A Zionist and Israeli Leader

Stand for Israel  |  August 14, 2023

Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan at White House, September 9, 1981
(Photo: White House Photographic Collection)

Born on August 16, 1913, to a Jewish family in Poland, Menachem Begin would be defined by his resolute dedication to the Zionist cause and his pivotal role in shaping the identity of the State of Israel. In fact, at his birth, the midwife who delivered the boy was the grandmother of Ariel Sharon! Begin’s mother came from a long line of rabbis, and his father was a leader in the Jewish community, a staunch Zionist, and an admirer of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, so Menachem was influenced by this from birth.

In school, Begin took part in a Zionist scouting group, and also learned the oratory skills for which he would become known. He also organized a self-defense class for Jewish students, as they faced rabid anti-Semitism in Poland, even well before the Holocaust.

In the years before WWII, Begin joined Betar, the Zionist youth organization. As leader of the Polish branch of Betar—and with the winds of war already blowing—he urged the group to start bringing Europe’s Jews to the Holy Land—then still British-mandate Palestine. He even, unsuccessfully, tried to bring 1,500 Jews there himself.

As the Nazis invaded, Begin and his family fled first to Vilnius, Lithuania. There, because of his Zionist activities, he was arrested by the Soviets and tortured. After his release, he joined the Polish Army, and was sent to the Holy Land. There he joined the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization set on founding a Jewish state. Sadly, Begin’s parents and brother were murdered by the Nazis back in Europe, further showing the need for a Jewish homeland.

After years of fighting with the Irgun, Begin joined the group with David Ben-Gurion’s provisional government being set up for the establishment of Israel. As Israel grew during her early years, Begin stood as the opposition leader to Ben-Gurion.

When the Six-Day War began, Begin joined the unity government. And in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Begin formed the Likud political party in Israel—currently in power under Benjamin Netanyahu—and in 1977 was elected Israel’s Prime Minister.

The Israeli government under Menachem Begin leaned toward a more free-market, capitalist approach, which helped turn the Jewish state into the thriving nation it is today. In 1978, Begin met with President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat for the Camp David Accords, a watershed moment of peace in the Middle East.

In 1981, Begin responded to threats against Israel by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and greenlit Operation Opera, the Israeli bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor. The next year, Begin also led Israel in its war against Lebanon, showing that while peace might have been reached with Egypt, not all of Israel’s neighbors had stopped wishing her harm.

But that same year, Begin’s wife of nearly 50 years, Aliza, passed away. The Prime Minister resigned, having fallen into a deep depression after the loss, and spent much of his remaining time in seclusion, still reading multiple newspapers each day and keeping abreast of the news, but staying out of the public eye.

When Menachem Begin passed away at the age of 78, all of Israel remembered this champion of the Jewish people and Jewish state, with 75,000 attending his funeral. Despite his status as an Israeli hero and Israeli You Should Know, Menachem Begin chose not to be buried on Mount Herzl—along with so many other Israeli luminaries—but instead was entombed next to his beloved wife Aliza on the Mount of Olives.