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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

9. Menachem Begin: the Early Years

In contrast to Jabotinsky, there is very little material available about Begin’s early life. As we shall see, he does not write or speak much about his pre-Palestinian career, a fact to be attributed to the inevitable embarrassment that would accrue to him if he had to detail his role in Betar during its period of intimacy with Mussolini and the Colonels. Additionally, many of those who knew him during that era, friend and foe alike, were murdered by the Nazis, and the newspapers, movement files, public records of the day, were destroyed. However, he does have his biographers. These not only had to work under these difficult circumstances but, in varying degrees, they brought to their subject a preconceived sympathy or, at best, an attitude of cautious neutrality. Their chapters on his early life are therefore padded out with extraneous material about the Jews, Eastern Europe, Zionism and Revisionism, mostly superficial, much of it propaganda, all to fill in the blanks created by their subject’s unwillingness to come to grips with the Fascist side of his past. Readers may verify this description of the severe reference limitations therefore imposed upon the present author by examining Begin’s own White Nights, which deals with his “Soviet” period, 1939-42, and The Revolt, his memoir of the Irgun underground, 1942-9, as well as the three biographies cited below.



Menachem Wolfovitch Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk, Brisk in Yiddish, a small city of approximately 40,000, over 55% Jewish, on the River Bug, in what is now the Byelorussian Soviet Republic, on 16 August 19l3. His father, Wolf Dov Begin, the son of a timber merchant, frequently worked for his own father, but his prime career was as the secretary of the Jewish religious community. His mother. the former Hasia Korsovsky, was descended from a venerable rabbinical family, also involved in the timber trade. His father was a committed Mizrachi religious Zionist who had already named his first son Herzl (their firstborn was a daughter, Rachel). Their third child was named Menachem, meaning “comforter”, because he was born on the “Sabbath of Consolation”, the first in the ancient Jewish calendar following the 9th day of the month of Av, the day upon which the Orthodox mourn for the destroyed temple of Jerusalem.

The First World War broke out the next year and Menachem’s father, as with many of the Tsar’s Jewish subjects, was pro-German, apparently outspokenly so. The military authorities expelled him from the town, and he went off to Moscow and later St Petersburg and Warsaw. Menachem’s mother and her three children were themselves forced to flee the city before the oncoming German army, ending up in Kobrin, further east, in the direction of the Pripet Marches. Four years later, after the war, Wolf Dov returned to Brisk, and a year later his family rejoined him. The city was alternatively taken by the new Polish and Soviet armies, ultimately it was held by Poland. Begin, who was seven when the Red Army briefly occupied the city, has two memories of their visitation: a soldier coming to their door to beg a slice of bread, and a Jewish woman commissar who was billeted with them. The young Menachem took an instant dislike to her for her mannish ways. He additionally claims he was repelled by her insistence that she would have had no hesitation in shooting any of their enemies. [1] The Polish army teemed with murderous anti-Semites; one might think Wolf Dov would have been sympathetic to the Red Army, led by a Jew, Trotsky, and which fought the anti-Semites; but that was certainly not the case. As a capitalist of a sort, a religious dignitary and a Zionist, he abhorred them, and Menachem seems to have strongly incorporated these paternal values directly into his own superego.

Another incident, when he was 10 or 11, also involving his father, powerfully moulded his character: he had been walking with his father and a rabbi when two Polish soldiers tried to cut off the rabbi’s beard. Wolf Dov struck one of them with his walking stick and he was taken off to the local fortress and horse-whipped for his pains.

My father returned home badly beaten but he was in good spirits, for he was convinced he had done what was right ... We were all very proud of his behaviour – an example for all the inhabitants of the Jewish community. [2]

Begin insists that his father’s example has always been clearly before him:

In all my life, I never met a more courageous man than him. It has been given to me almost all my life to work with people of courage, but I will never forget the way in which my father fought for the defense of Jewish dignity. [3]

Although Yiddish was the language of their home, his father wanted his son educated in an all-Hebrew school, and at the age of seven Menachem had been enrolled in a Mizrachi elementary school. Thus in Poland, where two-thirds of the people were Polish speaking, and the vast majority of the 10.5% of the population who were Jewish could not carry out even a simple discussion in Hebrew, Menachem was pushed into a rarified and isolated Zionist environment, compounded by the fact that the Mizrachi, with its strict orthodoxy, was a minority even within Zionism. The intellectual value of his primary education will best be appreciated if it is understood that the Mizrachi has yet to have produced a single ideological leader of the first rank, even within Zionist terms, still less within the wider world of political discourse. Wolf Dov’s Zionism was of the most philistine middle-class variety, little more than the most primitive secularization of his intense sectarianism, strictly of the stay-at-home variety, much more related to his Jewish identity than to a real place with real people called Palestine.

