his organization, founded his own political party, Herut (Freedom), and won a seat in the Knesset. But he still takes full credit for Irgun’s actions. Asked not long ago about the Deir Yassin massacre, he replied, “I was the commander. I was responsible for any operations carried out.” In his 1951 autobiography The Revolt, he wrote: “The life of every man who fights in a just cause is a paradox. He makes war so that there should be peace. He sheds blood so that there should be no more bloodshed. That is the way of the world. A very tragic way beset with terrors. There is no other.”

In person, Begin is a witty man with simple tastes—he likes to read history, political biographies and the Bible. He and his wife Aliza, 57, still live in the three-room Tel Aviv apartment they have occupied since 1946. He insists that he will continue to live there even if he becomes Premier. They have three children, a son and two daughters. Scandal? “Begin’s private life is as clean as a pin,” says a Western diplomat. “Everything they say about him is true. He’s kind, honest and quite likable. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com