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Stream of Mourners Pay Respects to Begin, the ‘father of the Nation’

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Although he was not the longest-serving prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin had the longest-lasting funeral of any Israeli leader.

It continued for hours after his burial Monday on the Mount of Olives.

Mourners flocked to the cemetery long after the family and dignitaries had departed. Some walked silently past the fresh grave. Others bent to kiss the pile of stones that accumulated on top, tossed there, according to custom, by people who came to pay their last respects.

From time to time, an elderly person would pause at the grave and offer a military salute to the commander of Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground guerrilla army; Begin led during the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine.

The visits continued well after dark. The national feeling was summed up Tuesday in a banner headline on the front page of the masscirculation daily Yediot Achronot: “From the People of Israel, With Love.”

The outpouring of affection was remarkable considering that Begin was rarely seen in public or heard from during most of the last decade of his life.

He chose a reclusive existence after he suddenly resigned from office in September 1983. But the thousands who attended his funeral remembered him with love.

“He was the father of the nation,” said one man as he walked, weeping, in the funeral procession.

Paradoxically, Begin, the ultimate Ashkenazic Jew with the gallant manners of a Polish gentleman, appealed most deeply to the Sephardic population, the Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

A SORT OF ‘SECULAR CHIEF RABBI’

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who was born in Morocco and is the highest-ranking Sephardic Jew in government, explained why the cultural gap disappeared.

In a front-page article Tuesday in the intellectual daily Ha’aretz, he wrote of Begin’s “social sensitivity,” observing that “he never knew the price of a car, but always knew the price of a loaf of bread.”

But Begin was no great social reformer. He rarely left the comforts of his Jerusalem home to visit the poorer neighborhoods and development towns, inhabited mainly by Sephardic Jews.

Apparently it was sufficient for the Sephardic population that he spoke out against 29 years of Labor Party rule, which they perceived to be discriminatory against Sephardic Jews.

Another facet of Begin’s appeal to the Sephardic community was his respect for religious tradition.

He listened to the radio on the Sabbath, which traditional Jewish law forbids. But he persisted in using the phrase “Be’ezrat Hashem” (God willing), which endeared him to the pious.

Begin was the first prime minister to include Agudat Yisrael, a non-Zionist Orthodox party, in the government after its departure from the Ben-Gurion regime in 1952.

At the same time, Begin made non-observant Jews proud to be Jewish without having to be religious. He was a sort of “secular chief rabbi,” who offered the people Judaism with no strings attached.

Many say there is no leader of his mold in Israel now. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir find it difficult to love him. Neither is Defense Minister Moshe Arens the “lovable type.”

The more moderate Levy and the hard-line Ariel Sharon do a little better inspiring public affection, but neither is in a league with Begin.

The outpouring of love for the departed former prime minister Monday may also have been an expression of disenchantment with the present leadership of the country.

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