At ten years of age, the future prime minister made his maiden political speech, wearing knee-breeches and a Yarmulka, perched on a table top. The occasion was the minor spring festival of Lag B’Omer. Traditionally a gay affair, with bonfires and boys playing with bows and arrows, it is identified with Bar-Kochba, the hero of the last Judaean revolt in AD 135, and the Zionists could not resist turning it into a day of nationalist oratory.

Two years later, in 1925, he joined his first formal Zionist group, the Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard). Today the Hashomer is the youth section of the Mapam (United Workers) Party, a minor Israeli faction that tails after the much larger Labour Party; in those days it was a scout movement. The next year, however, the grouping took a turn towards a utopian socialism of the vaguest kind. This was too much for the narrow-minded Wolf Dov, who convinced his son, all of 13, to leave the organization, and Menachem irrevocably turned away from the left, even within the circumscribed context of Zionism, telling his ex-comrades that, as Jews, they should “first fight for your own freedom, then worry about the freedom of others”. [4]

At 14, Menachem was transferred to a Polish government school, where he was one of only three Jews. Apparently the shift was due to a lack of money for tuition at the private Jewish school. It is probable that he would have disappeared into later obscurity if he had not been transferred out of the confines of the Mizrachi educational environment. In his new school he was introduced into the broader world of European culture, acquiring his life-long love of world literature, beginning with Virgil and other Latins in the original. Since the Polish middle class was permeated with anti-Semitism, it was inevitable that the boy should have his fair share of fights, but this seems to have only further steeled his character.

Although his biographers mention a few other incidents in his pre-Revisionist phase, these are but the merest anecdotes. If, as clearly seen, his father’s intense Jewish communalism and Zionism moulded his life, with his conversion to Revisionism his individual reality completely merged into the history of that movement. He first heard Jabotinsky in 1929, when aged 16, in Brest-Litovsk. It is easy to see the attraction Revisionism would have on him. The Begin home was intensely Jewish, Zionist, pro-capitalist and reactionary, and Jabotinsky was all of these in extreme. Wolf Dov and his entire brood had found their messiah. It was the most natural thing possible for the youthful Menachem, in no way requiring the slightest ideological break with his environment.


Begin joined and rose rapidly within the fast-growing Betar; by the next year he was already their commander in the town. In 1931, while still only 17, he left for the Law School at the University of Warsaw “so that I might be able to defend the poor and the oppressed”, he wrote then. [5] He was soon co-opted onto the national commission of the movement and assigned the administrative “portfolio”. Today Zionism is in power and, notoriously, one of the most bureaucratically well-paid ideologies in the political world but, in those Depression days, Zionism, and particularly the minority Revisionists, was a “pure”, that is to say poor, movement, and the young zealot lived on one meal a day and boarded at the Jewish students’ hostel, earning a little pocket money tutoring local gymnasium students in Latin. He graduated in 1935 and, although he never practised, the school left an indelible mark on him. The Departmental specialty was courtroom oratory and there was a regular course in diction and rhetoric given by a leading actor from the National Theatre. To this day Begin is primarily renowned within the Zionist world as one of its greatest orators and, while he has two books of memoirs to his credit and for many years wrote a weekly column for his movement’s paper in Israel, he would be the first to concede that he is neither a historian nor a writer in any serious sense of those words. [6]

The Betar was a growing movement, both world-wide and in Poland when Begin joined it, and it continued to grow until the Arlosoroff assassination, when Jewish public opinion turned sharply against it. Begin accompanied Jabotinsky on a tour of the country in defence of Stavsky and was subjectively involved in the case through the family, who had been among his neighbours in Brest-Litovsk.

On 14 March 1982 Begin, as Prime Minister of Israel, announced the setting up of an official commission to investigate the murder, after the publication of a book suggesting that Stavsky and Rosenblatt were guilty. [7] The commission was to be set up despite the sharp dissent of two members of his cabinet, who could not see the point in reviving the case and opening up old wounds. That Begin would persist in doing so is doubtlessly testimony to the fact that he did not believe, at that time, that they had done it, though his or their subjective feelings on the matter can hardly be determining for us, who have to go by objective evidence. (Merlin, for one, although he has broken with Revisionism, still believes that Mrs Arlosoroff was behind the slaying, that she thought her husband was guilty of infidelity.) [8]

