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Revolutions: M. Begin, Youth, Underground and American


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Shevat 10, 5772
George Washington and Menachem Begin had many things in common: Both men had complaints about existing governments that they believed could not be remedied by peaceful means. Both men, therefore, led attempts to overthrow those governments by force of arms. Both men succeeded. In keeping with the maxim that "history is written by the victors", both men went down in history as national heros. If either, or both men had failed, they would have been hanged, and, in keeping with that same maxim, they would have gone down in history as treasonous criminals who rebelled against legal authority. Indeed, British textbooks even today often portray the leaders of both the American Revolution and the Israeli War of Independence as hypocritical rebels against lawful government. As Jews, I assume that our opinions should be formed on the basis of the teachings of the Torah, rather than on popular or historical consensus. That being the case, two questions emerge: As Jews and as Americans (or Israelis) should we view George Washington and Menachem Begin as great men who fought for honorable causes, or as misguided criminals who rebelled against legal authority? The primary cause of the American Revolution was the issue of overwhelming taxes. The primary cause of the Israeli War of Independence was the issue of restriction of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. Assuming that we should view both Washington and Begin as great men who fought for honorable causes, what can be learned from this regarding criteria that would determine other justifiable reasons for overthrowing existing governments? For example, would it have been justifiable or perhaps even meritorious, i.e., a mitzva, to overthrow the government of King Ahab, which foisted idolatry on Israel and forcefully suppressed opposition? Or the government of Yitzhak Rabin, which imported thousands of Arab murderers to Israel, and supplied them with deadly weapons, causing the subsequent murder and maiming of large numbers of Jews? (Rabin also suppressed opposition.) Or in our own time, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which seriosly contemplates expelling thousands of Jews from their homes, and handing over the strategic land they occupy to terrorist organizations that will then use it to launch even more terror attacks on Jews? Compared to these issues, taxation without representation and restriction of immigration pale into nothingness! I realize that a positive answer to that last question would be politically controversial, but actually, it wouldn’t be any more controversial than it was when Washington, in his time, advocated overthrowing the government of George III for much less serious reasons. In fact, the historical record has it that the Jewish communities in America at the time, including their religious leaders, who at the time were exclusively Orthodox, were solidly in support of the Revolutionary cause against the existing Crown government. Also, I wish to emphasize that in referring to the Rabin government, I do not mean to justify the assassination, which was arguably an act of murder as opposed to political insurrection, since it eliminated Rabin as an individual, but did nothing to put down the regime or policies that he put in place. Rather, I’m thinking of a hypothetical organized, popular uprising, such as was the case in the American Revolution. Alternatively, it could be contended that in fact there is no justifiable reason to overthrow an existing government, and that the people must accept whatever they are made to suffer at the hands of tyrannical regimes and may do nothing but peacefully protest, even if the protests fall on deaf ears. That, however, would make Washington and Begin into criminals instead of heros. That would be a hard pill for Americans and Israelis to swallow, but if that’s what Judaism teaches, so be it! As a History and Political Science major, I’ve studied the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Patrick Henry, and others on the subject of Revolutionary Right. I find it to be a fascinating issue, and I’d like to know what Judaism has to say about it.
Shalom Michael, A great and well-worded question! Judaism turns for the answer to all such issues to the current Torah and world-recognized rabbinic authorities in each generation who (and this is important!) specialize in each particular field, to define what revolution and action is “kosher”, and which is not. On one hand, Rabbi A. Y. Kook, the father of religious Zionism, wrote very fondly, even admirably, about the greatness of youthful idealism and “unadulterated” (pun intended!) objectivity, especially in the context of the Zionist-socialist revolution, which basically developed in the youth movements of Europe (Ma’amarei HaReIya p. 230 Arpiley Tohar p. 136). On the other hand, he points out that youthful idealism must be led and directed by the wisdom of experienced leaders, who have not lost the idealism of their youth, are not power or money-hungry, still speak on their wavelength, but benefit from the insight of life and previous generations, as gleaned from our age-old and eternal Torah sources (Orot HaKodesh III, p. 361 ; Igrot HaReIya 753). In general, the true hope and solution to most big problems is not in trying to “teach old dogs, new tricks”, but in idealistic adults educating the youth of the next generation to make the necessary changes. Secondly, Rav Kook warns that most revolutions do more harm than good and are artificial and counterproductive, as he explicitly foresaw at the beginning of the socialist revolution in Russia (Ein Aya, Shabbat I, 32), which overthrew the tyrannical Czar, but brought the Soviet Union, which was even worse! The physical, spiritual, and social development of both the microcosm (the individual child) and the macrocosm (mankind) is slow, but sure evolution, and not through “overnight” immediate revolutions (Orot HaTshuva 5, 3). There are occasional “leaps”, like the Exodus from Egypt, the Israeli War of Independence or the Six Day War, where history is clearly changed significantly as a result of a particular event, but as you partially pointed out, those incidents generally result from the complex of many combined factors, orchestrated together by the G-d of history (Orot haKodesh III, intro. 8). Thirdly, the belief that a loving G-d runs the world, and that He insures the eternity of the Jewish people, encourages us to act confidently (“He’s behind us and we can make the change”) and without panic, as His “partners”, according to His ideals in the Torah, which enable level-headed and patient actions, and discourage desperate, overnight revolutions. Unfortunately, 2,000 years of exile, without Jewish independence, politics, an army nor an economy, brought many religious people (and not a few rabbis) to passivity, waiting for G-d and messiah to save the show, and that’s what Karl Marx, correctly disliked in that type of exile-Judaism (“the opiate of the masses”). Nevertheless, an honest and objective reading of the Bible and rabbinic literature clearly show the proper balance between man’s action and revolution, when necessary, and G-d’s guidance and veto, when needed. Practically speaking, I can testify from firsthand documentation found in Rav Kook’s archives, that Begin’s mentors, including Jabotinsky, David Raziel,and other leaders of the underground, were in direct consultation with Rav Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the time, regarding the extent and severity of at least some of the reprisal actions. In short, just as we wouldn’t open a new mikva, eruv or Kosher pizza without expert rabbinic supervision, how much more so, all revolutions must be carried out carefully and similarly. “There is a time for everything” (Eccl. 3, 1), including revolutions, yet they are seen as an exception to be carried out carefully and with expert and responsible supervision, as opposed to the normal track which brings about change through education and slower, and more calculated ways, which are more natural and longer-lasting. With Love of Israel, Rav Ari Shvat
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