The Begin Heritage Center

Immediately after his passing, a group of people who cherished and had accompanied Menachem Begin from the beginning of his public career, decided to established a center to commemorate the memory and legacy of his activities. In April 1988, after the establishment of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation, the Israeli Knesset approved the law of Menachem Begin at the initiative of MK Reuven Rivlin, and it gave the Center an official status.

On June 16, 2004 the Begin Heritage Center opened to the public and was located across the Old City Walls. The center was inaugurated at a national ceremony, in the presence of the President and the Prime Minister, ministers and Knesset members, Diaspora Jewish leaders and the Begin Family.

The center includes archives, a reference library, the Department of Education and a Research Institute, and a museum that brings Begin’s story to life through a new and unique perspective. The center depicts the life of the prime minister and one the most fascinating chapters in the history of Israel.

Begin dies

On the 4th of Adar Bet 5752 (9 March 1992) Menachem Begin passed away. In accordance with his will, he was buried on the Mount of Olives. A simple Jewish funeral ceremony was held in the presence of thousands. Begin requested to be buried near resistance fighters Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barzani. He was buried beside his wife, Aliza, whom died on November 13, 1982 was buried.

 

Courtesy of Contact Press Images, Alon Reininger

Resignation as Prime Minister

On August 28, 1983 Begin announced his intention to resign and retire from public life. He only mentioned these words: “I am no longer able”, and didn’t elaborate any further. The resignation was submitted on September 15 of the same year. In subsequent years, he withdrew to his apartment in Jerusalem, and came out only to visit the grave of his wife, at an annual memorial service. Family members, relatives and a handful of friends visited him periodically. In his last 18 months of life he lived in Tel Aviv, with his daughter Leah.

צלם: נתי הרניק, באדיבות לע"מ

The Death of Aliza Begin

On November 13, 1982 Aliza Begin, Menachem Begin’s wife, died. Aliza suffered for many years and had of died of severe lung disease, when Menachem was on an official visit to the United States. Aliza was buried in accordance with her will, besides underground fighters Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barzani on the Mount of Olives.

צלם: משה מילנר, באדיבות לע"מ

Peace for Galilee Operation

On June 3, 1982, Israeli ambassador to London Shlomo Argov was shot by Palestinian terrorists. The next day, a special cabinet meeting was convened and Begin instructed the air force to attack terrorist targets in southern Lebanon. In response, the terrorists launched a heavy attack of Katyusha rockets on northern Israel, and on June 6, the cabinet met again and decided to launch the “Peace for Galilee Operation” in order to protect the residents of the north.

The operation was designed to harm terror organizations and ensure that the forty miles surrounding the border would be terrorist-free. But the fighting became more complx – the IDF was forced to continue north all the way to Beirut. In August 1982 the fighting forced the PLO leader Yasser Arafat to leave Lebanon, with thousands of terrorists. A short time later, Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel was assassinated. In response, Christian Phalanges Massacred a Muslim refugee camp(Savra VeShatila), leading to Israeli intervention. Some time later, the IDF withdrew to the security zone in southern Lebanon. The war spurred controversy due to the many lost lives, and constant demonstrations were held outside Begin’s home demanding he stop the fighting.

צלם: יעקב סערר, באדיבות לע"מ

1981 Elections

The Tenth Knesset elections were among the most turbulent in the history of the state. During this turbulent time, emotions ran high and the election made clear of an ethnic gap that was growing within Israeli society. At a public Labor Party assembly, entertainer Dudu Topaz made an offensive remark regarding Mizrahi Jew, saying that the “Chakh’chakhim”[1] were at the Likud headquarters. These degrading remarks sparked an uprising. At a Likud rally held the next day, Begin responded with a very charismatic speech, his voice thundering, and called for unity of “Jews! Brothers! Warriors!”. In the elections that were held on June 30, 1981, the Likud was once again the largest party, with 48 seats, and Menachem Begin was elected prime minister again.

