Issues in Focus Begin Enters Fray on ‘right of Jews to Criticize’
Menu JTA Search

Issues in Focus Begin Enters Fray on ‘right of Jews to Criticize’

Download PDF for this date

Premier Menachem Begin has joined battle with those in Israel and in the diaspora who uphold the unfettered right of disappear Jews to criticize Israeli defense and foreign policy. In a lengthy and forceful public letter to Prof. Leonard Fein, editor of Moment magazine, Begin wrote last weekend: “Jews have the right to criticize the government of Israel in which I serve as Prime Minister –at any given moment ,any second, any hour, day or night.

“But I, too, have the right to ask of them to understand one thing at least: on matters which relate to the national security of this little nation in Eretz Yisrael, please refrain from preferring advice, at least in public, within earshot of our enemies who conspire to do us evil. Remember, please, the simple fact that we care for our children and grandchildren–and they, these little children, live here.”

Begin was replying to a letter from Fein in which the professor dissociated himself from personal criticism of Begin attributed to him by local media after a news conference he held here last month.

Fein referred to these reports as “a grotesque misquotation.” He said his remarks at the press conference had dealt “with policies, not personalities. I have long believed, and I trust you share that belief, that full discussion and debate of such difference (regarding policy) is important, and perhaps even constructive.”

“…No one knows better than you, “Fein wrote to Begin, “how others who do not share our axiomatic commitments may seek to exploit our sometime disagreement. It seems to me that the only response we can make is the response we have always made–that is, to continue to work and live in a way that makes clear to one and all what our central beliefs are.”

Fein was a moving spirit among the group of 56 American Jewish leaders and intellectuals who recently published a full page advertisement in the Israeli press criticizing aspects of Israeli policy. It was plain from Begin’s letter that the Premier had that ad in mind as much as the remarks attributed to Fein in his press conference.


Begin wrote: “I permit myself to express astonishment why a man like you has to organize American Jews in order to publish a statement which lends–not, God forbid, intentionally — comfort to those who gleefully declared: look, the Jews of American are turning their backs on Israel.

“Why should one act thus in the particular times that are confronting us? Do you not see what is happening in Copenhagen? Did you not read the Fatah Damascus resolution? Don’t you hear the speeches from the rostrum of the United Nations? Do you, with your intelligence, not perceive that the whole purpose is to squeeze us into a thin strip of territory? What else has to be rendered in writing or orally to make you and your colleagues understand that we are fighting for our lives?”

Begin bridled against the use of the term “Greater Israel” in reference to his policies. It smacked, he wrote, of the wartime allied accusation that Hitler wanted to set up a “Greater Germany.”

The British Lord Privy Seal (Deputy Foreign Minister) Sir Lan Gilmour was another who used that term.” The innuendo is clear. The purpose is beyond doubt. Must Jews, professors among them, lend credence to this nonsense…?

It was absurd, Begin argued, to levy the “Greater Israel” charge against a policy which sought to retain Western Palestine–on area only 40 miles wide–under Israeli control.”


The Premier acknowledged the existence of the Palestinian problem but contended that it was of the Palestinians own making, and that the Israeli autonomy proposal sought to alleviate it. “It was we, the disciples of Zeev Jabotinsky, who proposed this humanitarian idea. It was accepted in Washington and Cairo both and we shall let no man distort it.

“By the idea of autonomy, for the first time in their history, the Arabs will be able to live together with us in Eretz Yisrael in peace, in understanding, in freedom, in mutual respect and advancement, they themselves conducting their own affairs…Is not this, our course, worthy of the support of a man who considers himself progressive? Is this chauvinism? Is progress embodied in the man who wants a ‘Palestinian state’ ruled by the PLO, as a jumping off ground for the destruction of Israel…?”


The exchange of Letters, published in the Jerusalem Post in full, and in abridged version in Maariv and Yediot Achronot, drew support for Begin’s stance — on the issue of diaspora criticism–from the head of the Hebrew Union College (Reform), Dr. Alfred Gottschalk.

“In my own public life,” wrote Gottschalk, presently in Jerusalem, “I have held the Prime Minister’s view that attempted pressure on Israel on security matters by Jews in American or Britain, or any other country, serves only Israel’s enemies.” Gottschalk noted that he was approached to sign the “56” ad, but declined to do so. “It should be axiomatic, to use Fein’s phrase, for Jews not living in Israel to absolutely refrain from rushing into public print excoriating Israel’s stance in areas where its security is vitally affected,” he said.

“I believe there has been considerable damage done by Fein and others who published their criticism primarily for the consumption of American Jews….I believe that in this instance, the signatories have crossed the thin line between friendly critics and those who grievously wound a friend, deceiving themselves all the while that it is truly for the friend’s benefit. If we have such friends who needs enemies…?

“The lack of sensitivity for the jugular in the issue dealing with Israel’s survival is astounding when one considers the sophistication and intellectual acumen of this group of 56 signatories.”

In tough language, Gottschalk accused the 56 of failing to perceive the “mailed fist” behind the “artifice Egyptian filigreed screen of diplomacy. Is it not clear that Sadat’s salami approach in negotiations has as its purpose the reduction of Israel’s physical size and increasing its vulnerability to possible future attacks?”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund