Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Menachem Begin
Date of Birth: 16th August 1913, Brest, Russian Empire (now Belarus)
Date of Death: 9th March 1992, Tel Aviv, Israel
Claim to Fame: Likud Party Founder; Israel’s Sixth Prime Minister
In 1977… Menachem Begin became the sixth Prime Minster of Israel
Menachem Begin was born to a Zionist family in Belarus. He attended a religious school for one year before transferring to a Tachkemoni – religious Zionist – school. Begin was also a member of the Zionist scouts group, and later joined Betar (the youth wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement). He studied law at the University of Warsaw where he learned the oratory skills for which he was famous.
Begin never practiced law, instead focusing on Zionist outreach work. He quickly rose through the ranks in Betar. By age 22, he shared the podium with his mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky at the movement’s World Congress. Begin led the movement in both Czechoslovakia and Poland, and travelled recruiting new members. While staying in the home of a member, he met Aliza. They married in 1939 and had three children.
When World War Two broke out, Begin attempted to smuggle 1,500 Jews out of Poland and into Romania. He failed, and Soviet officials arrested him for his efforts. Following his release, he joined the Polish Armed Forces. They deployed him to Palestine, where, in 1942, he left the Polish group and joined the Irgun.
Just two years later, Begin served as head of the Irgun. His goal was to establish a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. He planned a complicated series of events to oust the British from Palestine. Working with the Lehi, another breakaway paramilitary group, he launched attacks against the British Mandate. Famously, Begin ordered the Irgun to bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
Thanks to his involvement in the Irgun and their revolt, the British placed a high bounty on Begin’s head. He evaded capture by growing a beard, moving around a lot, and assuming different identities.
After the Declaration of Independence, war broke out across Israel. Initially, the Irgun fought alongside the Haganah and Lehi; on 1st June, Begin signed an agreement with David Ben Gurion’s provisional government to disband and join the new IDF.
In August that same year, high-ranking Irgun officials worked with Begin to form Herut, a right-wing revisionist party that birthed today’s Likud party. In Israel’s first elections in 1949, Herut won 14 seats; this made Begin the Revisionist Zionists’ leader. Herut and its various coalitions remained in opposition to socialist Mapai and Labor for years.
After the Six-Day War, Begin’s coalition joined Levi Eshkol’s national unity government. He served as Minister without Portfolio until his resignation in 1970. In 1973, he joined a larger bloc of opposition parties together with Ariel Sharon. Likud, headed by Begin, grew in popularity grew over the next four years. He held several portfolios, including Minister of Defence, Minister of Agriculture, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1977, they won the election and Menachem Begin became the sixth Prime Minister of Israel.
Begin’s tenure saw several large events take place. On his command, the Israeli Air Force bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. He also oversaw the 1982 Lebanon War. However, the highlight of Begin’s political career came when he signed a peace treaty with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. This ground-breaking arrangement resulted in Begin receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1078.
In November 1982, Begin’s wife of 45 years passed away. He found himself unable to cope with both his grief and growing public distress, and resigned shortly after. He secluded himself and left his apartment only to visit and pray at his wife’s grave.
Menachem Begin died of complication following a severe heart attack, aged 78. According to his wishes, he was buried on the Mount of Olives alongside his wife. Two centres carry his name: the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem, and the Begin-Sadat Centre at Bar Ilan University.
Previously: 1976: Yoni Netanyahu