Which experiences led former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin — once considered hawks — to attempt to make peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors?
That question is at the heart of the two thought-provoking museums dedicated to their legacies.
Located in Jerusalem, with a stunning view of the Old City, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center (begincenter.org.il/en) houses a museum, archive and restaurant, as well as a bustling education and convention center.
Like Begin himself, the museum is at once haimish — visitors to his recreated living room sit on his actual furniture — and compelling.
Visitors learn about Begin’s extraordinary life largely through touch-screen exhibits and video clips containing archival footage and dramatizations.
The 75-minute guided tour (augmented by multilanguage earphones) details how Begin was born into a poor but loving religious Zionist family in Poland and how he helped organize youth aliyah before World War II. Imprisoned in a Siberian work camp for being “a dangerous element to society,” he later became a soldier in the Polish army. Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust.
The museum deftly depicts Begin’s years as the head of the Irgun, the Jewish resistance movement that carried out nearly 300 military-style attacks, including the deadly bombing of the King David Hotel, then headquarters of British Mandate officials. Also under his leadership, the Irgun helped plan the storming of and subsequent escape of Jewish militants from the Acre prison (events depicted in the film “Exodus”).
At the age of 35, just after Israel gained sovereignty, Begin made the transition from freedom fighter to politician. The Herut Party he founded became increasingly influential, and at the age of 64, Begin became prime minister.
Begin’s first act in office was to give sanctuary to a group of Vietnamese refugees no other country would accept. He was guided by a profound sense of social justice and his own wartime memories.
The war years, both in Europe and in pre-state Israel, strengthened Begin’s resolve to keep Israel safe; contrary to many of his colleagues on the political right, he believed that ceding land to Egypt would accomplish this.
Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Photo by Michele Chabin
It is fascinating to watch videos of Begin, a fiery orator and fierce supporter of the Greater Israel movement, as he defends Israel’s rights to build settlements, juxtaposed with footage of the signing of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt and Israeli troops forcibly uprooting the Yamit Jewish settlement in Sinai.
Given how unsettled the Middle East is right now, it is extraordinary to relive the arrival of Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian president and Begin’s peace partner, at Ben-Gurion Airport. Such a hopeful scenario seems unimaginable today.
One of the strengths of the museum is that Begin always comes off as very human.
He was tormented by Israeli losses in the first Lebanon War, and by the death of his beloved wife, Aliza. Emotionally and physically exhausted, he resigned from the premiership and lived the remainder of his life more or less as a recluse.
This appears to have been the only time in Begin’s life that despondence overshadowed tenacity.
The Israeli Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center (rabincenter.org.il) near Tel Aviv takes a much broader approach. Just 20 percent of the exhibitions are dedicated to Rabin while the remaining 80 percent relate the history of Israel.
The building’s ingenious circular design features a central corridor devoted to Rabin’s childhood and adult life told through short videos, family and iconic photographs, and a marvelous collection of his personal belongings. To the right of the corridor are several halls that wonderfully capture various periods of Israeli history.
The tour, enhanced by headsets, begins with footage of the high-energy Nov. 4, 1995, peace rally Rabin attended the night he was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing extremist. It ends, one and a half hours later (though one could easily spend a day here), with footage of right-wing demonstrations depicting Rabin as a Nazi, and, soon after, a shocked nation trying to come to grips with his assassination.
In between, visitors relive Israel’s struggles to gain and maintain statehood as its Arab neighbors attacked; to absorb and feed a million immigrants in tents and huts; and to build a national infrastructure. Stirring clips show the frightening days leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, and others reveal how the subsequent euphoria of the victory turned to despair just six years later, when an unprepared Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur.
As part of the center’s goal to promote tolerance (it runs an impressive educational program for students and soldiers), the museum also highlights the struggle for equality by Mizrachim and Arabs. Throughout the museum, cues encourage visitors to ponder how they would handle controversial national issues such as settlement building.
Like Begin, Rabin had a foothold in almost every key event in Israeli history. Born in Jerusalem, he held a top role in the Palmach underground movement. By the end of his first two decades, Rabin had become a legendary military figure at a time when Arab military and guerrilla groups were becoming more sophisticated.
As Rabin’s career transitioned from soldier to statesman (he served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States), to politician and prime minister, he always remained at heart a pragmatic military man. For years he refused to deal with the PLO leadership, only to change his mind when he believed it was in Israel’s best interest to do so.
As the museum tells the story, a turning point for Rabin was the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq attacked Israel with long-range missiles.
“The response of the Israeli home front during the war sharpened his feeling that the Israeli public had tired of war and was willing to pay the price of peace. He saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been at the heart of anti-Israeli activity in the region, as a historic opportunity to make progress toward peace,” according to the center’s Web site.
Rabin believed that the new circumstances “had created a window of opportunity for peace and that Israel should hasten to exploit this opportunity before the introduction of nuclear weapons into the region, which would endanger the very existence of the state.”
Visitors must judge for themselves whether Rabin was on the right track at the right time.
The museum is admirably even-handed, and it places all events — including the large-scale displacement and suffering of Palestinian Arabs — in the context of Israel’s fight for survival.
Both museums are highly recommended for visitors ages 12 or older.