It was life with father as Israeli guerrilla.
"Name-calling is almost a procedure at school," remembers, Binyamin Begin. "Sometimes it goes to the fat kid, sometimes it's the slim kid, and when you have to father, a celebrity, then they pick on your father. They would refer to him as a terrorist."
On Binyamin Begin's first birthday, a man named Yaakov Hilvitz brought a present to the one-room apartment in Alfassi Street, in Jerusalem. Hilvitz played with the baby, chatted with the parents, and on leaving the narrow street lined with pines, wrote down the house number. He gave it straight to the British police.
Agents surrounded the house the next morning in ambush for their prey: one fiery Jewish freedom fighter they wanted, dead or alive, of 10,000 pounds. But Menachem Begin had slipped away to Tel Aviv.
"They hoped my father would show up to see his young bride and kid," says his son, "but of course he didn't. And then, our friends managed to get a cab and to sneak my mother out with me." Menachem Begin later ordered the man's execution, a by-the-way fact his son slides over as routine. In the undergound, it often was.
Binyamin Begin is 37 now, a Jerusalem geologist who studies stream patterns with joy, a father of five who takes the bus to work. A funny man, a smart man.Educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then Colorado State University. Friends call him Benny.
He has horn-rimmed glasses brushed by a shock of black hair, a full jaw and courtly charm. You can see that he is his father's son, the prime minister's son.
He is in the United States on a speaking tour that brought him to Washington last week. For nearly two hours, he held afternoon court in a spare Adams-Morgan apartment, lecturing professor-style to some 30 members of Antioch Law School's Jewish Community Caucus.
Below modern art posters and a bright bedspread tacked on the wall, he spoke of the Middle Eastern "fertile crescent" that's now the "arc of instability," of the Palestinian autonomy talks, of the United States' U.N. vote he says he accepts as a "failure to communicate." He denounced Soviet Aggression, termed Israel's West Bank settlements "irrelevant" to peace and referred to Begin's upcoming talks with Jimmy Carter as but "a little chat."
He was scholarly and lawyerly and his views, as hard-line and uncompromising as his father's, are fascinating because they come from the the famous man's son, tinged with the humor of a newer generation. But more fascinating, really, are his family memories that are Israel's memories too.
They are stories of life in the underground, life with the father who commanded the Jewish military organization called the Irgum. They blew up a wing of the King David Hotel and killed 91. At Deir Yassin, the Arab massacre that blights the Begin name, 200 died. Among them were women and children.
And they are stories, after the Jewish state was born in 1948, of life with the dogged, doctrinaire Knesset opposition leader who became prime minister in an astounding polical upset three years ago.
Menachem Begin, quite simply, was not always politically respectable. Menachem Begin was a ridiculed right-winger. A rabble rouser.
"The world does not pity the slaughtered," he once wrote. "It only respects those who fight."
The fight was hard on his son.
"I remember once," says Binyamin Begin, "that was maybe about the age of nine or 10, and there was an event that caused a lot of bloodshed in our country. But when my father spoke about it on the radio at the time, about this tragedy and about the injustice, he momentarily burst into tears." This was over the "Altalena Affair" of 1948, named for the Irgun ship full of men and weapons that wasn't permitted to land. Menachen Begin still says it caused massive Jewish military losses.
"Two or three years later," remembers his son, "some kids picked on me, saying "Hey, your dad's not a hero, he burst into tears.' You know, 'He's a weeping man.' I don't recall if I was proud of those tears.
"My father," says Begin, "Was proud of those tears."
They are the kind of tears that have crafted a friendly geologist who finds politics best as sport. Better yet, as armchair sport.
"I follow the advice of President Truman," he smiles from his rocking chair. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
He knows he can't stand it, too, because as he says, "Well, I had some of the heat. I was living in the living room when heat emanted from the kitchen."
That was in the Hasidoff Quarter, a worker's suburb of gardens and orange groves. It wasn't far from Tel Aviv, where the family had fled from Jerusalem.
In the kitchen, by the light of a small oil lamp or a candle, we held meetings of the High Command, took important decisions and planned operations . . . At times, on Sabbath afternoons or of an evening, we would go out for a refreshing stroll in the fields and groves, and while walking, hold a "session" and take decision on policy.
