As Prime Minister, Menachem Begin provided the Israeli equivalent of Nixon going to China. Even before that he was crucial to the establishment of Israeli democracy. For years, he had the stature and credibility to hold successive Labor governments accountable and when he finally won a majority for the Likud Party, it proved Israel was truly a multi-party democracy. Begin’s life and legacy gets an overdue re-examination in Jonathan Gruber’s Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin, which has a special online premiere tonight and releases virtually this Wednesday.
Born in Belarus, young Begin found himself sentenced to a Soviet gulag in Siberia for the crime of being a Zionist. Years later, that experience spurred him to rally to the cause of Soviet Refuseniks like Natan Sharansky. As the former leader of the Zionist Irgun militia, Begin spent decades in the political wilderness, while political rival David Ben-Gurion led the early governments. Yet, Begin always put the safety of the nation first (Gruber and several on-camera experts clearly imply this was not always the case with Ben-Gurion.)
Upheaval comes at an opportune time, because it directly challenges many of the stereotypes the media has developed regarding Begin and the Israeli right. It was actually Begin who championed the rights of Arab-Israelis and found his core constituencies in the Sephardic and non-European Jewish communities (while Labor represented the European elites). Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the large-scale rescue of Ethiopian Jews.
There is indeed a great deal of attention devoted to the Camp David Accords, with ample credit given to both Sadat and Begin. Gruber and company also analyze the failures of the Lebanon War. However, instead of simply blaming Israel (and Begin and Sharon), they provide the full context for the tragedy that unfolded. Not only was Israel under fire from PLO terrorist rocket attacks, Begin also nurtured great hopes of forging a second grand rapprochement with Lebanon, while it was led by the Christian Bashir Gemayel. Had that lofty ambition come to pass, it would have brought greater peace and stability to not just Israel, but the entire region.
Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story and Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray. Upheaval is neither hagiography nor a hit-piece. Instead, it fully and lucidly explains Begin’s place in history. More so-called “documentaries” should be as even-handed and clear-sighted.
Its insights are particularly timely, in light of the recent rocket attacks on Tel Aviv (funny, how they waited until Biden took office. It was almost like they were expecting a muted mealy-mouthed response to their terrorism from his foreign policy team.) Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand Israeli and Middle Eastern history, Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin has its online premiere tonight (6/7) and releases virtually this Wednesday (6/9).