Menachem Begin is memorialized in Jewish history as the commander of the Irgun, the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, the Prime Minister of Israel and the first Israeli statesman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
We are now celebrating the centennial year of Menachem Begin. In this framework, we are proud to present you an exhibit that will outline in broad strokes the life and achievements of Menachem Begin from his early youth at Brisk through his activity in the Betar movement, his imprisonment by the Soviets and his arrival to Israel.
His story continues with his fight for the liberation of Israel and his activities through the years as a key figure in Israeli politics in the opposition and as a government member.
As Prime Minister of Israel, he signed the peace treaty with Egypt and in 1978, he was the first Israeli statesman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Through the years he served as a model of integrity and leadership, based firmly on Jewish values and the sanctification of Israel's parliamentary democracy.
It is not an easy task to fold one man’s life, with more than 50 years in public service, into one exhibit; we have done our best to highlight the key points in his life and in our nation.
President and CEO
Menachem Begin Heritage Center
“We lived under the shelter of our mother's love. No matter how much she suffered, she never complained, and in this, she served as an example to us. My father was chairman of the Jewish Council in Brisk. Our home was a center for discussions about Zionism and community affairs. In my parents' house, the conversation always centered on the fate of the Jewish people and on the Land of Israel."
“The first time I saw Jabotinsky was when he spoke at a conference in Brisk. I was sixteen years old. My life had changed. You sit and listen to a man and feel with all your being how he raises you higher and higher. Were you captivated? No, you were sanctified.”
“No, I will no longer go to Brisk, but Brisk will always go with me. For there are three main lessons that I took with me from my parents' house: to love the Jewish people, not to fear the Gentiles, and the third, that it is good for a man to bear hardships in his youth”.
“Since I was born in the Diaspora, my first wish was to be in the Land of Israel. As for a profession, I wrote that I wanted to be a lawyer, and explained it by saying that there were many poor people in Poland who could not afford a lawyer, but that I would ask for no payment from them.”
“Having seen political Zionism and practical Zionism, we are now facing the age of military Zionism.”
“Sitting at the table were two seventeen-year-old girls, twins. Right then and there I decided that one of them would be my wife. The next day I sent her a note: I saw you, miss, for the very first time, but it seems that I've known you my entire life.”
World War II breaks out when Begin is with 1,000 illegal immigrants trying to cross the Romanian border on their way to Israel. The operation fails and Begin returns to Warsaw. With the news of the progress of the German army Begin tries to arrange for the recruitment of Betar members to the Polish army but when the Soviet Union invades from the East and the Polish army starts to fail, Begin leaves Warsaw with his wife and other Betar members on their way to Vilna where they re-establish the Betar movement.
Although he was offered a certificate that allows him into Palestine, he chooses to stay in Vilna and to reorganize the movement's activities in occupied Europe. On 20 September 1940 the agents of the “NKVD” - Soviet secret police - arrive to arrest him. For eight months he was imprisoned, cold and hungry, in Lukishki prison where he was interrogated day and night for the crime of Zionist activity. Finally, he is sentenced in absentia for his crimes and as a “dangerous individual” is sent to a corrective labor camp for a period of eight years of hard labor. The camp was in Pechora in northern Russia. His book “White Nights” describes this difficult period in his life.
“No, not guilty … To you, the very fact that I am a Zionist, a member of Betar, is my crime; to me this is serving my people.”
“Since my earliest childhood, my father taught me that we must return to the Land of Israel. Not to walk and not to ride and not to come but to return to the land of our forefathers.”
The Anders Army
On July 30, Free Poland representatives signed the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement in London allowing the release of Polish citizens, like Menachem Begin, from Soviet camps and mobilizing them into fighting units under the command of General Władysław Anders to fight the Nazi forces. This army officially became the 2nd Polish Corps with 194,000 soldiers, among them some 10,000 Jews. Due to political disputes with the Soviets as well as shortages of equipment, food and clothing on the Eastern front, and the break between the Polish Government-in-Exile with Stalin, Anders and his army left the Soviet Union. In March 1942, via Persia (today, Iran), Iraq and Palestine, the Anders Army connected with the British army. In addition, 74,000 family members and other civilians accompanied them. Once in Mandatory Palestine, 3,085 Jews went AWoL (Absent Without Leave), another 2,000 enlisted in the British Army, fighting in the Jewish Brigade in Europe, others joined the Jewish underground groups in Eretz-Yisrael. Begin was discharged in 1943 and became the head of the Irgun Zvai Leumi.
Etzel - The “Irgun”
Menachem Begin served for a year and a half in the Polish Army stationed in Israel. After receiving his official release from the Polish army he was appointed commander of the Irgun. He spent five years in the underground as the Irgun commander, during which he was persecuted by the British police and sometimes even by the leadership of the Yishuv. Begin and his family traveled between various places, hiding with different identities; first as bearded Rabbi Sassover from the Hasidof neighborhood in Petah Tikva and later as Jonah Konigshoffer from Tel Aviv. When it was finally revealed, people did not believe that this young man with glasses and a mustache was the admired commander that tipped the British Empire.
Establishment of the State of Israel - out of the underground - 14 May 1948
“Soldiers of Israel, Hebrew youth, brothers and sisters in Zion! The British who subjugated our Homeland have been defeated and expelled. After a bloody war, the State of Israel has risen. And so, let us say on this, the first day of our freedom from the yoke of British subjugation, “Blessed is He Who kept us alive and maintained us and caused us to reach this day.”
