Begin Heritage Center
By Jay Levinson
In every sense Menachem Begin was an enigmatic politician, who rose from refugee in Palestine to Prime Minister of Israel. The Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem is dedicated to preserving his memory.
Perhaps the most telling description of Begin was in a short prëcis of his intentions that he offered to a reporter upon assuming the job of prime minister. Asked what his general approach would be heading the Israeli government, Begin stated in his usual direct manner, "I want to be a Jewish prime minister!" And, that he was. Harry Horowitz, a long time Begin associate now working in the Centre, attests that at this stage in his life Begin was shomer shabbos (Shabbat observant). This writer knew the rabbi who was responsible for koshering kitchens during some of Begin's travels.
Horowitz tells one interesting story about the religiously observant prime minister. Every Saturday night following the conclusion of the Shabbat, a small group of people would gather in the prime minister's residence for a lesson in Weekly Torah Portion. As Horowitz relates, on one occasion an assistant hurried with what he thought was an urgent message. U.S. President Carter was on the telephone. Begin's response surprised the assistant, "Tell him to call back in two hours. I am busy now." Although Begin has passed on, the weekly lesson (in Hebrew) continues, though now on Thursday evenings in the Begin Centre. There are three hundred fifty spaces, almost all open to the public by prior reservation.
In the Centre there is a 75 minute multi-media tour offered in Hebrew and English, taking the visitor through some of the major events in Begin's life. Let there be no doubt. This is not a critical assessment of Begin's contribution to history. It is a very determined effort to project Begin in the image seen by his followers. The multi-media presentation, however, is extremely effective, utilizing film, sound, stills, and museum-style exhibits to convey the message of Menachem Begin, both in his own voice and as told by others.
Begin was born in Brisk, where his father was active in the Jewish Community. At age 16 Begin heard Ze'ev Jabotinsky speak. His life would never be the same. He was mesmerized by the message of Jewish nationalism as expounded by Jabotinsky and the Betar movement. Begin joined Betar and quickly rose in its ranks.
From Brisk, Begin moved to Warsaw, but he felt the threat of Polish anti-Semitism and the threat of neighboring Nazi Germany, so he moved onward to Vilna. There his political activities soon came to a screeching halt. After the Russian takeover, he was arrested for anti-Soviet activities and sentenced to eight years labor in Siberia. Zionism was a crime against the state! After eight months, a deal was made for the release of Polish citizens. Begin was released. In August 1942 he made his way to Palestine. His parents remained in Poland, where they met death at the hands of the Nazis.
Begin worked against the British, who labeled him a terrorist. After the State of Israel was declared, he turned politician and served twenty-nine years in the Knesset. His message, though, was not only the Greater Israel advocated by Betar. He stood for a social program benefiting the poor and measures to fully integrate Sephardim into all aspects of Israeli society.
Perhaps Begin will be most remembered for his critical role in signing the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. There were hard decisions and strong opposition in the negotiation process, but Begin rose above entrenched philosophic positions and looked to the future. The champion of Greater Israel approved the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Sinai in favor of the hope for a better future.
For most people the main attraction of the Centre is the tour, but that is not the only activity in the building. There is a library based on the Begin's personal collection and also an archives, each maintained on a separate floor. Use of these facilities is best done by prior arrangement. For the archives a symbolic fee is charged.
The Centre is located at Rechov Nachon 6, near the Chan Theatre. Hours are Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, 0900-1630; Tuesday, 0900-1900; Friday, 0900-1200. Tours are NIS 20 for adults; NIS 15 for seniors and children under 18. Tel.: 02- 565 2020.