Learn about the History of Zionist Militia: Menachem Begin (Irgun Zvei Leumi)

Amy Zalman, Ph.D. | former About.com Guide

Menachem Begin on a 1978 visit to the U.S.

Begin’s notoriety may be found in an extraordinary career that spanned terrorism to statesmanship to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Many believe that the attacks carried out under Begin’s leadership of a Jewish militia, the Irgun, helped hasten the British withdrawal from mandate Palestine, and the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel.

The labeling of Begin as a terrorist is based on his activities against the British government in Palestine in the mid-1940s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the British who first labeled Begin a terrorist. This label lost much of its force in the late 1970s, when Begin became Israel’s prime minister. Today, whether he was a terrorist or not is still debated.


To eliminate the British presence in Palestine and establish an independent Jewish state.

Begin’s goals make sense in their historical context, the 1940s in Palestine (today the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories). At that time, Palestine was a quasi-independent British colony, known as a “Mandate.” It was peopled by Palestinian Arabs and by an increasing number of European Jews. Some Jews came because they were ideologically committed to a Jewish state, and others came fleeing Nazism as it spread through Europe.

Zionist leaders held different ideas about how to achieve their goal. Revisionist Zionists, like Begin, were extremist nationalists who believed violence was justified to create a state. Begin was focused primarily on getting the British to withdraw their troops from Palestine, and considered guerrilla and terrorist tactics a legitimate route toward this end.

Notable Attacks:

The Irgun, a Zionist militia, carried out these attacks while it was under Begin’s command:

  • February 1944: Bombing of the immigration offices run by the British authorities. Three simultaneous attacks carried out against office branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa symbolized the anger of the Irgun over the British policy of restricting Jewish immigration. There were no casualties.
  • July 1946: The King David Hotel explosion. The Jerusalem luxury hotel was serving as the home of the British military command and government administration. The strike leveled the building and killed 91 people.

Key Influences:

Begin’s attraction to Zionism began during his childhood in Russia. His father, a committed Zionist, influenced him. Begin joined the Betar movement, a Revisionist Zionist organization founded in 1923, when he was 16 years old. (Betar is an acronym made from its Hebrew name, Brit Yosef Trumpeldor.)

Revisionist Zionism focused on the establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River. Revisionist Zionism may be contrasted with the more dominant form of Jewish nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, Labor Zionism, which sought to use diplomatic and non-violent means of establishing a state. In the 1930s, Revisionist Zionists flirted with Fascism as a political ideal (and as a counterweight to Marxism and socialism, which they did not like). This was largely dropped as Nazism and Fascism’s extreme anti-Semitism became evident.

Family Background & Political Life:

Begin was born in 1913 in the Lithuanian town Brest-Litovsk. He was schooled as a child in a yeshiva (a school combining traditional Jewish topics and secular subjects). He was a the leader of Betar in Poland at the time World War II began. He was arrested by the Soviets and sent to a Siberian detention camp. He arrived in Palestine with the Polish Army in 1942, then assumed leadership of the Irgun.

Following Israel’s establishment in 1948, Begin founded the right wing political party, Herut. In 1977, he became Israel’s prime minister. He is often cited as notable as its first non-socialist head of state. He also became the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty with an Arab country, Egypt. In 1978, he and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Begin resigned as prime minister in 1983.

Begin was married Aliza Arnold in 1939. She died in 1982.

Organizational Affiliations:

Begin, in the period of his life dedicated to guerrilla activities, was affiliated with an organization called the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), which he led from 1944 until 1948. Revisionist Zionists who believed that a militant attitude and terrorist activities were legitimate ways to achieve their political objectives founded the Irgun in 1931. They may be seen in much the same light as other groups who have used terrorist tactics to oust a foreign occupier.

Begin and the Irgun

Begin arrived in Palestine in 1943 as a member of the Polish army and a newcomer to the Irgun, which had been leaderless for nearly a year. At the end of the year, Begin was selected to be the organization’s Commander. His first decision was to declare armed struggle against the British Mandatory government.

The revolt began on February 1, 1944, when the Irgun posted copies of its declaration of revolt on Jerusalem walls. Activities of the Irgun against the British came to an end when the acting leadership of the Yishuv opened a “hunting season” on its members. Many were arrested, detained and some were deported to Africa for detention. In 1945, the Haganah, the Irgun and another organization committed to terrorist tactics, the Stern Gang (Lehi), joined forces in military struggle against the British.

Where He Is Now

Begin died of heart failure in 1992, in Israel.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: