Menachem Begin is one of the most consequential and misunderstood figures in modern Jewish history. In this online course, Begin biographer Daniel Gordis will guide you through his dramatic life, and all that he sought to achieve for the Jewish state.
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Daniel Gordis is one of the premier writers and intellectuals covering Israeli history, Jewish ideas, and life in the modern Jewish state. He is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College and the author of the newsletter Israel from the Inside. His books include the biography Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (2014), Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016), and We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel (2019). His writing has been published in Mosaic, Commentary, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and many other publications. His forthcoming book, Impossible Takes Longer, will be published in April 2023.
In our first lecture, Professor Gordis discusses Menachem Begin's family life, and his family's devotion to Zionism and the Jewish tradition. He reviews Begin's time in Beitar, the Zionist youth movement that was dedicated to creating a Jewish state, and he explains how Begin thought about the Shoah, the Second World War catastrophe in which much of his family was murdered and the world he'd grown up in destroyed. After being imprisoned in the Soviet gulag and joining the Polish army to fight the Nazis, Begin eventually came to mandatory Palestine in 1942.
During the years between Menachem Begin's arrival in Palestine and the founding of the State of Israel, he became a worldwide figure. To some, he was a beloved freedom fighter who defended the Jewish people. To others, he was a terrorist who undermined the Zionist cause. In this lecture, Professor Gordis discusses the history of Begin's time in pre-state Palestine, telling the stories of three key events that shaped Begin and impacted the nascent state: the bombing of the King David Hotel, the Sergeants affair, and the battle of Deir Yassin.
In this lecture, Professor Gordis analyzes two important events during Israel's early years. In both, Menachem Begin clashed with the Jewish establishment and helped to shape the contours of Israel's moral conscience. In the Altalena affair, in which Irgun operatives brought a ship of illegal arms to Israel, the vessel was attacked by the newly-formed Israeli army. Boarding the ship off the coast of Israel, Begin found himself personally under fire. Despite this, he ordered his fighters not to shoot back, preventing a Jewish civil war within months of Israel's founding. A few years later, Begin waged a vigorous public campaign against accepting German reparations for the Holocaust.
As the Knesset leader of the opposition for so many years, Menachem Begin was able to stake out principled positions on a wide variety of issues, and in so doing, generate a political alternative to the dominant voices from the Israeli Left. In public debates over the military rule of Israeli Arabs, an Israeli constitution, the Robert Soblen affair, the Six-Day War, and other seminal questions of Israeli public life, Begin showed himself to be rooted in Western principles of political thought and practice, and at the same time, dedicated always to doing things "in the style of a good Jew."
The Opposition Years and Begin’s Election—1953-1977 | 45:06
As Professor Gordis discusses in this lecture, Menachem Begin always focused on embodying Jewish values and doing what the Jewish people needed most. Three key decisions during his time as prime minister highlight those qualities: taking in Vietnamese refugees, making peace with Egypt, and destroying the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. In these actions, Begin was inspired by his conviction that the State of Israel was a continuation of the biblical story as it was revealed in the biblical text and Jewish tradition.
What Does the Jewish People Now Need?—1977-1981 | 52:52
In the final lecture of this course, Professor Gordis covers the end of Menachem Begin's life and career. Begin's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was controversial, and Israel's conduct in the war was even more so. The criticism wore him down, and eventually he resigned, having given everything he could to the Jewish people. Begin lived the rest of his life in seclusion before dying in 1992. At his request, he was buried on the Mount of Olives next to two martyred Irgun fighters.
The Lebanon War and the End of Begin’s Life—1982-1993 | 50:09
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Dive into the Jewish mind and soul of Menachem Begin.