Did Menachem Begin Call Israeli Laws Nazi Laws?

About a month ago, I was walking along the perimeter of the Knesset during an ordinary sitting, when I suddenly froze in my tracks. Ayman Oudeh, the chairman of the Joint Arab List, was speaking at the Knesset podium, and he had made an impossible statement. Actually, he had cited a quote that could not possibly be accurate.

It was a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of Teves and January. The topic under discussion was the UN Security Council resolution concerning Yerushalayim. It didn’t seem likely that anything of note could be said in the course of the discussion. Yaakov Margi of the Shas party delivered an address that was entirely predictable, and Ayman Oudeh then went to the podium. The content of his speech should have been equally predictable – but it wasn’t.

Oudeh decided to speak about a different topic, which is also not unusual for the Knesset. “Mr. Speaker and my colleague, Yaakov Margi,” he began. “Mohammed Khaled Ibrahim – has anyone heard that name? Mohammed Khaled Ibrahim is a twenty-year-old young man from the village of Kabul, a citizen of the State of Israel. He was arrested last year on May 11, and was placed in administrative detention. But I understand why you have never heard his name: He is an Arab. Even though he is a citizen of the State of Israel, you have never heard his name.

“What is administrative detention?” Oudeh continued. “It is when a person is not brought to court and doesn’t know what he has done wrong. His parents don’t know what he has done wrong, and even we do not know what the charges against him are, but he has been in jail for six months already.”

All of that was predictable and even boring. These are routine matters. The right-wing activists who are known as the “hilltop youth” suffer from the same phenomenon; they can be placed in “administrative detention” without anyone explaining the reason, and without being given the right to consult with a lawyer. This has been the law since the state was first founded. Dr. Anat Barko (who wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject of Palestinian women committing suicide bombings) interjected, “It is a groundless arrest.”

Oudeh then hinted at the bombshell he was preparing to drop. He had simply been waiting for the interjection. “You say that the arrest is groundless,” he said. “Let us listen to the words of your famous leader, Menachem Begin, according to the Knesset protocols from May 21, 1951. I would never have had the audacity to say this, but these were his words, spoken in this very Knesset, about the law of administrative detention. ‘There are laws that are tyrannical, there are laws that are unethical, and there are Nazi laws.’ Menachem Begin himself said that this law is ‘tyrannical,’ ‘unethical,’ and a ‘Nazi law.’ This illegal imprisonment and administrative order is an act of audacity, and according to the legendary leader of the Cherut party – which is known as the Likud in its current incarnation – you have no right to do it.”

I listened as Oudeh spoke, and I could not believe that he was telling the truth. I was certain that the quote had been falsified. It was unthinkable that Menachem Begin could have uttered the word “Nazi” while referring to a law of the State of Israel. After all, it was Begin himself who organized massive protests against the acceptance of reparations from Germany. The horrors of the Holocaust were ingrained in his consciousness; how could he have said such a thing?

It seemed to me that the members of the Knesset were not listening, or perhaps they simply didn’t grasp the significance of Oudeh’s words. Yehuda Glick of the Likud party called out, “Would you say the same thing if a Jew was detained?”

“I am against any administrative detention,” Oudeh replied, “whether it is an Arab or a Jew.”

None of the few people present in the plenum challenged the veracity of the quote from Menachem Begin. No one demanded a clarification about the circumstances in which he had said those words – if he had actually said them at all.

Though it was clear to me that the quote was false, I made my way to the archives where the protocols of every Knesset sitting are kept. When I found the transcript in question, I received a double shock. First, I discovered that the quote came from a discussion in the Knesset about us – the chareidim. Menachem Begin was speaking about chareidim who had been placed in administrative detention. This took place at the very beginning of the history of the state, three years after its founding, and concerned an underground group known as the Brit HaKanoim. That episode led to another scandal, when it was revealed that the chareidi detainees at the Jalmi detention camp had been abused and tortured. Most of the speakers in the Knesset on that occasion attacked Moshe Sharett, the deputy prime minister at the time, for supporting their arrest. Menachem Begin, the leader of Etzel and head of the opposition, was undoubtedly the most outspoken of them all.

My second surprise came from Begin’s words themselves. Whoever it was who found the quote that Oudeh cited in the Knesset could have added many more choice excerpts of his speech on that day. Evidently, Oudeh’s researcher was too lazy to look further, or perhaps he did not imagine that anything more caustic could have been said. Nevertheless, I read Begin’s entire address, and I found that he attacked the law of administrative detention, and the arrests of yeshiva bochurim, with no less virulence than Oudeh himself displayed in the Knesset.

