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The Great Speeches: Menachem Begin’s Civil War Threat

What makes a great speech? A great speech confronts two universal values with one another and forms an unsolvable conflict. Such was the steering speech by Elazar ben Yair, which led to mass suicide on the Masada. A great speech can be addressed in a seemingly insignificant occasion, and still enter indifferent hearts, like Elie Wiesel’s speech in the White House; in other cases a great speech is addressed in a crucial historical event, such as Gideon Hausner’s speech in the opening of the Eichmann Trial, which sent shivers down the spine of the entire nation. Finally, a great speech can in some cases hit the most sensitive chord of a collective, like the rebuking address by Menachem Begin against the Reparations agreement, in 1952.

It was often said that Menachem Begin used to stand in front of the mirror for hours before each speech, rehearsing his body gestures, timing his fist clenching to perfect precision, and practicing his powerful lines. Long before the era of T.V. politics, which created eloquent leaders such as Barack Obama and Benyamin Netaniahu, Begin – head of the Nationalist Zionists – realized that body language mattered as much as what he had to say.

In Begin’s speeches, the icing on the cake has always been the content. He spoke passionately and never had two faces. There was never any gap between Begin the ideologist, Begin the statesman and Begin the skilled orator. He was indeed a gifted speaker, no less than legendary rhetoricians such as Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King. During his career he addressed some of the most influential speeches. His most charismatic speech was addressed when he was still a young leader, in front of a rally in Jerusalem, which naturally was not televised, therefore did not enter as deep as it should to the Israeli collective visual memory. This was the speech that strengthened the image of Begin as a fearless devoted leader – the speech about the Reparations from Germany.

The reparations agreement speech, Menachem Begin, 1952. Israel State Archives

The reparations agreement speech, Menachem Begin, 1952. Screen shot: Israel State Archives

Upon the Reparations Agreement with Germany, the Mapai ruling party was facing a tough moral dilemma: should they or should they not accept the large sums offered by the Germans to the young State of Israel as compensation for the horrors of the holocaust? Can money really clear a guilty conscious? And should the Jewish state help the aggressors clear their conscious this way? Prime Minister Ben-Gurion held a typical pragmatic approach. It was a time of austerity, mass immigration, and the state was recovering from the War of Independence, facing a severe financial crisis. “The Old Man” figured that the German funds will be a significant lifebelt for the poor new state, a financial foundation on which the Hebrew state could develop and prosperous.

The controversy over the Reparations agreement split the public in half and revealed the core of the historical debate between the Zionist right and left: restraint versus fanaticism; compromise versus absolute justice; the ideal versus the reality. It was one of the most emotional debates in the history of the state and of the Knesset. The struggle was escalating until January 7, 1952, when the Reparations Agreement was introduced in the Knesset. During the debate in the Israeli parliament, a mass rally was held in Zion Square, not far from the Knesset building in Jerusalem. Begin, then chair of the “Herut” party, spoke in the rally harshly against the government:

“This is their only calculation: money, money, money. For a few millions of dollars they will perform an act of abomination. Sure, they promise to establish a new civil engineering company or something of the kind, but rest assure that these sums will soon be gone and dissolved, and where will they get another six millions of Jews for their murderers’ money? This is atrocious!”

One of the main motives in Begin’s speeches has always been the value of the Jewish honor. Like his mentor, Zeev Jabotinski, he also admired the image of a proud, generous, and fierce, “super Jew” that the Beitar movement wished to create. With his Polish gentleman manners, Begin, whose parents and brother were murdered by the Nazis, hit the most sensitive nerve – the holocaust. Like a professional dramaturge he knew how to analyze the Reparations issue in terms of a struggle between good and evil. Representing the ultimate evil were the people from Mapai and the lobbyists from “Solel Boneh”, who wished to make profit from the blood of six million victims. On the other end there were the good men of “Herut”, fiercely guarding the national honor.

The division to “us” and “them” was a central element in his speeches. But this time pushed it even further, and openly called for a civil war, which he was so careful to prevent four years earlier, during the “Altalena” affair.

The reparations agreement speech, Menachem Begin, 1952. Screen shot: Israel State Archives

The reparations agreement speech, Menachem Begin, 1952. Screen shot: Israel State Archives

“When you fired at me with cannon, I gave the order; ‘No! Today I will give the order, “Yes!”. This is one of those things that we are ready to sacrifice our souls for; it is for what we shall be ready to die. Get your factions together, sit down and discuss this matter and feel mercy for our nation and do not join this abomination…“

As he finished speaking, the excited protesters began marching towards the Knesset, a march which resulted in a battle field. Hundreds of policemen were injured, and several Members of Knesset had to receive medical treatment. Chances of an actual civil war seemed all too real. Following the events, Begin was barred from the Knesset for a few months. 25 five later Begin, whom Ben Gurion referred to with disgust as “the MK who sits next to MK Bader”, became Prime Minister, which made him realize that he too had to make painful compromises .Nevertheless, he always remained a great speaker.

Ushi Derman