One of my walking tours in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, we visit the Etzel Museum on the beach. The Museum is dedicated to the memory of the Etzel (Irgun Tzvai Leumi) fighters who fell in the battle for Jaffa in the War of Independence.
Menachem Begin — who later became Prime Minister of Israel — was the commander of the Etzel at the time. In his book, the Revolt, Begin explains the philosophy of the Etzel which was to fight the British because the British Mandate government was refusing to allow Jews, including over 100,000 Holocaust survivors to enter Palestine in the 40s. “In our minds was the constant knowledge of what British policy was planning for us; in our ears echoed the rattle of the death trains of Europe…When Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am” he uttered a very profound thought. But there are times in the history of peoples when thought alone does not prove their existence. A people may “think” and yet it’s sons, with their thoughts and in spite of them, may be turned into a herd of slaves – or into soap. There are times when everything in you cries out; your very self respect as a human being lies in your resistance to evil. We fight, therefore we are!”
Begin’s tactics were different from David Ben Gurion’s approach who was more willing to work within British rule, and felt the actions of the Etzel were jeopardizing the image of Zionism and their leadership in the world. As a result, Ben Gurion undermined the Etzel by having their members turned over to the British and even ordering firing on the boat the Altalena — with Begin and other men on board — that was bringing in urgently needed weapons to help the war effort in June 1948. Nevertheless, Begin consciously decided that the Etzel would never retaliate against Ben Gurion or the Hagana for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people. Begin attributes this decision to the fact that he was in hiding both from the British and the Jewish leadership for 8 years. “Life in the underground enforces seclusion and seclusion makes deep thinking possible…A deep cellar in certain circumstances becomes an elevated watch tower.”
In retrospect, we can see all the great leader’s of those days: Ben Gurion, Begin, Shamir, Golda Meir, Chaim Weizman, and many more were all part of God’s great symphony, each playing their part in establishing the State of Israel and of the Jews returning to the Land of Israel. But there’s much to be learned from what happened in those days, and Begin’s wisdom and great character are particularly remarkable.
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© 2013, Lisa (Leah) Bowman
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