By 1935 the 22-year-old Begin was one of the leading figures within the world Betar, sitting on the dais of their World Congress that year in Crakow, along with Jabotinsky. In September 1935 he took over the propaganda department of the Polish Betar. It is to be understood that although the Polish Revisionists were anti-Nazi, and organized their own boycott demonstrations, at least in the early years of the Hitler regime, Palestine, not Germany, was the centre of their attention. It was in connection with an April 1937 demonstration against Britain that Begin’s name first appeared in the English language, in the obscurity of the Jewish Telegraph Agency News, the daily bulletin of the Zionist wire service which, on 5 April, told of:

400 members of the right-wing Zionist organization Brit Trumpeldor [who] demonstrated outside the British Embassy against the British Administration in Palestine ... Four of the ten youths arrested during the demonstration were in jail. One is Moshe Biegun, a leader of the Brit Trumpeldor. [9]

The security police forbade any kind of demonstrations and Begin was held for a few weeks; but the Revisionists were not leftists, and after a little lobbying with their contacts within the regime, he was released. That same year he spent five months in Czechoslovakia as the acting commander of the national Betar.

The 1938 Betar Congress

It was in September 1938 that Begin received his only major public rebuke from his mentor. Begin has never publicly referred to the incident – it is too painful, personally and politically – but it was at the Warsaw Third World Congress of the Betar, while the young enthusiast was putting his most decisive stamp upon pre-war Revisionism. It was a time of terrible pressure on the Jews. Hitler had taken Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Loyalists were losing in Spain. Israel Sheib (Eldad), then a close friend of Begin’s, later described the mood of the Betar:

thousands upon thousands waving their hands with nothing to do . The Betar group had passed the saturation point. How long can you hold revolutionary tension from bursting forth with duels and with the writing of petitions? ... If it were not for the Trotskyite trials in Russia, there is no doubt that thousands upon thousands of the cream of Jewish youth thirsty for action and redemption would have joined the communist movement that fought and was being persecuted. [10]

Begin got up to propose that a clause of their oath of allegiance be changed from “I will raise my arm only for defence”, which Jabotinsky had inserted into it after the Arlosoroff affair, to “I will raise my arm for the defence of my people and the conquering of my homeland.”

Until now the Zionist movement’s answer had consisted of political activity, settlement, mass immigration, moral pressure, making common cause with the British and maintaining faith in the League of Nations and the conscience of the world. Now, all is changed: the conscience of the world has ceased to react, and the League of Nations has lost its value. Our British partner leads us to the gallows and imprisons the finest of our nation.

Our good friends the British offer us five per cent of Eretz Yisrael and give primary consideration to the Arabs in appeasement of their nationalist ambitions. We want to fight – to conquer or perish. After practical Zionism and political Zionism, we must now enter the age of military Zionism. We must amass strength that will not be dependent upon the mercies of others. If such a force is created, the world too will come to our assistance. [11]

Jabotinsky said he understood the anguish of the youths, but he had to take a stand against Begin on both practical and moral grounds:

There are all sorts of noises ... Most of us, I imagine, are used to the screech of machines. Yet it is hard to suffer the noise of a door (screeching) because it is pointless. The words that we have heard from Mr Begin represent just such a noise, and noise like that must be ruthlessly suppressed. [12]

He had written far too many articles in his time to be told that public opinion had no meaning, and he came down full force on his disciple’s cynicism:

If you, sir, have stopped believing in the conscience of the world, you’d best go to the Vistula and drown yourself in it. Your alternative would be to take up Communism. [13]

Begin called for “rebellion in the Irish style”. [14] Jabotinsky prided himself on being serious about militarism and he poured scorn on the analogy: “What kind of ‘Irish-style’ rebellion would we be capable of waging in Eretz Yisrael? The Irish live on their own soil. But we?” [15] Begin had his supporters, among them Uri Zvi Greenberg and Avraham Stern and other Irgunists who had come to the Congress from Palestine, and Israel Scheib (Eldad) defended his friend: a creaking door could be of use if it woke someone up so that he could save his house from a burglar. [16] But Jabotinsky interrupted several of Begin’s partisans to suggest that they join him in committing suicide. During a break in the sessions they got together to set up a “Suicide Club”, complete with 18-point constitution, motto and insignia, and submitted their work to Jabotinsky for “ratification”. Jabotinsky saw the humour of it and playfully approved it: “So be it. Vladimir the First.” Begin’s amendment passed and he hastened to heal the breach, formally declaring that “Betar, in all of its branches, its camps and standards, stands ready for your command.” [17]

The aftermath of the Congress and Jabotinsky’s capitulation to the hysterical mood conditioned by the desperate situation in Europe have been previously described; it suffices here to remark that the affair illustrates the undistilled fanatic quality of Begin’s thinking at the time. Cynicism always parades as the latest word in realism but is only a caricature of it. When someone presumed to challenge him, asking just how they could get the invading force into Palestine, much less – simultaneously – beat the British, the Labour Zionists and the Arabs, he cavalierly dismissed this obviously valid concern with: “I am suggesting an idea. The experts will say how it is to be done.” [18]

