Begin is subject of new documentary film ‘Upheaval’
By ALAN SMASON
The producers of “Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin,” a film on the life of the former Israel prime minister, could not have planned its release at a better time. Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has assumed the post of head of the loyal opposition after 12 years as prime minister, the man who was head of the Herut Party and the leader of the opposition for most of three decades is once again on the minds of Israelis.
Written, directed and produced by Jonathan Gruber, “Upheaval” garners its name from the Israeli news media description of Begin’s unexpected electoral win in 1977, which catapulted him and his reconstituted Likud Party (partially formed from former Herut members) to the top government post.
Begin’s overtures to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the accords achieved through the efforts of U.S. President Jimmy Carter are presented as a stark contrast for a man who escaped the horrors of the Holocaust from his native Belarus, was imprisoned by the Soviets for his Zionist views, fled to Palestine and was a critical leader of the Irgun, the militia that fought the British for independence.
Gruber opens the film with scenes from anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Synagogue, in California at the Chabad Center of Poway in Mounsey, New York at the home of a haredi rabbi, in France at the funeral of four victims – three of whom were young Jewish students – and POV videos taken by the failed Yom Kippur synagogue attacker in Halle, Germany.
Begin is seen warning Israelis. “Brace yourselves. Strengthen your spirits!” he exclaims.
Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and former Israel Ambassador to the U.S. and American-born Ron Dermer are among the heavy hitters who comment on Begin as a man, a husband, a Zionist, a reactionary, a resistance fighter, a military leader and, ultimately, a political leader who took the brave step towards normalization of relations with Egypt and the first steps towards a tentative peace with the rest of the Arab world.
But most of the comments about Begin come from rank and file Israelis. These are men and women, Jews and Arabs, haredi and secular Israelis – all of whom profess a love and abiding affection for the man who they romanticize as a strong and defiant leader.
Gruber’s tautly-worded and well-edited film interweaves historic images, films and interviews with Begin himself to describe his life story, even adding production values with occasional animation to supplement the story. And it is a story worth repeating.
Begin’s early life as a young man in Belarus is shown to be typical at that time for Jews of the Diaspora yearning for a Jewish homeland. His connection to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the avowed reactionary Zionist, solidified his importance as a young man and marked him as a leader among his contemporaries as he became the leader of the Zionist youth group Betar that Jabotinksy had himself founded.
When the Nazis invaded Poland and set off the conflagration we know of as World War II, the threat of anti-Semitism was something Begin was keenly aware of and he fled to the East, only to be imprisoned by the Soviets for the crime of Zionism. With no way to defend himself, he was found guilty and sent off to Siberia as a political prisoner. During this time, he was orphaned by the Nazis’ ruthless campaign against the Jews. It was only when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union that his fortunes improved.
Being Polish, the film explains, Begin was selected as a patriot to fight the Germans and he was able to leave the frigid archipelago to move past the front and eventually arrived in the British-controlled Palestinian Mandate, where he met his devoted bride Aliza. The film shows the number of disguises and different looks Begin sported as he was always at the top of the Most Wanted list of criminals wanted by the British.
As the film explains, Begin founded the Irgun, a paramilitary militia which was an offshoot of the older, established Haganah fronted by David Ben Gurion. The irgun which attacked the British wherever it could and set up a campaign against the Arabs, while David Ben Gurion fronted the Haganah, which attempted to work with the British at the time.
At the time prior to the founding of the State of Israel, these were the two most important Jewish groups fighting for freedom and it was a natural outcome from which that Begin, as head of the Irgun, would become a political leader, establishing the Herut Party that opposed the Labor Party for almost three decades in the Knesset.
Gruber gives insight into Begin’s mind that Jews should never fight Jews. In one major incident early in Israel’s history, an Irgun military operation involved a ship full of badly-needed arms, the Altalena intended for the Irgun. Haganah soldiers fired on the ship and were attempting to kill Begin, when he ordered his men to stand down, even when the ship and its valuable cargo were destroyed.
Begin knew the Jewish people had to stand up for themselves, the film states, but not at the cost of brother fighting brother. He was defiant. “Nobody is going to bring Israel to her knees. The Jews do not kneel but to God,” he proclaims in the film.
Indeed, after having come from such a determined position of religious background for the right-wing Herut and Likud Parties, it is something of a contradiction to realize Begin was the first Israeli leader to welcome peace with the Arabs.
As “Upheaval” clearly indicates, he also was a man who only saw Jews seeking redemption in a homeland. To that end he welcomed Ethiopian Jews and was outwardly friendly to Arabs living under the protection of the Jewish State. At one point, the film captures him welcoming “Ashkenazi! Iraqi! Juden!” All were welcome to enjoy the protection of Israel.
While much of the film centers on Begin’s outreach to peace with the Arabs, his jousting with President Jimmy Carter over issues dealing with Jewish settlers was something on which he could not compromise. Neither was he willing to cede any portion of Jerusalem over to Palestinian Arab authority.
Begin’s incursion into Lebanon with Ariel Sharon as defense minister cost him politically, Gruber details, but he is more of a sympathetic figure than Sharon. Begin always was prepared to take the blame. The buck always stopped with him.
Perhaps the biggest part of the film never really explored was Begin’s dedication to his wife Aliza. It was on a trip to the United States in San Francisco that he learned of the sudden passing of his wife and his inability to say goodbye to her haunted him for the rest of his life. He became despondent and pulled back from politics, eventually physically impaired by the stress and confined to a wheelchair.
Although Begin was still a defiant man, he was a hollow shell of his former self and the last few years of his life were spent in relative seclusion.
With newly installed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wearing a kippah on a constant basis, it is interesting to note that Begin was the first Israeli prime minister to wear a head covering at religious events, too. It’s a minor footnote, but one that clearly shines a light on a man who, like Bennett and Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, waited for his time in the spotlight as the leader of the opposition.
“Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin” (1 hour, 25 minutes) is available through the Abramorama platform. For viewing options, click here.