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With New Center in His Name, How Will Begin Be Remembered?

July 9, 2004
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Menachem Begin made his way from a gangly, bespectacled leader of the right-wing Jewish underground to the silver-tongued prime minister who made peace with Egypt, only to spend his final years a recluse, mourning the deaths of his wife and the soldiers he sent to Lebanon. Fourteen years after thousands choked the streets of Jerusalem to attend Begin’s funeral, a new, sleek center of stone and glass across the valley from Mount Zion has been built to honor his memory.

Modeled after an American presidential library, the $16 million, four-story building hosts an interactive museum, an archive of Begin’s speeches and writings, and an educational center to promote his legacy.

But how will Israel and the world remember the multifaceted and charismatic Begin — as the gentlemanly Pole who became the champion of Israel’s Sephardic underclass? As the tireless, Holocaust-haunted voice against German reparations? As the opposition leader! who toppled the left-wing Mapai Party that had dominated Israeli political life for decades? As the leader who traded land for peace with Egypt and won the Nobel Peace Prize? Or as the prime minster who launched a divisive war in Lebanon that lasted 18 years?

“His legacy is very problematic. To make a unity of his legacy is to say he was this or that, but there were many Begins,” said Yaacov Shavit, a professor of Israeli history at Tel Aviv University.

Shavit noted the absence of references to Begin in politics today, even among those who followed him into power from the Likud Party.

“One needs to ask if any of his heirs have continued in the path of Begin,” Shavit said. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both from the Likud, “speak more of Jabotinsky than Begin,” he said, speaking of revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Begin’s friend and adviser Harry Hurwitz, who initiated and raised the private funds to build the M! enachem Begin Heritage Center — and who now directs it — views the f ormer prime minister in purely positively terms.

“Begin essentially was a man of adherence to principle. He did not waver and did not change because of the ongoing situation or polls,” Hurwitz said in an interview in his office. “He had his beliefs and his essential belief in the inalienable right of the Jewish people to its ancient land.”

Hurwitz met Begin at a secret meeting in late 1946. At the time, Begin was wanted by the British Mandate police.

At the center’s museum, a “Wanted” poster is displayed with Begin’s picture and a note to the public that the suspect — who often appeared in disguise — had bad teeth and a flat-footed gait.

Hurwitz, who supported Begin and the Likud for decades both in Israel and from his native South Africa, said Begin would not have supported Sharon’s recent decision to hand the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians as part of a plan to disengage from the Palestinians. Begin saw Gaza as part of the historic Land of Israel, he said. !

Many Israeli politicians trace the land-for-peace formula that has guided negotiations with the Palestinians and others to Begin’s 1979 agreement to give the Sinai Desert back to Egypt. But Hurwitz said the situations could not be compared.

“Sinai was never part of the historical land, and peace with Egypt was with a sovereign state, not a bunch of militias,” Hurwitz said.

Yehiel Kadishai, who served for decades as Begin’s political secretary and confidante, agreed that it’s hard to imagine Begin conceding the Gaza Strip, especially without a peace agreement.

“He would not consider it because he did not accept the idea of making unilateral concessions,” he told JTA.

Kadishai said, however, that ultimately only Begin could answer the question of what he would do in today’s situation. What’s clear, he said, is that Begin was fiercely attached to the Jewish state.

“His legacy is love of Israel and love of humanity, but especially the Jewish people. He e! ducated the Israeli nation on how to maintain a sense of self-respect, saying that if you want to take care of your country then the country needs to be strong in order to survive freely,” Kadishai said.

Israel today lacks leaders like Begin, with his polite manners and firm, bold vision and moves, Kadishai said. “I think it’s too bad that we don’t have someone like him who can lead us in a clearer way,” he said.

Galia Golan, a founder of Peace Now and a professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said she doesn’t share her colleagues’ nostalgia for Begin.

She takes issue with Begin on several fronts — from what she says was his disingenuous embrace of the Sephardic community for political reasons, to what she calls a lack of concern for women’s rights, to the invasion of Lebanon.

“I bear great resentment toward him because he took the very real, genuine problem that exists in the country between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews” and “exploited it for political purposes in order to gain the support of the Sep! hardim, even though his party never did any more for them than Labor did,” she said.

That Begin appeared remorseful for sending the army into Lebanon doesn’t exonerate his responsibility for launching the war, she said. “He took us into a war that was unnecessary and cost us many, many lives,” Golan said.

Unlike Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saved all his papers and kept a diary, Begin didn’t pay much attention to his place in history. He didn’t write an autobiography, and his personal archive is fairly small compared to his stature in history.

In the center’s museum, an interactive exhibit on his life begins when Begin was a young man in Poland, growing up in a fiercely intellectual and culturally Jewish home where return to the Land of Israel was always the focus.

Video screens show dramatic re-enactments of Begin — then an activist in the Beitar movement — being interrogated by the Soviets during World War II, and television news f! ootage of Begin’s most famous moments, including the signing of the Ca mp David Accords for peace with Egypt.

The museum doesn’t focus much on the Lebanon War. The grimmest period of Begin’s long career, it is believed to have led to his seclusion in his final years.

In 1982, Begin approved a plan by Sharon, then the defense minister, to send the army into southern Lebanon to stop cross-border shelling by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel wanted to quash the PLO leadership, which had set up a mini-state in southern Lebanon and was trying to transform itself from a guerilla force into a more conventional army.

It remains unclear how much Begin knew of Sharon’s grand design for the operation. Though the Cabinet and public were told initially that the army would go only 25 miles into Lebanon, the army ended up besieging Beirut and expelling the PLO from the country.

The war did temporarily end the terrorist threat on northern Israel, but it cost Israel dearly in lives and international public opinion — especially when a ! Lebanese Christian militia massacred hundreds of Palestinians in refugee camps in a zone under Israeli control — and began a bloody Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that ended only in 2000.

The anti-war protests within Israel seemed to contribute to the breaking of Begin. He resigned in September 1983, telling friends he no longer had the strength to lead, and he was rarely seen again in public before his death.

Outside the center, finding shade under a squat tree, Yehuda and Hanna Horowitz, a retired couple from Jerusalem, said they missed Begin’s style of leadership.

“He influenced so much, he gave so much,” Hanna Horovitz said, speaking of the peace Begin made with Egypt and his honest, legalistic political style — a far cry, she said, from the corruption scandals and ugly political rhetoric of today’s Israel.

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