[1] Slang for a punk – a child, teenager or adult who is wild and unruly

צלם: משה מילנר, באדיבות לע"מ

The Bombing of the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor

In order to prevent Iraq from continuing the development of nuclear weapons, and after diplomatic efforts failed to stop Saddam Hussein’s plot, the Israeli government decided to destroy the nuclear reactor being built in Osirak, which was close to completion. The decision was preceded by many discussions and in-depth talks with the security officials on the prospects of success of such a bold operation. On June 7, 1981, two sets of four F-16 plains left Etzion Base and headed toward Iraq. The reactor had been totally destroyed and all the pilots flew out safely. After the Israeli government took responsibility for the operation, it was criticized both domestically and from the international community; the US even went so far as to delay for several months the supply of F-16 aircrafts to the Israeli Air Force. Begin, however, viewed the attack a rescue operation for the Children of Israel. In later years it became more widely accepted that the destruction of the reactor was also vital to ensure the security of the entire Western world.

צלם: חנניה הרמן, באדיבות לע"מ

Peace Agreement with Egypt

With the aim of reaching a peace agreement between the two countries, US President Jimmy Carter called for a conference at Camp David. At the end of the thirteen day conference, a framework agreement for peace with Egypt and a framework agreement for peace in the Middle East were signed, which included proposed autonomy for the Palestinians. The agreements weren’t signed without some drama: Carter intended to include an appendix which puts in doubt the status of Jerusalem. Begin clearly stated his refusal to include the appendix, and threatened to leave the conference.

The success of Begin and Sadat to promote peace between their two countries garnered the two leaders with the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to them in Oslo, Norway. The prize money was turned in to a scholarship fund named in honor of Aliza Begin, which provides assistance to students each year. After detailed negotiations and the bringing of the agreement to the Knesset for approval, it was signed on March 26, 1979. The peace treaty with Egypt was signed on the White House lawn in Washington.

צלם: יעקב סער, באדיבות לע"מ

The Political Transformation

On the night of May 17, 1977, after running in 8 elections, Begin scored a great victory and became the leader of the majority in the Knesset. Cries of protest were voiced within the leftist camps, such as the call of one of its senior leaders, Yitzhak Ben Aharon: “The people made a mistake”.

At 1:00 AM, Begin arrived at the Independence Hall in Mezudat Ze’ev. Surrounded by his family and supporters, Begin spoke to the crowd and delivered words of appreciation to his friends and political colleagues. Begin saved his best thank you for last and thanked his wife Aliza for “your affection of youth, your love of espousal, how you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown,” paraphrasing the verse from Jeremiah.

A month later a new government was introduced to the Knesset. It was accepted in good faith and Begin became the sixth Prime Minister of Israel. In his inauguration speech Begin said “we will do [our work], my friends and I, with dedication, loyalty, good conscience, a confident heart and with faith that with God’s help we can do the people good”.

His first decision as prime minister was making a humanitarian gesture towards refugees from Vietnam rejected by many countries. Begin ordered to absorb sixty-six refugees who were collected aboard an Israeli merchant ship, drawing a comparison to similar ships carrying Jewish refugees in the 1930s.  Begin later ordered the absorption of 1700 more Vietnamese refugees.

In the economic sphere, Begin worked to develop a free economic atmosphere in the spirit of the West. In a dramatic press conference held on October 29th, Begin and Minister of Finance Simha Erlich announced the deregulation of foreign currency, toward economic liberalization and the expansion of individual freedoms, through reducing the government’s involvement in the everyday lives of its citizens. The first move was to make the Israeli economy generally a Western economy, driven by private initiative.

On the political level, Begin announced that his first task was making peace with the Arab states. In August 1977, Begin attended diplomatic meetings in Romania, which gave rise to negotiations with Morocco and led to an meeting with King Hassan. Later, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan was sent to Morocco to meet with an adviser to Sadat, Hassan Tuhami.