•••

First, a little background. The Brit HaKanoim was a group of young Yerushalmi chareidim who were outraged at the scourge of public chillul Shabbos and the sale of nonkosher food in the holy city. They were not like the kanoim of Mea Shearim with whom we are familiar today; rather, they were bochurim from respected families who were part of mainstream chareidi society. In later years, one of those bochurim, Shlomo Lorintz, became a member of the Knesset from Agudas Yisroel. Another, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, went on to become the chief rabbi of Israel. That should give you an idea of who the group’s members were….

They called themselves an “underground,” and according to police investigators and the Shin Bet, the group had about 35 members. They were active from 1949 through 1951, and they employed tactics that drew the criticism of the gedolim, although it was clear that their intentions were noble. The bochurim claimed that they had the backing of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, the rov of Yerushalayim. They began their work by sending threatening letters to the owners of stores that sold treif meat, and to the managers of taxi companies that operated on Shabbos. In January 1951, they torched about 15 cars that had been seen driving in the vicinity of Geulah on Shabbos, and they also set fire to a butcher shop.

The bochurim were taken into custody in the course of a massive wave of arrests. One of them was found in possession of a smoke bomb that he seemed to have been planning to set off in the Knesset building during a debate over the draft of women. Then-Prime Minister Ben-Gurion ordered the Shin Bet to give the highest priority to the case. The intelligence agency, headed by Isser Harel, managed to infiltrate the group with its own operatives, who reported on its movements. In May 1951, the leaders of Brit HaKanoim decided to step up their tactics. They planned to blow up treif butcher shops in broad daylight using Molotov cocktails, and to set fire to the draft office in Yerushalayim. Isser Harel decided to destroy the organization, but he wanted to wait for the ideal opportunity. Let us not discuss the identities of the moles who apprised Harel of the group’s plans; that has remained a bleeding wound in the annals of chareidi history. The arrests of these chareidi youths turned the public’s attention to the subject of the relations between religion and the state, and between the religious and secular communities, but it also focused attention on issues such as the proper treatment of prisoners and the use of administrative detention.

On May 14, 1951, the Knesset held a debate on the highly sensitive topic of drafting girls to serve in the IDF. The youths of Brit HaKanoim planned to disrupt the proceedings by throwing a smoke bomb into the Knesset plenum. One of the members of the group placed the ingredients for the smoke bomb in a tin cigarette box, which he perforated to allow the smoke to escape and fill the plenum. The plan was for the mixture to be ignited with a cigarette and then tossed into the Knesset while it was in session. At the time, the Knesset was located in the Frumin House on Rechov King George in Yerushalayim, and its supply of electricity came from the nearby Eden Hotel. Another operative was supposed to cut off the flow of electricity when the smoke bomb was thrown into the room, and he was equipped with a metal bar that he would use to break down a door for that purpose. The plan was named “Operation Kallah.”

The Shin Bet was aware of these plans, and Isser Harel met with Yosef Sprinzak, the speaker of the Knesset, to warn him about the planned attack. Harel stressed that it was important for the perpetrators to be caught in the act, and that the Knesset should convene as usual and wait until the underground operative would attempt to carry out his attack, at which point he would be arrested.

The debate in the Knesset was stormy that day, and many harsh words were hurled back and forth among the members of the Knesset. Sprinzak felt tense and threatened, and he closed the sitting early in the day, before the group could carry out its attack. Immediately after the failed operation, Harel decided that he would not wait any longer, and he ordered the arrests of all the members of Brit HaKanoim. The wave of arrests, which took place over the following days, brought 40 members of the underground group into custody. Twenty of them were placed in administrative detention, in what was only the second time in the country’s short history that the emergency provision authorizing such detentions had been used. The first was when members of the Lechi group were taken into custody after the Bernadotte assassination. In searches of the yeshivos where the members of the underground had learned, the authorities discovered a warehouse of weapons and ammunition that included two submachine guns, three revolvers, Tommy gun magazines, 1764 bullets of different types, six hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, other explosives, and additional incendiary materials. They also unearthed documents pertaining to the underground’s activities.

The revelations ignited a major uproar. The public was inundated with news reports and information on the case, as if a band of terrorist murderers had been captured. At a press conference held after the arrests and attended by Ehud Avriel, the director-general of the prime minister’s office, the following statement was made by Commissioner Levi Avrahami, the police commander of the Yerushalayim district: “In my view, one of the gravest sins that has been committed, perhaps since the establishment of the state, is the attempt that was made the other night to attack the Knesset, and possibly to harm its members as well.”

•••

But the next scandal that erupted practically eclipsed the existence of the underground and the arrests themselves: It was soon revealed that the police had employed sadistic brutality against the detainees. The arrested bochurim were sent to the Jalmi detention camp, near Kibbutz Shaar Haamakim, where they were viciously abused by the police. The prisoners claimed that they were cursed, harassed, and physically abused, and that the police employed underhanded tactics against them; for instance, they were given paper to write letters to their families, but instead of sending the letters, the police used them as handwriting samples. During the trip from Jamli to Yerushalayim, which took four and a half hours, they were not permitted to use a restroom. When they arrived at Jalmi, each prisoner was viciously beaten, as the police cursed at them and shouted, “You won’t get out of here alive!” They were forced to run laps around the courtyard and then beaten again by the cruel guards, who were Jewish.

