I’ve just finished reading Avi Shilon’s new biography of my favourite Israeli leader of all, Menachem Begin. I was a little surprised when it was marketed as the first biography of Begin, as Ned Temko published a fine one in 1987. (Indeed, Temko’s book is even namechecked in Shilon’s Bibliography.)
However, Shilon’s book digs deeper, and unveils Begin the man as much as Begin the warrior and politician. I love how Shilon documents his fine sense of humour, as well as other quirky details including that he and his wife used to love watching the US drama series Dallas. He also shows how Begin’s tendency for melodrama, which served him so well as a political orator, was damaging in his personal life.
Political biographies are a tricky blend to get right. Some are too light and superficial, many more are pretentiously detailed to the point of exasperating impenetrability. Shilon gets the balance just right, giving us a book that is richly detailed and yet always approachable and friendly.
We don’t just get a brilliantly-told story of one of perhaps the most remarkable Israeli leader of all time, who moved from stiff-necked warrior to Nobel peace prize recipient. In the background, we also get a sweeping narrative of the Jewish people from the pogroms of Europe to the Lebanon war of 1982.
Indeed, Shilon positions Begin as the most Jewish of Israeli leaders. Although he never ducks from documenting Begin’s flaws, he ultimately presents a fine man and a loving leader. Begin was a humble man and a loyal husband. Such qualities were rare enough among the politicians of his era, nowadays they are rarer still. If only there were more of his calibre in politics now.
Concluding the chapter covering Begin’s successful election as prime minister of Israel, Shilon writes, ‘When the TV cameras turned to Jerusalem to document the celebrations in Likud’s main branch, the viewers saw a Hasidic band and an elderly white-bearded Jew blowing the Shofar. For an outside observer, it seemed as though the Messiah had arrived.’
Lovely stuff. What a life, what a book.