Policy changes led to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declaring that he is ready to go to the Knesset and start direct negotiations with Israel. Begin responded to the call, and on Saturday night of November 19, 1977, the Egyptian President landed in Israel. In his speech to the Knesset Begin declared that the “war is preventable; Peace is inevitable”, and the peace process was launched.

עליזה ומנחם בגין מצביעים ביום הבחירות 17 במאי 1977, צלם: יעקב סער, באדיבות לע"מ

Establishing the Likud

Before the election for the eigth Knesset, the “Likud” was established. The Knesset now consisted of several political parties, including  Gahal, the National List, “Free Center” and the Movement for Greater Israel. The election results showed a trend of further decline of the Labor Party and further increased the Likud’s power; Likud won 39 seats compared to 51 seats for Labor. Begin announced that for the first time, there is a solid majority of members who oppose the idea of dividing Western Israel.

רה"מ לוי אשכול והשר בגין בביקור חיילים בדרום, צלם: משה מילנר, באדיבות לע"מ

Joining the National Unity Government

In May 1967, following the deterioration in the security situation and in light of the threat of an Arab war against Israel, Menachem Begin approached Levi Eshkol and requesteded that Ben-Gurion be included in the government in order bring renewed hope to the public. Eshkol had reservations, but requested to add Gahal to a National Unity Government, and Begin requested the defense portfolio be handed to Moshe Dayan.

On June 1st Begin began to join government meetings. On June 5th, the day the Six Day War broke out, he was sworn in as a minister without porfilio. His contribution was crucial in making the directive to liberate the Old City of Jerusalem and the decision to unite the city.

רה"מ לוי אשכול והשר בגין בביקור חיילים בדרום, צלם: משה מילנר, באדיבות לע"מ

Begin establishes the Herut-Liberal Bloc

In 1965, after a decade of bickering and disagreement, representatives of Herut and the Liberal Party decided to create a single parliamentary bloc – Gahal – led by Menachem Begin. This step gave Begin further legitimacy and made him the first true alternative to challenge the Mapai government. However, in the sixth parliamentary elections, the Herut-Liberal bloc received 26 seats, although predictions had them at a higher numbers.

Bringing Jabotinsky’s bones to Israel

The Revisionist Movement Leader ordered in his will that his remains will be raised only by order of a Jewish government, but with the establishment of Israel, Ben-Gurion refused to take the necessary steps on the matter. After Levi Eshkol was elected to head the government, he agreed to Begin’s request and approved the transfer of Jabonitsky’s remains to Mount Herzl for burial, but stated that the country would not participate in financing the burial ceremony.

In July 1964, Jabotinsky’s remains were brought to Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the funeral and accompanied the casket on its way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The emotional event was one of the turning points in the public attitude toward Begin, which became increasingly more positive and supportive.

opposing the reparations program

Following the defeat of the Herut Party in the elections for the Second Knesset, receiving only eight seats, Begin announced his resignation as head of Herut. However, his friend, Yochanan Bader, did not present his resignation to the Knesset Foreman. After a month-long leave in Europe, Begin began to contact lawyers to prepare for obtaining a license practice law. A few months later it was revealed that the government, led by David Ben-Gurion, intends to sign an agreement toward getting reparations from Germany. Begin, who objected strongly, decided to return to the political arena and lead the movement to fight against the reparations.

The idea of receiving reparations sparked strong public controversy. The government asked the Knesset to approve its power to negotiate with the German government for providing reparations to Israel. Begin attacked the upcoming agreement due to problematic phrasing – the agreement was presented as a kind of a way to correct and wipe clean the genocide committed by the Germans – and because the payments did not reflected on the true amount of the looted and stolen items from the Jewish people in Europe.

On January 7th, a debate took place at the Knesset, which was then located on King George Street in Jerusalem. Before the hearings started, Begin gave a heated speech at a mass rally in Zion Square nearby, and then returned to the Knesset, where he was the target of repeated insults from Ben-Gurion. Begin retorted with harsh words of his own, and when he refused to retract them, he has been banned for three months from the plenum. The battle regarding the reparations became a violent demonstration, during which protesters clashed with police and threw stones at the Knesset, shattering the windows of the building.

