Childhood & Early Life
Born August 16, 1913, in Brisk, now Brest-Litovsk, then of Tsarist Russia (now Belarus), Menachem was the youngest of three children. As the son of Zeev Dov and Hassia Biegun, he was born into a family of devout Zionists.
In 1928, Begin joined the ‘Polish Zionist Betar Youth Group’. Betar was a pan-European activist group dedicated to the eventual development of a separate Jewish state that would encompass both sides of the Jordan River, an area occupied by the British-ruled Palestinian State.
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While actively participating in Betar, in Poland, Begin earned a law degree at the ‘University of Warsaw’. By 1938, at age 25, he was named the leader of the organization, a position considered to be one of the most important Jewish positions in pre-Nazi European.
Once the Nazis began their occupation of Poland and other parts of Europe, Jews were desperate for escape and safe haven. His parents and brother were captured in 1940 and later died in a Nazi concentration camp.
In 1940, Menachem escaped the Nazis but was soon captured and held by the Soviets. Promptly he was sent to a Siberian work camp, where he was held and then released a year later.
In 1941, he joined a Polish exile group which traveled to British-ruled Palestine to continue their work toward establishing an independent Jewish state.
Starting in 1942, Begin and his compatriots dedicated led numerous raids and terrorist attacks on the ruling British and Palestinians throughout Palestine. The assaults continued for the next three years.In 1943, he became commander of ‘Irgun Zvai Loumi’ party. At one point, the British issued a sizable bounty for his capture.
In 1948, when Israel became a nation, he led the so-called ‘Freedom or Herut Party’, which slowly gained popularity in Israel.
He joined the ‘National Unity Party’ in 1956 whose goal was to form a unified political focus for defending the security of Israel. Begin served as a minister without portfolio a decade later.
On May 17, 1977, after Mr. Begin was elected Prime Minister, he surprised many with an immediate offer of peace and friendship to the surrounding Arab countries, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. He proposed to meet all the neighboring leaders to discuss and finally put an end to the Jewish and Arab bloodshed. The challenge was accepted by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat.
As a result, secret meetings were held that led to a state visit by Sadat to Jerusalem. Negotiations culminated in the ‘Camp David Accord’ in 1978, facilitated by US President Jimmy Carter. The Accord ended the long-standing war between Israel and Egypt, returned the Sinai to the Egyptians and created an open relationship between the countries.
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As a result of their landmark negotiations, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat jointly received the ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ in 1978.
In 1981, Begin ordered a severe military response on the ‘Palestinian Liberation Organization’ (PLO), then operating in Lebanon. The response effectively removed the PLO presence for a time.
In 1982, Syrian influence prevented the possibility of a full peace between Lebanon and Israel.
During his term of office until his retirement in 1982, Prime Minister Begin adamantly opposed the establishment of a neighboring Palestinian state. He made clear that Israel could never cede the territories of Judea, Samaria or Gaza because of their historic significance.
In 1983, he resigned his office. His wife Aliza had died the year before and the pressures of office had left him in a weakened physical state.
His book ‘The Revolt’, written in 1951, is a recount of the struggle against the British and the development of an independent Jewish state prior to the establishment of Israel.
‘White Nights’, is a story of his imprisonment in Russia depicting the hopelessness and separation of incarceration in such a remote location, was published in 1957. The autobiographical account originally published in Hebrew was later translated to English.
Personal Life and Legacy
Shortly after his wife Aliza died in 1982, he retired and returned to an apartment, leaving only to visit his wife’s grave. They left a son, two daughters and 9 grandchildren.
Menachem Begin will be remembered primarily for the peace initiative between Israel and Egypt in 1978, as well as his lifetime of commitment to the creation and preservation of Israel.