Daniel Gordis in Purgatory

In portraying a saint-like Begin, Gordis is attempting to silence contemporary critics of today’s Likud-led government.

Climbing out of the mouth of hell, Dante and Virgil, the poet heroes of the “Divine Comedy,” stand facing Mount Purgatory, home of souls punished for sins of love perverted. On the first rung of the stepped mountain, the other-worldly explorers find the proud – those guilty of the gravest of the seven deadly sins. These souls are doubled over, shuffling and bowed by the heavy stones they carry on their backs; the stones represent the weight of the conceit and arrogance they displayed when they were alive.

I don’t know if Menachem Begin deserves to be among these sinners (in any case, as Jews, both he and I would have been sent to hell by Dante), but Daniel Gordis’ new biography of him, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” certainly does. The book is a paragon of overweening pride: smug, self-satisfied, convinced of its own conclusions, and disdainful of its presumed critics.

Gordis, a rabbi and prolific author who is now senior vice-president of Jerusalem’s new Shalem College, has made a career of shrilly and unquestionably defending Israel against all critics, and this latest book is no exception. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister and one of the most charismatic, complex and polarizing political figures in the country’s history, is portrayed one-dimensionally as a Jewish saint, motivated, from the very beginning of his political career to its end, exclusively by his “unabashed, utter devotion to the Jewish people.” At the book’s end, the reader has no more insight into Begin’s character and drives than he or she did at the beginning, and would do well to turn to the many other more rounded accounts of Begin and his political career.

Pride is not, however, the only connection between Gordis’ “Menachem Begin” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The two works are also both allegorical – Dante’s an allegory of the spiritual life, and Gordis’ of Israeli politics. For, though the biography’s ostensible subject is Begin’s life, its real object is, quite transparently, to convince American Jews of the rightness of Gordis’ own particular pro-Israel position. Gordis uses Begin’s life as a parable to defend and justify many of the controversial positions of Israel’s current Likud-led government: on the Iranian nuclear issue, settlement construction, negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, disloyal Israeli leftists, American Jewish liberals, and Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

Read the full review from 2014 in Haaretz.