About a month after the British left the country, the boat Altalena arrived in the country, carrying 940 immigrants as well as large quantities of arms. Following negotiations with the government of Israel over the distribution of arms, an IDF mortar fired at the ship, and it began to sink. Sixteen Etzel members were killed, among them survivors of the Holocaust. Many others were wounded. Begin gave the order to cease fire. “It was obvious to me that I had to order the Etzel fighters to restrain themselves, in order to prevent a civil war,” Menachem Begin later explained. “It was the most important decision of my life.”
Years of Opposition
At the age of thirty-five, Begin finally left his life in the underground and returned to public life. He established a new party, the “Freedom Party founded by the National Military Organization,” better known as Herut. He spent twenty-nine years leading his party in the Opposition. During that time, the party grew from fourteen members to forty-five in the ninth Knesset.
“Today there has been a turnaround in the history of the Jewish people, in the history of the Zionist movement, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the past forty-six years. Zeev Jabotinsky dedicated his entire life to this goal. He was not privileged to see the establishment of the State of Israel, nor did he see the turnaround that occurred today. We have reached this day through a loyal pact with the disciples of David Ben Gurion, our dear friends… My first thanks go out to my wife, because she had to put up with more than any other person on earth. I dedicate to her the eternal words, “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land strewn with mines.” And I would like to thank the hundreds of thousands of men and women, citizens of Israel, who, according to all the polls, we can now say, have raised the Likud to the position of the first parliamentary party, which - according to the custom, which is like a law in the State of Israel - will be asked by the President to form the government of Israel.”
“The first thought was, and the first action, to bring the Vietnamese refugees whom our boat in the Pacific Ocean saved, but no country in Asia wanted to accept them. So my first action was [to] bring them to Israel. And my second act was [to think] how to make peace. "
Following secret messages forwarded by Prime Minister Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced on 9 November 1977: “I am willing to come to them, to their home, to the Knesset itself and argue with them.” This announcement was not left unanswered. In an appeal broadcast to the Egyptian people via an American television channel, Begin said, “Let us say to one another, and let it be a silent oath between our two nations, Egypt and Israel: No more war, no more bloodshed, no more threats…Only peace, true peace, and forever.”
One week later, on Saturday night, 19 November 1977, Begin received his former enemy at Ben-Gurion airport. In five private talks held during the two days of the historic visit, “chemistry” was created between the two leaders and both agreed: “No more war.”
When the negotiations came to a standstill, President Carter invited Begin and Sadat to Camp David. There, Begin learned of the steep cost of responsibility, pressure, pain, and compromise. In order to achieve peace, he was forced to give up the settlements in Rafiah and the Sinai. Another six months passed before the Camp David Accords were signed. There were hundreds of documents, dozens of rebellions and crises, demonstrations and pressure from home, the visit of an American president to Israel, and a stormy session in the Knesset.
Menachem Begin earned international recognition and honor when he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1978 together with his Egyptian partner in the peace efforts. However, Sadat himself did not travel to Oslo to accept the prize and instead sent a representative. Begin went to Oslo and in his acceptance speech, he said, “The prize is not only mine; it belongs to my nation, for the terrible suffering it has undergone, for its many losses of life, for its love of peace and deep longing for it.”
In March 1979, the first Peace Agreement between Israel and an Arab state was signed on the White House lawn. The triple handshake between Begin, Sadat, and Carter, has become an icon in the history of international relations.
"No more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement. Peace on to you, Shalom, Salaam for ever! ... And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-shears; Nation shall not hold up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
“We under no circumstances will allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people. We will defend Israeli citizens with all of the facilities available to us.”
7 June 1981
To prevent Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons, the Israeli government approved Prime Minister Menachem Begin's proposal to destroy the nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Menachem Begin saw the attack as a rescue operation for the people of Israel, and especially for the children. From this action, Begin developed what was later called the Begin Doctrine: “On no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the people of Israel.”
On June 6, after heavy rockets fire landed on northern Israel, the government decided to embark on Operation “Peace for the Galilee.” The operation was meant to last only a few days to create a 40-kilometer security buffer on the northern border of Israel. The operation dragged on and by August 1982 Yasir Arafat left Beirut with 9,000 terrorists. In September 1982, the newly-elected president of Lebanon, Bashir Gamayel, was assassinated. Almost immediately afterwards, Phalangist troops went into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and killed 800 civilians. With casualties mounting and public support waning, Israel eventually withdrew from Lebanon.
“I remember the kindness of your youth, when you followed me in the wilderness, in a land strewn with mines.”
On 15 September 1983, Menachem Begin announced that he intended to resign and retire from public life. “I cannot go on” simply does not explain it.
In the following years, he shut himself in his apartment in Jerusalem and rarely left it, except to visit the grave of his wife for the annual memorial service. Only close family and a few friends were allowed to visit him.
Curator — Malki Pomeranc
Assitants Curator — Ori Hirshman-Rub; Rami Shtivi; Dafna Shkedy
Text Editor — Ilana Brown
Photographs — Al Gilbert - Canada, Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel
GPO Photographs — Moshe Milner, Ya'akov Sa'ar, Chanaya Herman, Hans Pinn, Nati Harnik, Yoel Kantor
Video Footage — Menachem Begin Heritage Center Museum