Friday, November 23, 2012

The Religious Zionism of Menachem Begin

Next week, I expect to present a class on what I consider the unique brand of Religious Zionism of Menachem Begin. I hope to explain why I believe it unique at the class, but here is the source sheet. The quotes are from Menachem Begin, Basic Outlines of ourLife-Worldview and National Outlook, other than Source 9.

Is this vision secular or Jewish?
1.         A national movement - Page 31
What is a national outlook? Does a "national movement" exist at all, or is the Marxist theory correct… whereby every public movement expresses, or must express, the genuine material interests of one of the classes in a society possessing classes?
Indeed, it is in and of ourselves, as sons of Israel and as fighters, that we can find the proof - for the Marxist theory is meaningless - that a national movement exists. In other words, a movement that expresses what is common to all parts of the nation and bears the historical desires of the entire nation is, ipso facto, a national movement.

2.         Individual freedom - Page 11-12
Man must be free in his thoughts and in his belief; he must be free in giving expression to his thoughts, whether orally or in writing… The group of spiritual freedoms is inextricably tied with the group of political freedoms. The individual person must be free to assemble with other people, to express the belief that is common to them, in order to realize, or try to realize, their opinions. Man must be free to dispatch his representative emissaries to the various branches of government; he must be free to demand their resignations and replacement with other representative emissaries….
In our day, "economic freedoms" represent an inseparable part of the concept "human freedom" if not to completely remove from this concept its real content. A person must be free not only in his way of life and occupations, but also in his place of residence and his place of work… But "freedom of movement", "freedom of initiative" and "freedom of creativity" still do not exhaust the concept of human freedom in the economic sphere. A person – any person – must also be free from an absence of vital commodities, that without which he cannot make a living as a cultured person.

3.         Societal reform – Page 20
[T]he positive content of the idea of societal reform is the ceaseless coming together of the social extremes, coming together not in the "up to down" direction, that necessarily brings general descent and withdrawal, but in the "down to up" direction that brings ascent and progress. Just as it is possible "to bring groups together" by providing education to those that lack it, rather than taking away from everyone the possibility of acquiring wisdom and understanding, so one needs to bring together the extremities of the economic sphere and to ensure for those of meager means a constant benefit of conditions for their existence…
[T]he ensured provision of basic needs must be fixed as "the starting point" for every person. Ze’ev Jabotinsky defined these needs as housing, food, clothing, health care, and schooling (in Hebrew, his terms all began with the letter “Mem”: maon, mazon, malbush, mirpa, melamed) and he notated them as the five "Mems".

4.         Classes remain forever – Pages 17-18
There will always be differences, some based on inherited characteristics, such as mental talent which are not dependent on the individual or the society, and others that are dependent to a greater measure on the free will of the individual as well as the general social "atmosphere", such as personal effort, energy and so on. On the background of these differences and their results, "classes" will grow in every period. It is possible to change the basis of the division of classes, to eliminate one basis and create a completely different basis, but the division itself into classes is impossible to eliminate, just as it is impossible to eliminate natural differences, the physical ones and more important, the psychological differences, between people. This law of history has become apparent over the many previous decades.

5.         Supremacy of law – Pages 26-27
I propose not being satisfied with "independence of the judiciary" but rather to engrave on our flag the supremacy of the law… The supremacy of the law will thereby be expressed in that a panel of independent judges will be granted not only the power to determine, in the case of a complaint, whether a rule or administrative statute of the institutions of the executive regime is legal or just, but also the power to decide, in the case of a complaint, whether the laws that are made by the house of representatives… abide by the fundamental law or contradict the rights of the citizen that are stated in the law.

