This week in Jewish history | Future Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin born

19 Aug 2020

On 16 August 1913, future Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin was born in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, modern-day Belarus.  

As a young man, Begin was a leader of Betar, the youth wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement led by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. In 1939, after the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland, Begin made his way to Vilna, which was seized by Lithuania. In 1940, when the country was again seized, this time by the Soviet Union, he was arrested for his Zionist activism and sent to a labor camp in Komi. However, in July 1941, like other Polish inmates, Begin was released from captivity and joined the Polish Army, which was led by General Anders. In May 1942, the Anders Army was sent to Palestine, where Begin received a leave of absence and joined the Irgun (IZL).  In 1944, he assumed the leadership of  the underground organization, which adopted a militant stance toward the British, who refused to open the gates of Palestine to Jews fleeing Europe and blocked the path toward Jewish independence.   

After the founding of the State of Israel, and the disbanding of the Irgun, Begin established the Herut party and was elected to the first Knesset. Known to be a fiery orator, Begin remained in the opposition for much of the nearly three decades that followed, before being elected prime minister in June 1977, when the Likud (an alliance of the Herut, and right-wing, right-leaning and centralist parties and factions) came to power. Later that year, to the shock of many, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel and spoke at the Knesset about achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace deal between the two countries — a move which Begin endorsed. Subsequent negotiations led to the Camp David Accords and the momentous 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty: a watershed moment for Israeli-Arab relations, as Egypt became the first Arab nation formally to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and for their efforts, Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.  

In the ensuing years, Begin oversaw the divisive evacuation of Israeli troops and settlements from the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt as part of the terms of the peace treaty.  

Begin resigned as Prime Minister in October 1983, less than a year after the death of his beloved wife, Aliza. When he passed away in March 1992, tens of thousands of Israelis attended his funeral at the Mount of Olives. According to recent surveys, Begin was one of Israel's most-beloved prime ministers and is often remembered as the country’s“most Jewish prime minister.” 

Reflecting on his life, Begin once told The Washington Post, "I survived 10 wars, two world wars, a Soviet concentration camp, five years in the underground as a hunted man, and twenty-six years in opposition in [the Knesset]. Twenty-six years, never losing faith in a cause."