Establishment of the State

On May 12, 1948, three days before the evacuation of the British government in Israel, the National Council headed by David Ben-Gurion to convened to discuss whether to declare the establishment of the state with the liberation from the British mandate. News of the preparations made by Arab countries to invade, as well as the lack of weapons and equipment, led the members of the Council to favorably consider postponing the announcement. Begin, the Irgun commander, said that if the National Council does not announce the establishment of the Hebrew state, the Irgun will do so. He proceeded to issue a statement in the underground newspaper “Herut”. This “threat” helped Ben-Gurion overcome the opposing members, and the resolution passed unanimously. In an underground radio speech broadcasted on Saturday, May 15, 1948, Ben-Gurion announced that “It took dozens of generations wandering from one land of massacres to another land of pogroms; It took the labors of generations of pioneers and builders; and it took the uprising of rebels, enemy-destroyers, Olei Gardom, and far and long wanderers – to get this far”.

On June 11, 1948, the Irgun ship “Altalena” ship left France, bearing 900 immigrants, and large cargo of weapons and ammunition. Several months prior, members of the Haganah were informed about the ship, and negotiations were held with representatives of the government regarding distribution of the weapons. However, when the ship reached Israeli territory, the government representatives refused to cooperate with the Irgun’s requests. Upon the ship’s arrival at Kfar Vitkin, it was surrounded by military forces, and Begin was given a 10 minute ultimatum to decide the ship’s fate. Begin sought to contact the temporary government’s representatives, but while trying to do so, they opened fired on him and on the people on the beach. Begin boarded the ship in order to reach Tel Aviv, but the ship ran aground was under heavy fire from all sides. Begin ordered the Irgun not to return fire, but Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of the ship. The ship caught fire and all passengers escaped into the water; some of them were shot to death between the waves.

At the age of 35, Menachem Begin was appointed party leader; the “Herut Movement, founded by the National Military Organization” was officially registered in Ministry of Interior. The purposes of the movement: the liberation of homeland on both banks of the Jordan, establishment of the State of Israel as a Jewish country, the fortification of democratic values and their constitutional ratification, separation supreme authorities from the judiciary authority, and the abolition of emergency regulations and the military government. In the economic sphere, the movement acted to restrict government regulation, and to create a free market combined with social protection mechanisms for the needy.

In its first decades, the movement suffered from the delegitimizing of its own existence: Ben-Gurion stated that coalitions ought to adopt a “without Herut and without Maki” policy, in reference to his willingness to sit with any party other than the right wing party and the communist party. He also avoided calling Begin by name and referred as ‘the man sitting next to MK Bader’; he once called him a ‘Hitlerite type’. However, Begin was able to transform ‘Herut’ from a powerless opposition to the main opposition, and finally into a party forming a government.

In the elections for the Constituent Assembly, which later became the first Knesset, Herut Movement recieved 14 seats. A separate list of some of the Revisionist Party which didn’t accept Begin’s leadership had not passed the threshold, and after the election a new unified framework was established: the Herut-HaTzohar Alliance.

Menachem Begin, the Irgun commander appointed

For about a year and a half Begin served in the Polish army unit stationed Israel. His friends wanted to appoint him commander of the Etzel, the National Military Organization, but Begin refused to defect from the army that had drafted him. However, he did take an active part in the movement, gave speeches before members and wrote several articles under a pseudonym. After he obtained an official vacation from the Polish army, Begin accepted the appointment as Commander of the Irgun. Over four years he lead the underground organization, and throughout that period was pursued by the British police and by the Jewish leadership of the Yishuv. Persistent threats forced the Begin Family to move between hiding places, and forced Begin to take on false identities, such as ‘Rabbi Israel Sassover’ and ‘Yonah Konigshofer’.