6.         In order to create this reality – Page 31
Israel's historical desires, from the day of its exile from its land, have found expression in the prayer "renew our days as of old", indeed the prayer enfolds within it the two national aspirations: liberation of the homeland and concentration of the nation once again on its land. Of course, being interdependent, the two historic aspirations of our people who have fashioned its character from generation to generation, are in fact one aspiration. Concentration of the nation is not possible without liberation of the homeland; and, every stage of liberation of the homeland would be impossible without some stage of concentration of the nation on its land. The movement that carries both these aspirations, which are "the common elements" in national consciousness, over its classes, diasporas and generations, is the national movement in Israel. In addition, only a movement that carries both these aspirations in their entirety is a national movement. Any Jewish movement that has become estranged or is estranged from one of them – the estrangement from one of the aspirations is inexorably an estrangement from both – it is not a national movement, whatever its "Zionist" phraseology be as it may.

7.         This reality must be created in Israel – Page 35
From that day hidden beyond the historical horizon, and until this day, a process of thousands of years of existence, formation, persecution and resistance, we have stood against tremendous empires. We have fought, we have fallen, we have risen, we have been struck blows, we have been enslaved, we have rebelled, we have been oppressed, we have been redeemed, we have established, we have been exiled, we have been scattered to the four corners of the world, we have been persecuted from behind, we have been burned on the pyre, we have been nearly trampled out; but never did we concede one grain of our land. There is no example and no model in all of human history for this faith and for this preservation of faith that all the known winds of oppression and slavery in history have dashed into pieces. But who would deny that only by merit of this irregular faith, unnatural, imaginary, "almost inhuman" have we remained on the stage, despite the disappearance, without trace, of other great and mighty empires? Who would further deny that "unrealistic" faith can be quite realistic in its facts? Who would deny that only by merit of this "faith in fact" have we returned, after global wanderings, to the starting point, and we are again a nation?
But indeed, while we became a nation, there are rulers, heretics in Israel, that are prepared to sign in the name of the nation of Israel, that Jerusalem and Hebron and Bethlehem, Jericho and Nablus and all "the good broad land" that spreads forward, east beyond the Jordan, are not ours, but are the foreigner’s, the invader, the occupier – in perpetuity. Is there a political-historical crime that compares with this crime? What is the crime of "appeasement" of Chamberlain in Munich compared to the crime, that the heads of the government were about to commit at the expense of the tradition of the patriarchs and the future of the children?

Does religion fuel Begin's ideas, or is it aligned with his ideas?
8.         Religious language - Pages 39-41
Those who speak highly about the "ingathering of the exiles" but reject the idea of liberating the homeland, or deny it, are estranged also from the national outlook in its entirety which is to say they prevent in the end the concentration of the people on its land… I suggest a new definition of attainment for the concept of “concentration of the nation”. At this point in time, the implication of this concentration is a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel. Not an undefined "ingathering of the exiles"; not another Jewish majority in the State of Israel; not even a Jewish majority – in the Land of Israel, but rather a majority of the Jews in the country Israel.

9.         Religious language – "All of it is mine", a Betar song (cited on page 31)
From the day I was called to the wonder of Betar and Zion and Sinai,
a brother's hand has imprisoned me and my mother's house is closed to me…

10.      Religious roots of the three goals – Page 30
It is possible to prove that this outlook on life, clarified here in its basic outlines in previous sections, is an original Jewish outlook. In my saying this, I am not claiming that the good of our outlook on life is solely and exclusively its Jewish source for, without doubt, we must also learn from other nations, to learn – not duplicate. But it is a fact that our outlook is nursed on the sources of Jewish thought, from the strengthening wellsprings of our national tradition, from the roots of the nation's soul, as it was molded in an amazing war for existence as the messenger for those near and far. Are the ideas of a person's freedom and social reform not embodied in the basic fundamentals of Israel's Torah, in a verse which embodies a complete philosophy: "because man was created in the image of G-d"?
If man was created in the image of the King of Kings, surely he cannot be a slave who need fear the ruler over him.
If in the image of the Creator of All man was molded, surely he will be unable to direct all his thoughts and all his desires to his primary needs, which are, in part, also the basic need provisions, if he will suffer from a want of basics. In this verse you will even find the aspiration for equality. There is no going down or bringing down, but a constant rising or bringing up, inasmuch as man – every man – is created in His image. And the commandment "you will love your fellow-man as yourself"; and the rule "man lives not by bread alone", are they not marvelous expressions of the aspiration for social reform, to abolish suffering and want?
And as regards "the supremacy of the law", this is but a characteristic of our nation’s esprit, that in an entire historical period the nation's leaders and rescuers have been awarded the crown of ‘judge of all things’? And indeed the words "justice" and "law" are an ancient Jewish expression together in one breath, and they have become a saying of Israeli wisdom in one sentence: "justice and law". From this you may infer that as there is no law without justice, indeed no justice is possible without law.