Public opinion – even among the chilonim, who had initially been repulsed by the movement’s activities – quickly swung in their favor. The public had been horrified at the initial revelation that there was an armed underground whose goal was “religious coercion,” but that sentiment quickly gave way to condemnation of the police for their treatment of the prisoners. Eventually, it was decided that most of the prisoners would be released, and only the leaders of the group would be indicted. The charges that were brought against them were particularly severe and included 27 different clauses. The leading charge was treason, on account of their intent to combat the government’s draft of women. Additional clauses in the charge sheet related to their planned attack on the Knesset, the torching of automobiles, and their use of illegal weapons and threats.

At the end of the trial, in March 1952, the defendants were found guilty of most of the charges. They were sentenced to prison terms of only half a year to one year each, which the court explained based on “their young age and religious sensibilities,” and the fact that they had “learned their lesson.” The sentence was based on the recommendation of the Shin Bet, which did not wish to destroy the lives of the group’s leaders; its goal was only to break the organization itself, and to prevent them from engaging in such activities in the future. Of course, the leaders of the chareidi community also interceded on their behalf.

Nevertheless, the outrage at the actions of the police did not abate. In response to the widespread fury, a parliamentary investigative commission was launched to probe the former prisoners’ claims of police brutality. The commission found that the conduct of the police had been “against the law, damaging to the prisoners and to human dignity, and in many cases improper and degrading.” It also found that the actions of the police officers had been planned and directed by their superiors, and that it was not an isolated case of misconduct by a single officer or police commander. The commission recommended examining strategies to prevent this type of behavior in the future, and it advised the Knesset Interior Committee to appoint a commission of experts to work on changing the attitudes of the police toward their prisoners.

The use of administrative detention was not accepted quietly either. In a stormy debate in the Knesset following the arrest of the suspects, many members of the opposition, including Menachem Begin and representatives of the Mapam and the Religious Front, condemned the use of the regulation that permitted such detentions. Moshe Sharett responded that in cases of such severe crimes, there are grounds for using a drastic measure of that nature in order to protect democracy. He even called the group a “terrorist organization.” At the end of that debate, the Knesset decided to abolish the emergency ordinances that were used to permit the detentions, and to pass a new law for the protection of the state that would allow the same practice. This law was passed by a majority of 53 to 49. And as I mentioned, those regulations are still in place today.

It was during that debate in the Knesset that Begin uttered the words quoted by Ayman Oudeh.

•••

The debate took place on May 21, 1951 (the fifteenth of Iyar, 5711). It was during the First Knesset, which took office in January 1949 (Teves 5709) and dissolved in August 1951 (Menachem Av 5711). The Knesset speaker, Yosef Sprinzak, allowed several members of the Knesset to speak on the subject and to present the reasoning for their proposals. The first speaker was Mordechai Nurock of the United Religious Front, the party that included all of the chareidi, religious, and Mizrachi parties, including Agudas Yisroel and Poaeli Agudas Yisroel, which had 16 seats in the Knesset at the time. When this discussion took place, the details of the case were still not clear, and every speaker was careful not to defend the actions of the prisoners, who had been classified as terrorists. Nevertheless, with regard to their rights, the violence that had been employed against them, and the use of administrative detention, there was complete agreement. Nurock related that there were rumors that the detainees had been tortured. He insisted that the use of administrative detention set a dangerous precedent, and it also led to the suspicion that it was not certain that they were indeed guilty. In other words, perhaps the authorities were reluctant to have the prisoners arraigned before a judge because they were not certain that they could justify their incarceration.

Moshe Sharett, who served as the deputy prime minister and foreign minister at the time, and who later became the prime minister, presented the government’s position in response to Nurock. He referred to the group’s actions as “terror in defense of religion” and accused them of following “a Torah that sanctifies violence.” He asserted that the underground movement had distinct signs of being a terrorist organization. “The administrative detention is legal,” Sharett asserted. “We have acted in accordance with the law.”

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the Minister of Religious Affairs, interjected, “In accordance with British law.”

“My honored friend, Rabbi Maimon,” Sharett replied, “I will soon deal with that point. But right now, I will say only that it is now the law of the State of Israel. We have approved it, even though it is true that it originated in the previous regime [i.e., the British Mandate].”

David Hacohen of the Mapai party asked, “What about the torture that Rabbi Nurock mentioned?”