On February 1, 1944, Begin issued a declaration of uprising on behalf of the Irgun, against the British rule in Israel, demanding it hand over its power immediately to a temporary Hebrew Government. Two weeks after the announcement, Irgun fighters detonated a bomb at the British immigration departments in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, and two more weeks later blew up the income tax offices those three cities. A month later they attacked the National British Headquarters and the secret police headquarters in Jerusalem, destroyed the secret police headquarters in Jaffa and blew up the secret police headquarters in Haifa.

The heads of the Jewish community in Israel feared that the actions of the Irgun would undermine relations with the British authorities, and turned to Begin demanding to stop them. They claimed that it undermines the Zionist Effort and goes against the authority of national institutions, and stated that if the operations persist, they will not hesitate to physically harm members of the Irgun. Begin rejected the threats, but the organized community leaders were determined to thwart the actions of the Irgun. In October 1944, the Jewish Agency sent the Haganah on a mission to take violent action against the “extremist organizations”. For six months, which became known as the period of “Sazon”, the Irgun suffered kidnappings, arrests, leaks, physical threats, beatings and torture, aimed to paralyze their activities. The Yeshuv leadership even turned in names of hundreds of Irgun members to the British; most of them were arrested and many were exiled and placed in quarantine camps in Africa. Despite a growing sense of grievance, Begin forbade his men to respond.

Britain continued its anti-Zionist policies even after the end of World War II. Therefore, a new framework of coordination between the underground groups was established, for the sake of a joint military struggle against the British Mandate. The united “Hebrew Resistance” carried out many military operations throughout the country such as “The Night of the Bridges” and “The Night of Trains”. The best known attack is the attack on the main headquarters of the British army and government secretariat offices, housed in the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The Irgun, who were ordered to carry out the attack, sent telephone messages to British forces calling on them to exacuate the hotel in order to prevent loss of life. The British officials didn’t heed the warnings, and 91 people died in the explosion. The severe and unpredictable results lead the Yeshuv institutions to dismantle of the resistance movement and avoid further military action against the British government.

The year 5707 (1946-1947) was a record year for actions by the Irgun. In May, the Irgun broke many operatives out of Acre prison, but during the operation, which gained world media attention, three fighters were caught – Jacob Weiss, Avshalom Haviv and Meir Nakar – and the British condemned them to death by hanging. In response, the Irgun abducted two British soldiers, and threatened that British gallows would be met with Hebrew gallows. The government did not heed the threats by the underground; on July 29, the fighters were brought to the gallows, and Menachem Begin ordered to do the same with the British law officers. The sergeants were hanged, and their bodies were transferred to a grove near Netanya. This caused widespread shock in Britain, and led the mandate government to stop the Hanging Policy, and the British began to realize that they can no longer govern Palestine.

In order to stop the bloody attacks from Jaffa on the Tel Aviv neighborhoods, some 600 Irgun members gathered on April 25, 1948 for battle instructions, where they first met their commander, Menachem Begin. “We are going to capture Jaffa”, he cried. “We are to have mercy on women and children. He who raised his hand in surrender, saved his own life. He is a prisoner is in your hands – do not hurt him.” After more than two days, the Menashiya neighborhood was conquered  by the Irgun. The victory led to the flight of Arab residents and the intervention of British troops.

Soviet Prison Inmate

With news of the progression of the German army, Begin and Aliza had to leave the city, together with members of the Betar Commission and members of other movements, and made their way to Vilna. Although Begin was offered a certificate allowing immigration in to Israel, he stayed in Vilna and tried to reorganize the activities of the Betar movement in occupied Europe. In July 1940, when Lithuania became a Soviet republic, Begin and his wife were forced to move away to the outskirts, where they hid with a Catholic family, along with Dr. Israel Eldad (then Scheib) and his wife. But the Soviet authorities traced their trail after a short time. On September 20, 1940, agents of the “NKVD”, the Soviet secret police, arrested him, and being aware of the suffering awaiting him, equipped himself with a Bible. For eight months he was imprisoned in Lukishki Prison, in extremely cold and hungry conditions, and was questioned about his Zionist activities. At the end of the period of detention, he was sentenced in absentia, and it was determined that he would be sent to a labor camp for eight years. Begin was sent to Pechora in northern Russia, where he was given hard labor. His book “white nights” describes this difficult period.