11.      The Torah's freedom imperative – Page 13
Israel's Torah hates enslavement as well as “willing” slaves. Our Torah commanded – already in those days! – that one is to punish severely, by executing a mark of disgrace, on a Jewish man that will declare "I love my master," and would prefer his material security over his spiritual freedom.

12.      The vision of the Prophets – Page 17
Israel's prophets and seers, from whom we have inherited the aspiration for justice that guide our repose, elevated visions that are very difficult to realize. There were those that introduced the vision of social justice, to "repair the world in the Kingdom of G-d" and those that highlighted the vision of world government: "and everyone will make one association". That gave mankind the vision of world peace: "and nation will not raise sword against nation". However, they did not delude their generation or the coming generations; they admitted that the realization will be difficult and saw it only "at the end of days". They made their vision a sort of "guiding star" by whose light man wandering in darkness will proceed and find his path and even reach his objective. Their vision is a vision of truth, because even beyond the historical horizon, beyond "the end of days", they did not promise to abolish any difference. Indeed, "at the end of days" nation will not raise sword against nation, but even then there will be many "nations"; and while "at the end of days" devouring hatred will disappear for "the wolf will lie down with the lamb", but even then the differences between one species and another will not be eliminated. In other words - if one expands the symbolic meaning of the metaphor – the differences between a person and his fellow will not disappear with the desired disappearance of the hatred between them.

13.      Implicit religion – The perfectable world – Page 16
No form of society lasts forever. The truth is that there is no form of society whose power is eternally valid for the present and the future. Whoever says that there is no need to change the existing form of society ignores the natural aspiration for justice and whoever says there is no possibility to change the existing conditions in society ignores the law of historical development.

14.      Implicit religion – We must perfect it – Pages 28-29
Certainly, in regard to judges, one should also not invalidate the measure of realistic truth that is embodied in the well-known statement of Marx summing up his materialistic philosophy: "existence determines consciousness". But historical experience directs us that the greater measure of realistic truth is in the complete reversal of Marx's statement that is perhaps a summing up of idealistic philosophy: "consciousness determines existence". It is not "the existence" of our people that makes it carry the belief in one G-d that has any image of one. On the contrary, "the consciousness”, the belief in monotheism, is what has determined to a decisive measure the existence of our people, whether it has lived in its country or whether scattered among the nations. It was not the "existence" of the "BILU pioneers", mostly children of wealthy people, which determined their consciousness; on the contrary, "their consciousness” is what motivated them to determine their existence not in the comfortable homes of their fathers, but rather in an abandoned land, on land infested with swamps and fever… It is not "our existence" as individuals that made us, in the period of direct British enslavement, enter the underground and become fighters; on the contrary, inner consciousness, clearly the labor of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, is what determined "our existence" as rebels against the foreign rule.
It would be possible to expand upon these examples. But there is no need for additional cases for once something is proved, there is no need to add proof. The vision of "determining existence through consciousness" passes through history – and uniquely through the history of Israel.

15.      Implicit religion – Living ideals – Pages 30-31
We must prove "the living connection", and not just "the nursing connection", between ideas that are based on our "world outlook", upon the foundations on which the national outlook is built.


