As the head of the Irgun insurgency terrorizing British forces in Mandate Palestine, Menachem Begin became an obsession of his British enemy. He seemed a new sort of Jew, the fighting kind, a disciple of Jabotinsky and his vision of a Jewish army rising up in Palestine. The authorities were desperate to capture him, especially after the Irgun blew up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946, killing ninety-one people, more than two dozen of them British (a warning to vacate the premises had gone unheeded). A wanted poster described Begin as “medium build, long hooked nose, bad teeth,” wearing “horn-rimmed spectacles,” and measuring “5ft. 9in.”
In fact, he was about three inches shorter. Scrawny, cerebral, unprepossessing, Begin hardly looked the part of the insurgent leader. Born in 1913 in Brest-Litovsk, then a part of Poland, he studied law at the University of Warsaw while also working for Jabotinsky’s militant Betar Zionists; he managed to get to Palestine in 1942. Having lost his parents and a brother to the Nazis, he was driven by the ferocious conviction that Jews had to live in their own state and be freed from fear. To this end he was ready for anything. Only in a Jewish homeland would Jews escape the withering contempt of colonial overlords—and worse. Begin once told President Jimmy Carter, “There is only one thing to which I’m sensitive. Jewish blood.”
The British never did capture Begin. He taunted them. He refused to mourn the British who died in the King David, expressing grief only for the seventeen Jews killed. The British folded. They conceded that the Mandate was “unworkable” and in February 1947 handed the problem of how to divide the Holy Land to the United Nations. Still, Begin pressed his offensive. When the authorities flogged teenage members of the Irgun, Begin had four British soldiers flogged in reprisal. When the British hanged three Irgunists in 1947, he had two British soldiers hanged. This, at the time, was a shocking expression of what Lawrence Wright, in his fascinating Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, calls “equivalence in human worth.” Never again would Jews go meekly to the slaughter. In words that resonate today, Wright observes:
Begin intuitively understood that terror is theater. Murder was not the object, even if it was the inevitable result. His idea was to create a number of showy attacks that would make headlines in London and New York and provoke repressive countermeasures.
He quotes Begin’s memoir, The Revolt, first published in 1951:
The very existence of an underground, which oppression, hangings, torture and deportations, fail to crush or to weaken must, in the end, undermine…
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