In 1941, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Polish inmates were released from soviet prisons in order to establish a Polish army to fight the Germans. Thus, Begin was released in September 1941 and was drafted into the Polish army, under the command of General Anders. Begin tried to go to Israel, and in April 1942, managed to get to Israel and was reunited with his wife, who came to Israel in 1940. Just after arriving to Israel, he learned of the fate of his family: his parents, his nephew Ari and his brother Herzl were murdered by the Germans. Many of the city’s residents were drowned in the river; Menachem Begin’s lead them, and encouraged them to sing HaTikva before they were killed.

Betar Commissioner in Poland

In March 1939, at the age of only 26, Begin was appointed Betar Representative in Poland, which was the main branch of the movement. More than 70 thousand youths were involved as members, and Begin became the chief of half of those members.

With the appointment, Beitar’s management announced that “Officer Menachem Begin’s own desire was to go to Israel and continue his service there, but at this time we see fit to postpone his Aliyah and have him serve in Poland for a while longer”.

On May 29, 1939, he married Aliza Arnold. They met at her home in Drohobych, eastern Poland (today – Ukraine): Her father, Zvi, was the head of the Revisionist party in the city, where Begin stayed for several months.

The couple fell in love immediately. “At the table sat two 17 year old girls, twins. Although similar, I could immediately tell them apart. One of them, Ella, caught my eye immediately. I decided right away that she would be my wife,” said Begin

The wedding was held in the presence of hundreds of Betar members. Jabotinsky, who made an effort to be present, served as best man at Begin’s side under the alter.

Begin registers to study law at the University of Warsaw

As a child, Begin expressed a desire to be a lawyer in order to “help the poor and downtrodden”. In 1931, Begin began studying Law at the University of Warsaw, and after four years of study was certified with a “Magister Yuri” degree. While studying, he earned his living by tutoring and accepted a few scholarships, but sometimes, when he couldn’t make ends meet, he was forced to sleep at night on a park bench. Despite the tight conditions, he took part in student life, and was among the head organizers of the self-defense of Jewish students against anti-Semitic rioters.

Begin joined Betar

The Begin children took part in the local Jewish youth movements. Menachem Begin initially joined the “Shomer HaTzair”, at a time when it was a scouts movement, but once it became a Marxist-oriented movement, Begin left it and joined the Betar youth movement, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Begin was a key activist, and later became commander of the Brisk Headqueaters. In his memoirs, he said: “What drew me to Betar was the Complete Zionism, the Land of Israel, a Jewish state soon in our days.”

In 1930, he first heard Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Jewish Legion and leader of the Revisionist Party and Betar, who had visited Brisk. Later Begin defined his impression of the man who made him head of Betar: “Won over? – No. More than that. sanctified”.

Menachem Begin’s Childhood

Menachem Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk (Brisk) Lithuania, on the thirteenth of Av 5673 (16 August 1913) to parents Wolf-Dov and Hassia (Kosovski) Begin, big brother Herzl and Rachel. His name, Menachem (Comforting), was given to him because he was born on Shabbat “Nachamu”. His father made his living as secretary of the Jewish community and was one of the first Zionists in his town. Their home hosted many discussions surrounding the fate of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. With the outbreak of World War I, when Menachem Begin was a one year old toddler, the family had to abandon their home and wander in villages in eastern Poland. After the war, the family returned to Brisk, where Menachem began his studies. Begin showed his rhetorical skills from an early age, and he made his first public speech when he was only ten years old: at a Lag B’Omer celebration on behalf of the Zionist community, he addressed the cities children about the importance of the time and its relation to national revival. He was not afraid to fight for Jewish identity and refused to write exams on Saturday’s, even when punished.