Menachem Begin Center embodies vision for a nation

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Menachem Begin rarely wept — not when he was imprisoned by the Russians and forced into slave labor, and not when he went hungry when studying for his law degree. He wept, however, the night the state of Israel was proclaimed, with tears that were “the tears of grief, and tears of joy for the salvation of the Jewish People.”

“The solemnity of the hour overawed me,” wrote Begin, the intrepid underground Irgun commander, in his memoirs. “For 2,000 years, [a nation] had wandered about the face of the earth … And, now in the 71st generation of its exile, it has returned to its homeland.”

The new Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, which is headed by Begin’s friend and government aide Harry Hurwitz — former editor of the South African Jewish Herald — was given official state recognition and support when the Israeli Knesset passed a law in 1998 calling for the establishment of heritage centers for Yitzhak Rabin and Begin, who died in 1992.

The Begin center is designed to pass on his legacy and educate new generations in the values he personified — especially Ahavat Am Israel and Ahavat Eretz Israel (Love for the People of Israel and Love for the Land of Israel). It houses an interactive museum, a research institute and an archive containing documents, photos, audio and videotapes relating to Begin’s life, as well as books from his personal library, several conference rooms, a lecture hall and a small synagogue.

In order to promote Begin’s principles of democracy, the center offers a 10-week course on parliamentary democracy for students from more than 200 junior high schools around the country. At the end of the course, two schools at a time are brought to the center and a debate is held on a crucial issue of the day in an auditorium designed to resemble the Knesset.

The fourth floor of the understated building , which architect Arthur Spector designed to reflect Begin’s “modest and dignified” personality, houses the museum. It contains a reconstruction of Aliza and Menachem Begin’s tiny two-room apartment on 1 Rosenbaum St. in Tel Aviv, where they lived with their three children for 29 years before moving to the prime minister’s residence.

The museum takes the visitor on a living, action-packed, multimedia journey that highlights the historic events in Begin’s life, depicting him as orator, fighter, statesman, peacemaker and a man of vision.

The tour begins in Brisk (now Brest-Litovsk), Poland, where Begin was born in August 1913, continues to Warsaw where he studied, and on to Vilna where he was arrested and sent to a Soviet prison camp. As a youth he demonstrated a talent for public speaking, an asset that catapulted him to leadership of the Polish Betar youth movement in 1939. Begin was galvanized by his mentor’s ideas and in 1942 arrived in pre-state Israel where he was appointed commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), an underground movement created to protect the Jews and their property, foil Arab terrorism and spearhead “illegal” immigration from Europe. In this capacity he directed operations against the British, who offered a reward of about $18,000 for information leading to his arrest.

A Holocaust survivor, Begin never forgot or forgave the Nazis for murdering his brother Herzl and both his parents, who were ardent Zionists. His mother was taken out of a hospital bed and shot in the street; his father was drowned along with 500 other Jews; his brother’s fate is unknown. Only his sister survived.

With the proclamation of the state of Israel, Begin evoked the past in a stirring speech he delivered over the radio from the secret Irgun headquarters: “After many years of underground warfare, years of persecution and moral and physical suffering, the rebels against the oppressors stand before you, with a blessing of thanks on their lips and a prayer in their hearts … Today is truly a holiday, a holy day and a new fruit is visible before our very eyes … the first Hebrew revolt since the Hasmonean insurrection that has ended in victory.”

After the establishment of the state of Israel, Begin founded the Herut Movement and headed the party’s list in all Knesset elections from then until the 10th election in 1981.

Visitors to the museum will experience the main events that shaped the state of Israel during the 29-year period that Begin served as leader of the opposition, including “participating” in the Likud election rally and listening to Begin’s famous speeches on the eve of the Likud victory in 1977.

The tour ends with a spectacular audio-visual display summarizing Begin’s role as the sixth prime minister of the state of Israel.

One of his most glorious achievements was his invitation to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem in 1977 — a visit that led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. “No more war, no more bloodshed,” said Begin emotionally when the agreement was signed on the lawn of the White House in 1979. In 1978, Begin and Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not even his wife knew about the difficult decision Begin made when he acted with strategic foresight in ordering the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981. The bombing was first deplored and later praised by Western governments when the Gulf War broke out in 1991.

Begin predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire and even before being elected prime minister was active in mobilizing world attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. During his term in office, he was thrilled when the first wave of Russian aliyah (200,000 people) arrived in Israel.

Begin was also a behind-the-scenes activist who helped expedite the aliyah of Jews from Ethiopia. He also endeared himself to the Israeli people with Project Renewal, an urban revitalization project that benefited the residents of development towns and poor neighborhoods throughout Israel.

Begin resigned in September 1983, after the death of his wife and allegations connecting him with the protracted Operation Peace for Galilee — the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to remove the terrorist infrastructure that threatened Israel.

For all his involvement in the nitty-gritty of politics and government, Begin had a poetic vision. Speaking at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in December 1978, he said: “Peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth. Peace is all of these and more … “

ISRAEL IN THE GARDENS