Throwback Thursday — A Letter to Menachem Begin

It’s been a big week for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party over in that little country in the Middle East called Israel. Following a (some would say upset) victory over Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party, Netanyahu and Likud have been carrying out all the burdensome duties as electoral victors, which apparently includes accepting congratulatory phone calls from certain foreign leaders.

It’s easy to take the news of such phone calls for granted; congratulatory phone calls to Israeli politicians obviously didn’t happen before 1948. It took Likud itself 25 years after the State’s founding to establish itself as the premier center-right political party. One of its founders, Menachem Begin, served as Israel’s sixth Prime Minister from 1977 to 1983 and was the first to represent Likud in that post.

Begin has a storied place in world history as one of the orchestrators of the Camp David Accords, a monumental peace deal with Egypt. But before that Prime Minister Begin was writing letters to admiring New Yorkers (amongst other things). About nine months before Israel invited Anwar Sadat to visit Israel in 1977, Begin responded to a letter from a fan in Jackson Heights, Queens:

Thank you for your letter dated January the 24th 1977. It is with pleasure that I have autographed for you the attached script of “Meet the Press”. I appreciate deeply your good sentiments. With my best wishes. Yours sincerely, M. Begin.

The letter is addressed to a Mr. Jacob Shanerman at 35–63 88th Street. Unfortunately, we don’t have a copy of Mr. Shanerman’s letter, so it’s impossible to know to which episode of Meet the Press he was referring. Begin did appear on Meet the Press in 1982 — well after he responded to Mr. Shanerman’s letter — but his appearance was “plagued” by technical difficulties (NBC doesn’t have a transcript, but a video of the torturous interview is here).

Begin made another appearance on Meet the Press (recording is preserved here), but it was decades before he founded Likud or served as Prime Minister. In fact, the interview was conducted in late 1948, before the newly-established Israeli government had even written a constitution. Begin was giving the interview as a member of Herut, a nationalist freedom party in Israel. Herut was an offspring of Irgun, a guerrilla warfare group that previously fought with British forces in efforts to liberate Israel and/or “Mandatory Palestine” from British rule (and had been commanded by Begin).

At the time, Begin was a controversial figure in both the American and British Press, because Irgun was seen by many as a terrorist organization (MI:5 says they were plotting to assassinate Winston Churchill). Begin had to field such questions as, “Will you be a part of the Israeli government?” and “Will you turn over you guns?” Most of the questions came from seasoned New York journalists while Bill Slater moderated. Even Begin acknowledged that he was afraid of being “killed” by questions from Seymour Friedan (of the New York Herald Tribune) and Murray Davis (from The New York World Telegram):

But before I am going to answer this question, and before I am killed by other questions of yours…as a matter of fact, since I have come to America, I know that a man can be killed not only by a bullet — all the British bullets missed me — but also by questions of newsman or by the cameras (Recording at 2:15).

It’s an interesting endeavor to listen to a young Begin make his arguments in the mess of early politics in the Israeli state with the memory of what he later came to do in the Camp David Accords so firmly etched in our minds.

This week, a lot has been made of the Obama Administration’s rift with Benjamin Netanyahu and the “soured” relationship between Israel and the US. The easiest way to pass that topic off as if it is uncomfortable dinner conversation is to just call the relationship between America and Israel “complicated.” However, if Begin’s interview in 1948 tells us anything, it’s that Israeli politics is never simple.

Audio recording of Prime Minister Begin’s December 12, 1948 interview on Meet the Press is here.

You can buy a copy of Prime Minister Begin’s letter to Jacob Shanerman for about $1,200 here.

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