NEW YORK (Mar. 9)
Rabbi Allan Smith first heard Menachem Begin in 1950 when the former freedom fighter visited Boston and spoke at Temple B’nai Moshe.
“I remember the fire in his eyes,” said Smith, who is director of the youth division of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“He did not move from that day until the day he left office. He was absolutely consistent, motivated solely by the survival of the Jewish people,” said Smith.
But in those three decades between the founding of the State of Israel and Begin’s surprise election upset in 1977, the American Jewish community, by and large, dismissed the Revisionist leader as a firebrand and terrorist.
Until the Six-Day War and Israel’s first unity government, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s repeated dictum held: Begin, like the Communists, was outside the political pale.
In the late 1950s, Abraham Foxman, then a student at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, was expelled for two days for leaving school to greet Begin at the airport, part of an honor guard by the Betar youth group.
“He was a great orator in any language you listened to,” recalled Foxman, now national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He was a spellbinder.”
The Polish-born Begin exuded Old World charm.
“He was a very courtly gentleman,” said Bernice Tannenbaum, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-American Section. “He never failed to open the door for a lady or to kiss her hand. He was always very fond of all the presidents of Hadassah.”
‘NEVER A QUESTION OF EGO’
“In the early years, before he was prime minister, when he came to New York and people didn’t make any fuss over him, there was never any bitterness. It was never a question of ego or status,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“I remember the first Solidarity Day for Soviet Jewry. He came not knowing whether he would speak or not, but to be there,” said Hoenlein.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, recalled that when Begin visited his synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1960s, he made it clear that he would not criticize the Israeli government outside the boundaries of the state.
“Begin would be very tough as opposition leader. The fights in the Knesset were horrendous, in tones and rhetoric,” said Foxman. “But when Begin came to the United States, he would not criticize the Israeli government.”
By the same token, when he finally achieved office, Begin listened respectfully to Diaspora critics — though he did not always heed them.
“I’ve never met anybody as committed to the democratic process as Menachem Begin,” said Theodore Mann, who chaired the Conference of Presidents from 1978 to 1980.
“He took very seriously the right of a Diaspora Jewish community to designate its own spokesman, and he treated that spokesman with great respect. It was very respectful, formal and he would listen,” said Mann.
“This man had an appreciation of Am Yisrael,” the Jewish people, said Foxman.
Begin’s yiddishkeit permeated his public persona. A sense of that can be gained from his remarks in July 1977 at a news conference after meeting the Lubavitcher rebbe.
POLITE BUT ‘FIRM IN HIS VIEWS’
Referring to his upcoming first meeting with President Jimmy Carter, Begin said: “I do not call them fateful meetings, because the people of Israel, the Jewish people, are an eternal people, and their lot and future are not dependent on a political meeting with the leader of the free world.
“However, such a meeting is of great importance for our future, so therefore I have asked for the blessing of our rabbi, our great teacher, Rabbi (Menachem) Schneerson.”
Begin’s meeting with Carter was the first of many. The most notable took place at the Camp David presidential retreat, where details of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord were hammered out.
Alfred Moses, who served as special counsel to President Carter, recalled Begin as “very deferential, very polite, firm in his views. But he was moved in part by emotion.
“At Camp David, I believe what swayed him was Carter’s words about how peace would affect his grandchildren. It made an enormous impact on prime minister,” he said.
Moses, now president of the American Jewish Committee, added that Begin “could be quite entertaining” when relaxed. “I remember how enormously fond and respectful he was of his wife,” he said. “They were obviously a very loving couple.”
Meir Rosenne, then Israeli ambassador to Washington, said that “what I will always remember is that whenever there were consultations in the Israeli group at Camp David or Jerusalem, he always treated equally the elected people and the professional diplomats.
“He was an excellent listener, but once the decision was made, he was strict on implementation,” said Rosenne, now president of the State of Israel Bonds Organization here.
“He was ready to waive honor when attacks were addressed personally against him — as when the Egyptian press called him Shylock — but he was never ready to compromise on Israeli national pride,” Rosenne recalled.
WAS MISSED BY MUBARAK
“What impressed me very much,” he said, “is that when I brought the first draft of the peace treaty with Egypt to his office in Jerusalem, he had on his desk about 20 collections of peace treaties, to compare the provisions submitted to him with precedents.”
In 1984, a year after Begin withdrew from public life, Julius Berman visited Egypt at the request of President Hosni Mubarak. Berman, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said Mubarak mentioned how much he missed Begin.
“I told him I was a bit surprised that he would make that comment, because Begin was so strong-willed,” Berman recalled.
“Mubarak answered, ‘To be sure, he was a very strong man and held firmly to his position. But one thing for sure. If he took a position or gave his word, he would keep it.’”
(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)