An Arab shepherd would go by with his flock and greet us. Jewish youngsters played games around us.Nobody could imagine that these innocent, chatting strollers were being hunted by the British Secret Service and police throughout the length and breath of the country. -- From "The Revolt," by Menachem Begin
These days, the son doesn't think about it as epic. Or history. They just did it, that's all.
"You don't really grasp it," he says. "You don't. History walks in front of you, and what you're doing is either you eat peanuts or you wash a kid or . . ."
Fast, accented voice stalls. Then it races to catch up with the mind.
"Four weeks ago, it was the 26th of February," he continues. "The ambassadors of Egypt and Israel were exchanged. My father had a working day, I had a working day, and in the evening we met. We watched TV together. Nine o'clock came the news. And it took us, both of us, maybe a quarter of an hour, you know, we had something to eat, we had some snacks, and we watched it like any other piece of news.
"And only after about 20 minutes, my father said something to the effect of 'Well, it's quite a day, huh?'"
The first ambassadors between two legendary enemies. A bit of television, with snacks. And so history.
"You have so many details," Binyamin Begin continues, "that you don't really feel. You don't say to yourself, 'Okay now, stand still, attention. It's nothing like that . . . Friends have told me of meetings of the Irgun where my father was feeding my sister, who was really an infant, and rinsing the diapers."
When, after emerging from underground, I made my first public speech in Jerausalem, our neighbors were thunderstruck to learn from the newspapers that the commander of the Irgun was 'Benny's father' . . . Benny first heard about it from the children in the neighborhood.
"It's your father! It's your father!"
Benny was shocked. His father had never been in the Irgun . . . -- From "The Revolt," by Menachem Begin
In Irsrael now, Binyamin Begin goes about his business undisturbed. He finds amusing the American preoccupation with celebrity, or in the absence of that, son of celbrity. "This is my third interview," he announces. a"The first two were also on this trip."
And the American necktie. Foolishness. In Israel, like most everyone else but the father whose tie is a trademark, he goes about in shirtsleeves.
"I can admit that this here is a real pain in the neck," he says, fingering the blue polyester of his new suit. The pants bag at the ankles, and the coat's too big.
"This is the first jacket I have bought since I was married," he explains.
"And the jacket I was married in, I wore only once in my life. It was in my closet for 10 years, and then we threw it away.
"And I don't know how it tie my tie. I take it off this way" -- his arms go over his head -- "because it was done by my mother-in-law. I'm very conscious not to unite it, so every morning I take it this way and I put it over . . . I could do very well with a pair of jeans."
His is a sly humor that prowls into serious conversation, nicely coating real answers he must keep to himself. When asked how he thinks he's different from his father, Begin replies brightly, "Well, my father can't sing."
Even his lecture for the students, delivered from notepaper filled with pen scratches, is marked by whiffets of humor.
"I get so tired of hering that the Israeli settlements are 'illegal and an obstacle to peace,'" he says. "I sometimes think that when they wake the head of the State Department in the middle of the night and say to him, 'Israel reached a peace on these settlements,' he will say, These settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.'"
It is talk that sounds oddly political for a geologist, even odder for this particular geologist who just likes to watch. But you misunderstand, he says.
"I'm not part of the charade," he explains. "I'm not running for office. I don't waste my time on that. When I talk to this group, I think I'm doing what I have to do. I happen to have some knowledge of the situation. I think we are biding some difficult times, and I see this as part of my duty as a citizen."
He makes it clear: He came on this tour sponsored by Touro College, in New York, because they asked him. He is not a spokesman for his father. He is not an adviser. Their talk is of grandchildren, of politics only in the remotest sense.
And so, he has little to say about his father's current domestic troubles of inflation, of the settlements, of the recent call for a new majority party.
"I don't think it will lead to early elections," Begin says offhandedly, "but maybe I'm wrong. These things come and go."
Is he as casual as he sounds?
"We have a saying in Yiddish," he says, trnaslating: "Man thinks and God laughs. Or, God is laughing at us anyhow."
Benny . . . did not at first believe his father was the Commander of the underground. Finally he overcame his hesitancy and came to me, holding the newspaper which had printed my photograph.
"Father, is this you? Tell me the truth, is it you?"
I could no longer conceal the truth from my son. His mother explained everything to him. I took the decisive step out of the underground. The child took it with surprising calmness. -- From "The Revolt," by Menachem Begin