Most of the iconic TV figures I can recall from my childhood in 1970s provincial England are easy to guess: Kojak, Doctor Who, Columbo, the Bionic Woman. But the figure whose face is most seared into my consciousness is that of Moshe Dayan – the former Israeli army general and defense minister who, if he’d appeared in any of the abovementioned shows, would surely have been cast as the charismatic villain.
Yet despite Dayan’s impossible-to-ignore looks with that distinctive eye patch, it was actually the little guy with the big glasses standing next to him that I should have been paying closer attention to in those TV news bulletins. Because Menachem Begin ultimately had a far stronger impact on and more powerful legacy vis-a-vis the Jewish state than Dayan ever did.
Begin was Israel’s first right-wing prime minister, of course, following the shock triumph of his Likud party in the May 1977 general election, after almost 30 years in the political wilderness.
The Hebrew word used to describe that landslide victory, mahapakh, also provides the title for American director Jonathan Gruber’s fascinating new documentary, “Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin.”
It premieres worldwide on Facebook Live at 8 P.M. EDT this Tuesday (3 A.M. Israel time), followed by a U.S. Watch Now @ Home release from Thursday.
A virtual release is probably a blessing right now, because it’s hard to imagine a worse subject to be bringing to U.S. cinemas and TVs than a documentary about Israel’s most revered right-wing leader. Put it this way: People turning up at antifa rallies with an Israeli flag draped around their shoulders would probably get a warmer welcome than this doc in many American cities.
That’s a shame, because “Upheaval” is a rewarding if somewhat one-sided portrayal of a man whose backstory was the kind simply made for the big screen.
Menachem Begin was not your average politician. Born in Brest (in what is now Belarus) in 1913, before he was even 30 he had been sentenced to eight years in a Siberian gulag for his Zionist activism, being released a year later to join the fight against the Nazis with the Free Polish Forces.
He was orphaned by the Holocaust, but survived along with his beloved wife Aliza, arriving in British Mandatory Palestine in 1942. A year later, he was leading the Irgun underground Jewish militia – some might prefer the term “terrorist” instead of “underground” – in actions against the ruling British forces, and also clashing regularly with David Ben-Gurion, who was very much Begin’s ideological opposite throughout his political life.
After the formation of the state in 1948, Begin was in the opposition for 29 years, until he finally reached the top of Israel’s greasiest pole at the grand old age of 63 – a time when many would be starting to contemplate retirement. Or, in America, their first run for the presidency.
Personally, I never would have voted for Menachem Begin, but it’s hard to watch the archival footage here and not be impressed by his oratorial skills and dogged, ideological leadership that, among other things, helped foment an unlikely peace with the Egyptians.
It’s also impossible not to be struck by the humbleness of a right-wing political leader at a time when Israel’s current prime minister makes King Louis XIV look like a devoted and demure public servant.
Gruber told me in a phone interview that he probably only knew about “5 percent” of the Begin story when he began working on “Upheaval” two years ago. And in a way, he’s made the perfect film for viewers like himself, who are perhaps aware of Begin only due to that 1978 peace deal with Egypt and don’t know the big picture about the man behind those big glasses.
In other words, if you don’t know much about Menachem, this is a good place to, well, begin. The documentary is very much made with a U.S. audience in mind (most of the interviews are conducted in English, and preference is given to footage of Begin speaking in English rather than Hebrew).
However, with its choice of talking heads, the documentary spends too much time polishing the halo of “Saint Menachem” for my liking. I’d have preferred more dissenting voices arguing against the choices he made in his six-plus years in the premiership, including rapacious settlement-building in the West Bank (or “Judea and Samaria” as Begin insisted on calling it, drawing a seemingly indelible line between the “biblical heartland” and Judaism) and the disastrous decision for the Israeli army to march into Beirut in the first Lebanon war of 1982. And even when criticism is aired, it’s generally coming from those on the political right, so hardly counts as a stinging rebuke.
Of course, to truly do the subject of Menachem Begin justice, you’d need considerably more time than a 90-minute film. For starters, without the uber-Ashkenazi Begin’s embrace of a Mizrahi community that had hitherto existed (and arguably still does) on the margins of Israeli society, both geographically and socially – Netanyahu’s Likud probably wouldn’t still be the largest in the land, also aided by Ethiopian Jews who Begin brought over to the country during Operation Moses in 1980-1981.
And of course, there’s the Begin Doctrine – by which Israel preemptively seeks to destroy any potential enemy assets that could serve as an existential threat – which still governs Israeli thinking with regard to the likes of Syria and Iran. Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, just weeks prior to the June 1981 election that Begin won, is covered in “Upheaval.” But it’s actually the personal, not the political, that leaves the strongest impression here.
When Begin finally got his hands on the levers of power in 1977, it was significant that he quoted Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address (“With malice toward none; with charity for all…”) as a sign of how he hoped to recalibrate Israeli society.
But the most memorable moment of the speech for me was when he turned to the love of his life, Aliza, and, inspired by the Prophet Jeremiah, declaimed this oh-so-Israeli love letter: “I remember you when you followed me into a land that was strewn on every side with deadly mine fields, and yet you followed me” – perhaps the most hopelessly smitten politician this side of President Joe Biden.
‘Shaped by the Holocaust’
Writer-director Gruber’s previous documentaries include 2011’s “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,” about Jews fighting on either side in the American Civil War; 2012’s “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” about Benjamin Netanyahu’s war-hero brother; and 2015’s “Miriam Beerman: Expressing the Chaos,” about the eponymous U.S. artist and Holocaust survivor. In a sense, then, “Upheaval” serves as the culmination of his previous subjects, combining elements of the Holocaust, war and politics to tell Begin’s unique story.