“I was shocked to hear Rabbi Nurock’s accusation,” Sharett said, “which was made for the purpose of inflaming passions and poisoning public opinion. I reject that accusation with absolute disgust. I am filled with distress over the fact that my friend, the honored Rabbi Nurock, has fallen prey to this.” In spite of his vehement response, the commission later determined that the reports of torture had indeed been true.

Nurock’s speech was followed by addresses from other members of the Knesset: first Chanan Rubin of the Mapam party, and then Menachem Begin of the Cherut party. Of course, I must quote portions of Begin’s speech, which was extraordinarily scathing. It was a verbal offensive of unprecedented intensity. Begin made sure to note that he did not wish to defend people who had torched cars – “if, in fact, they did burn those cars,” he added. “The question,” he went on, “is who in the State of Israel has the authority to determine guilt and to impose punishments.” The answer, of course, was that that power belonged to the courts, and not to officials who could issue administrative orders.

“I don’t believe you when you say that illegal weapons were found,” Begin said, “and I do not believe you when you try to declare yourself a judge. A weapon was found somewhere, but no one knows to whom it belonged. The judge will decide whose weapon it was; you will not decide that. I do not believe you or your secret police. Do we have judges here in Israel, or don’t we?”

Later in his speech, Begin said, “You should not be shocked by the accusation that was mentioned here by MK Nurock, that the prisoners were tortured. It is not my intention to establish this as a fact; I do not know whether there was indeed torture that took place. I do know, however, that the members of your secret police include people who collaborated with the British secret police, sadistic people who tortured the prisoners under their control. Why, then, should you be shocked? Why should you pretend that it is unthinkable? Haven’t there been trials in Israel concerning the use of torture? I am not making accusations; I am merely saying that I want facts, and I want the court to rule on these matters. If you have evidence, then why did you use the emergency provisions of the law? And if you don’t have evidence, then what allowed you to open a concentration camp in Israel? What you have done is a shameful act of terror, a deliberate act that brings more disgrace upon this state than all the crimes that Brit HaKanoim has committed or planned to commit. For today, there is a concentration camp in the State of Israel.”

“It is for the state’s protection,” Moshe Sharett said.

“No,” Begin replied. “It is not for the protection of the state; it is to undermine the security of the state and to besmirch its name. There are no concentration camps that guarantee the security of a country. A camp of this sort would undermine the security of any country. Acts of terror committed by the government bring other acts of terror in their wake. Experience should have taught you that. We are the people who fought the British government and violated its laws, and we called on the youths to ignore your orders because you were collaborating with the British. We call on everyone to respect the laws of the Knesset, but we warn you that this path is fraught with danger. You have done something heinous: You have opened a concentration camp in Israel.”

“You can’t choose between laws,” Sharett insisted. “Every law is a law.”

“That is not true,” Begin said. “There are laws that are tyrannical. There are laws that are unethical. There are Nazi laws. The law that you have used is a Nazi law, it is tyrannical, and it is unethical. And an unethical law is also illegal. Therefore, this arrest is illegal, and your orders are unauthorized. You did not have the right to do this. You, Mr. Sharett, are trying to cover up for your failures as foreign minister….”

“That is a typical line of reasoning for you,” Sharett retorted.

“I will not speak about those failures today,” Begin said, “but they are particularly grievous, and they endanger our country more than the group of youths that you call – or who call themselves — the Brit HaKanoim.”

•••

The debate went on, and the arguments were fierce and furious. I will quote Menachem Begin’s closing words: “From the first moment, we warned that if these laws, the laws of terror of an oppressive regime, remain in force in the State of Israel, there will come a day when every sector of the country will have been harmed by them. The day will come when another group is harmed, and it doesn’t matter who the victim will be. It doesn’t matter who will be sitting in a concentration camp in Israel; the existence of these laws is a disgrace, and their use is a crime!”

Ayman Oudeh quoted only a small portion of the words of Menachem Begin, the leader of the Cherut party, who later became the prime minister of Israel.

Zerach Warhaftig, a member of the Knesset at the time and future Minister of Religious Affairs, and a man who had been one of the heroes in the story of the salvation of the Mirrer Yeshiva, was also particularly vehement in his own address. “There are rumors that the interrogations were carried out in an unacceptable way,” he said. “The newspapers have reported two facts that the police haven’t bothered to deny. One is that a young man was interrogated for twelve hours straight, with the interrogator being relieved in the middle by a different questioner. If being questioned for twelve hours is not torture, then I do not know what is. The second incident was when a boy was threatened with a gun. Isn’t that torture as well?

MK Moshe Ben-Ami warned that if the proper lessons were not derived from the incident, the day would come when arrests of this sort would be made for even minor infractions. He attested that he knew some of the families of the detainees, and they were not terrorists. MK Tawfik Toubi (an Arab and a member of the Arab Communist Party, who went on to serve for decades as a member of the Knesset) demanded that the prisoners be released immediately – in his words, “so that we will not become a fascist state….”