The Eve of World War II

Polish Revisionism in the period between the Congress and the outbreak of the war was totally dominated by the most fascistic and militarist elements in the movement. Abba Achimeir had been deported to Poland by the British after serving a period of internment for running a terrorist organization. The training camp at Zakopane also brought Avraham Stern into the country. He started organizing secret cells in the Betar and the adult movement with a higher loyalty to the Irgun. The militarists even set up their own newspapers. They were increasingly publicly contemptuous of Jabotinsky, and he in turn grew more concerned about their influence. In the spring of 1939 the then commander of the Polish Betar stepped down in preparation to emigrating to Palestine. The second in command decided that he was not cut out for the leadership position and, in April, Jabotinsky appointed Begin to the post. He was the perfect choice. He had demonstrated his loyalty to Jabotinsky at the Congress, in spite of the political quarrel, while maintaining close personal relations with Stern and such as Nathan Yalin-Mor, the editor of the Irgun paper Die Tat (The Deed). Ideologically he fell in with the avowed Fascist, Achimeir. Yehuda Benari, director of Israel’s Jabotinsky Institute, and author of the article on Begin in the Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel, relates that, on his return to Poland from Czechoslovakia, “he joined the radical wing of the Revisionist movement, which was ideologically linked with the Brit HaBiryonim”. [19]

Begin settled into his new position. He moved into a rented room in downtown Warsaw and entered a law firm as a legal clerk to do his articles. On 29 May, he and Aliza Arnold, also a Betari, both in their brownshirt uniforms, were married by a rabbi. While Palestine remained the centre of his universe, and he deeply involved himself in the illegal immigration to Palestine, the possibility of war had to be considered very real in Warsaw in the spring of 1939, whatever Jabotinsky in far-off Pont d’Avon might think. Accordingly, he took part in the delicate negotiations with Captain Runge, the head of the local security police, concerning a pet Revisionist scheme: they wanted the Poles to set up segregated Jewish units in the army, with Poles in command, of course; then, presumably after the Poles and Jews had dealt with the German army, the Jews, without Polish officers, would go on to conquer Palestine. [20] The plot failed because the Bund, which had taken 70% of the Jewish vote in the January 1939 municipal elections, had always strenuously resisted every effort to segregate the army, and the Poles knew they would resist any such attempts then. Additionally, the government was aware that there was a sharp decline in anti-Semitism among the Polish middle class in the face of the threat coming from Germany as even the most obtuse could see that anti-Semitism could only divide the country in the face of the common enemy. [21]

When Jabotinsky came to Warsaw in June 1939 he was disappointed to discover that even their friends in the government now found the Jewish question to be “secondary”. He lamented that he could do no more, eventually he was certain anti-Semitism would revive, when the war threat would blow over, as he was sure it would. But then it would be too late, and the Jews would find that “the initiative of reviving Great Zionism will have to come from the anti-Semitic camp”. [22] Thus, on the eve of the Holocaust, Poland was treated to the spectacle of the Revisionists, with Menachem Begin, the future Prime Minister of Israel among their leaders, pleading for a more anti-Semitic policy than the government either dared or cared to implement.


1. Eitan Haber, Menahem Begin, p.18.

2. Frank Gervasi, The Life and Times of Menahem Begin, p.81.

3. Lester Eckman and Gertrude Hirschler, Menahem Begin, p.19.

4. Haber, p.24.

5. Gervasi, p.87.

6. David Rosenthal, Menahem Begin: From Oppositionist to Prime Minister, Jewish Frontier, August 1977. p.9.

7. David Landau, Cabinet To Set Up Commission Of Inquiry Into Arlosoroff Case, JTA Daily News Bulletin, 15 March 1982, p.2.

8. Shmuel Merlin, (interview with author), 16 September 1980.

9. JTA News, 5 April 1937.

10. Daniel Levine, David Raziel, The Man and His Times, pp.239-40.

11. Gervasi, p.94.

12. Haber, p.50.

13. Gervasi, p.95.

14. Ibid.,p. 94.

15. Ibid.

16. Eckman and Hirschler, p.45.

17. Haber, p.51.

18. Ibid., p.50.

19. Yehuda Benari, Begin, M’Nahum, Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel, vol.I, p.116.

20. Menachem Begin, Menachem Begin Writes, Jewish Press, 13 May 1977, p.4.

21. Joseph Schechtman, Fighter and Prophet, p.360.

22. Ibid., p.361.

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