The impetus to bring Begin’s story to the screen didn’t originate with Gruber but producer (and former chief of staff to ex-Sen. Joe Lieberman) Rob Schwartz, who “took a shine” to Begin, Gruber reports, while reading “The Prime Ministers” by the late Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner.
The latter worked for both Begin and Yitzhak Rabin in the Prime Minister’s Office, but sadly the documentary doesn’t have room for a description of Begin by Avner’s colleague, Gen. Ephraim “Freuka” Poran, who initially said of the man he would later serve as military secretary: “He’s a ghetto windbag, an ex-terrorist, a fanatic” who is “going to lead us into war.”
Given that Gruber knew comparatively little about Begin going into the documentary, the obvious place to start our interview is to ask what his crash-course ultimately taught him about his subject.
“I learned a tremendous amount about the man and how he was shaped by the Holocaust – shaped really by antisemitism in Europe, and then his experiences in World War II,” he says. “And then everything he did, whether it was in opposition or in leading the country, seemed to be guided by those experiences of his family and 6 million Jews being killed.”
Gruber says he wanted to make a documentary that presented the nuances and complexities of Begin’s life, though he dodges my question about his own politics. And though “Upheaval” is very effective at humanizing one of the most iconic of Israeli politicians, no one’s going to mistake it for a Bella Hadid TikTok video.
“My politics are less important than telling a story about a guy that people feel represents them,” the director says, adding that, “thankfully,” he has received complaints from both sides of the political map – “so I know I’m annoying everybody, which is a good thing.”
He adds that it was important for him to include the massacre conducted by right-wing Israeli forces led by Begin in the Arab village of Deir Yassin in 1948, plus the infamous Sabra and Chatila massacre perpetrated by Lebanese Christians on a Palestinian refugee camp in September 1982, which ultimately led to Begin’s political demise just over a year later.
I wonder if we have a tendency to lionize our former leaders, given the rank awfulness of most of the current crop, and suggest to Gruber that we’re in danger of putting the likes of Begin and Yitzhak Rabin on pedestals they may not deserve.
“Pedestal might not be the right word for me,” Gruber replies. “Yes, Begin had tremendous ideals and values. He didn’t enrich himself – the guy didn’t even have enough money to get an apartment in Jerusalem after he ended his term as prime minister. But I think it’s important to talk about the mistakes that he made and owned up to. He resigned – who does that these days?
“So, I don’t feel like I’m putting him up on a pedestal. I think overall it’s a positive portrayal of him in the film, for sure. But I think we have the complexities in there that show him as a person who was flawed as well and sometimes made tragic mistakes.”
‘Why did I leave her?’
I tell Gruber the thing I loved most about the film was its depiction of Begin’s devotion to his wife Aliza, whom he would single out for praise at key moments in his and Israel’s life. Perhaps the most moving moment comes when the prime minister is in Los Angeles on state duties when his wife dies back home in a Jerusalem hospital, in November 1982. An inconsolable, wailing Begin cries out “Lama azavti otta?” (“Why did I leave her?”) after hearing the news. Even a member of “the squad” might be moved by such a heartrending story.
“People think of him as a fighter, as a terrorist or whatever, but not as a lover really – and his wife was with him all the way,” Gruber says, admitting his frustration at not being able to find any footage of Aliza talking on camera, even though the archive was scoured looking for something appropriate. “As Begin said, their relationship was very special and when she died, it really seemed to break him,” he notes.
“Upheaval” draws on excellent archival footage of Begin himself, including three English-language interviews in which he recounted his life story – including an interview with ABC news legend Barbara Walters. Gruber also had about 20 hours of Hebrew-language footage to comb through, not such an easy task when, as he says, his Hebrew is “not that good” (join the kvutsa). Luckily, he had a simple technique to find the good stuff: “When Begin was really passionate, I was like ‘What’s he saying? What’s he saying? Let’s find that out,’” he recounts.
Gruber was particularly pleased to find some “really poignant” footage of Begin after he had retired from public life and was interviewed in hospital, just prior to his death. “I had read somewhere that he had done one last interview before he passed away, so we were looking and looking – and we found it,” he says. “I think that had not really been seen anywhere, it was just kind of in the vault. To me, there’s just something … it’s very sad, but he’s still Menachem Begin.”
It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that, post-Gaza War Part 9 (like “Police Academy” movies, I’ve lost count by now), the documentary is coming out at a time when the “Israel brand” rests somewhere between Armie Hammer and the Ivanka Trump fashion line in terms of popularity among many young Americans.
Gruber concedes that he would have liked a more diverse range of interviewees to make his film more “palatable” for American audiences (there is ultimately only one Arab interviewed – Jordanian Ghaith al-Omari from the Washington Institute think tank – and left-wingers are rarer sights than a mohel in Pakistan). Despite that, he still believes “Upheaval” is no mere hagiography or idol worship of Begin.
“I think that if people are just able to watch the film, they’ll see that it does tell a story of all sides,” he says. “Of a man who did tremendous things and had the Jewish people at his heart, due to his background in the Holocaust, but also made mistakes and owned up to them. And I think that’s a tremendous lesson for anyone who’s in any position of leadership.
“Begin was a person you could really see the story of Israel through,” he concludes, “and that’s really what I wanted: the story of Israel through his eyes.”
“Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin” is on Facebook Live worldwide this Tuesday and then on Watch Now @ Home in the U.S. from Thursday.