  1. We can try to discover whether this outlook:

    1. Is organic to traditional Judaism

    2. Treats traditional Judaism as its respected precursor

    3. Uses symbols and symbolic language from traditional Judaism, but to advance other than traditional Jewish purposes

  2. I am a real admirer of Mr. Begin, despite having been among the crowds demonstrating against the Camp David accords and briefly jailed for it. I think it is a mistake to ascribe to him a 'Religious Zionist' ideology. He was through and through an adherent of Jabotinsky; and Jabotinsky was not religious zionist. Mr. Begin had powerful religious sentiments, and was quite traditional in many ways - but his Zionism was largely Revisionist Zionism of Betar and Jabotinsky. For further insight into this, I suggest reading Katz's biography of Jabotinsky (Lone Wolf), and Avner's chapters on Mr. Begin (in The Prime Ministers).

  3. Bob -
    Indeed, I think that's part of the question in defining "Religious Zionism" - what is the relationship to the religion?

    R' Mordechai -
    Absolutely agreed regarding his Revisionist Zionism (and I have read Avner's book, although not Katz's), but I am not convinced that Revisionist Zionism and Religious Zionism are mutually exclusive. As I said to Bob - To me, it depends on our definition of Religious.

  4. Very interesting, thanks for posting - I'll have to see if I can make the time to read the whole document (thanks for linking to that too). That said, I agree with earlier commenters that the case for Begin as a Religious Zionist, rather than Zionist who used religious/traditional imagery and ideas, is not proven.

  5. Rabbeinu, I certainly agree that Revisionist and Religious Zionism are not mutually exclusive. I think by definition no Zionist ideologies are 'mutually exclusive'. My perception is that religion plays an often subtle, unacknowledged role in Zionist ideologies. It must. But Religious Zionism would have to be an ideology that acknowledges not only the religious foundation; but promotes and pursues a religious vision and agenda. Religion would have to play a part in the ideology that makes it a necessary component of the ideology and its application. I don't see Mr. Begin in Mafdal or Bnei Akiva or Neemanei Torah v'Avodah or any other iteration of Religious Zionism. I see him admiring them and coopting them into his efforts - but not identifying himself primarily with their ideologies.

  6. Daniel, R' Mordechai-

    Why such limited definitions of "Religious"?

  7. For me it's not so much a limited definition of 'Religious' as a suspicion of politicians (of all stripes and in all countries) who take certain costumes out of the dressing up box when it suits them and exchange them for different costumes when speaking to different audiences. It can be very hard to know what a politician really believes as opposed to what he thinks the voters want him to believe.

    Yes, I admit to being a cynic...

  8. I don't think it is a matter of a narrow or limited definition of 'Religious Zionism'. And I don't doubt Mr. Begin's sincerity or integrity at all. The man proved himself over a lifetime.

    I am drawing a distinction between a Zionism with definite religious roots, and bolstered by personal religious sentiment; and a Zionism whose aim is to fulfill a religiously defined agenda and ideal.

    I will admit that of all people, Mr. Begin was a complex and nuanced individual. As such, it is simplistic to try to pigeonhole him. In that regard, I admit you have a good point. But I think that if we were to try and identify a dominant influence in his Zionist endeavor, Jabotinsky's influence was even greater than the religious influence. Are they mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. But it is important to note that Jabotinsky was quite antagonistic to religion in his early years. I highly recommend Lone Wolf, despite its great length.

  9. Daniel-
    Everything I've read of Begin indicates someone who sincerely believed that which he promoted.

    R' Mordechai-
    That distinction is what I mean; I consider the former "definite religious roots and bolstered by personal religious sentiment" to be a form of "Religious Zionism". If someone observed Shabbat out of a recognition of the Torah's binding authority, but he was not trying to create a sacred unity between himself and Gd on this day, would this not qualify as "Religious Shabbat"?