To Win or to Die

Born and reared in Poland between the two world wars, Menachem Begin was an early and ardent apostle of Zionism. Even in his early days, his Zionism was forceful, even provocative: He gravitated naturally, it seems, to the militant faction of the movement, and photographs often show him wearing the military uniform of the Zionist youth group Betar. He was to maintain and display his faith in direct action throughout his life.

Struggle and conflict are the keynotes to Temko’s biography of the controversial Israeli leader. He traces Begin’s early life: his youth in Poland between the wars, his flight from the Nazis, and his brief imprisonment by the Soviets. These were only preludes to the enduring conflict, the struggle to create the modern Jewish state.

Begin’s tenure as leader of the Irgun, the most intractable of the Zionist paramilitary groups, was a time of mixed heroism and terrorism. Temko’s research is careful and his presentation evenhanded, and the reader is left to decide whether Begin showed steadfast determination to the cause of Israel or callous disregard for the lives of Arabs and Britons.

The same question, only raised to a much greater level, must be asked about Begin’s political career. His domestic opponents and his foreign enemies had to surrender totally or be destroyed. The much-heralded Camp David summit, while a milestone in the search for peace in the Middle East, was another battle for Begin, and a battle which both sides nearly lost.

Temko’s biography is a penetrating, often moving, and always revealing portrait of a man and a leader whose career has left an indelible mark upon our times.