Those looking for a primer or a refresher on Israeli history will find precisely that in director Jonathan Gruber’s documentary Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin. Gruber focuses on the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to recount the history of Israel and its place in a very volatile region. As prime minister, Begin shepherded Israel through some of its most hopeful and horrific moments. His legacy is a source of debate, but his influence on Israel’s internal politics and foreign policy is undeniable.
Begin was born in 1913 in modern-day Belarus. His family exposed him at a young age to the tenets of Zionism. Begin was caught between Nazism’s genocidal project and the gulags of the Soviet Union. He emerged from these experiences as a Zionist militant. He deeply believed his people should never again be history’s hapless victims; Jews had to defend themselves. They needed a homeland.
“…Begin positioned himself as the leader of several Zionist militant movements.”
As he became more radicalized, Begin positioned himself as the leader of several Zionist militant movements. He directed terrorist acts against the British colonial establishment in Palestine. If David Ben-Gurion — one of Israel’s founding fathers and its first prime minister — was more accommodating toward the British, Begin was more radical and violent. Not surprisingly, this created a political turf war between the more establishment Ben-Gurion and the outsider Begin. Eventually, the British cut their losses short and abandoned Palestine, thus strengthening Begin’s reputation.
In Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin, Gruber presents the best and the worst of his subject. Begin was a masterful politician that created a political “upheaval” when his right-wing Likud party swept to power breaking the Labor party’s stronghold. He never presented himself as a secular prime minister and openly celebrated his faith. He believed that Israel should be inclusive and multi-ethnic in terms of its Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations. He welcomed Jewish Ethiopian refugees and even non-Jewish Vietnamese refugees. Begin even came together with Egypt’s Sadat and Jimmy Carter in Camp David to strike peace with Egypt — a move for which he was criticized. Begin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
"…leaves the viewer with much to ponder."