Regular readers will know that Begin is one of my favourite historical figures. Here are just some of the things that fascinate me about him…
The ‘Haftorah’ read the week of his birth begins with the words: “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.”
He made his first speech standing on a picnic table in Poland. He was nine years of age.
He believed: “It is terribly important for an educated man, if he wants to know things, to read a minimum of 150 pages a day.”
When he was arrested at his house by the Soviet secret police in 1940, he polished his shoes before leaving with the police.
He named his first daughter Hassia, after his mother.
On the eve of the Six Day War, Begin was the driving force in the formation of the National Unity Government. He put aside key political and personal rivalries to make it work.
He served in opposition for eight successive administrations before finally becoming Prime Minister in 1977.
Shortly after his victory he was asked what kind of government he would lead. “The good Jewish kind,” he replied.
One of his first acts as PM was to grant Israeli citizenship to 179 Vietnamese refugees who had escaped their homeland on boats. No other country had been willing to take them in.
At a state dinner at the White House, he told Jimmy Carter and his team: “I know that my electoral victory came to you as a total surprise, so I crave your forgiveness. And, by the by, my name does rhyme with Fagin!”
Soon after taking power, he said: “I appeal to King Hussein and to Presidents Assad and Sadat to meet me either in their capital or in neutral territory. Too much Jewish and Arab blood has been shed in this region.”
As he visited Egyptian President Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat to discuss the peace treaty, Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem – was played on Egyptian soil.
In 1978, he and Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
An aide once asked Begin what his home phone number is. Begin said he didn’t know. Why not, asked the surprised aide. “Because I never phone myself,” replied Begin.
During a bible study session in June 1981, he revealed that Joshua was one of his favourite biblical figures. He said it was Joshua’s courage and unpredictability that he made him such a fine leader. Days later Begin bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
During the 1982 Lebanon War, Prime Minister Begin was given immediate reports of any Israeli casualties, even at night. His wife revealed that when such reports came, “he cried and didn’t sleep a wink all night”.
He spoke nine languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, English, German, French, Spanish and Latin. He had a terrifyingly accurate memory.
He set the wheels in motion for the eventual rescue of Ethiopian Jewry.
After his wife died he received a letter of condolence from the widow of President Sadat. In his reply, he wrote: “Thank you for your wonderful letter. We shall continue to share the memory of our dear ones who left us. You and I shall always believe in the good, just cause of peace for which we all made so great endeavours.”
When he died he was given a simple – rather than state – funeral, as he had requested in his will.