Life of Menachem Begin Offers Messages on Leadership Today
The 25th annual Denver Jewish Film Festival kicks off on Monday, February 8, and this year will feature “Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin,” a film executive produced by Coloradan, Rob Schwartz.
With no prior filmmaking experience, Schwartz, a Denver businessman and philanthropist and the visionary behind the film, started on this journey four years ago, after reading, “The Prime Ministers” by Yehuda Avner. He was struck by the story of the complex, controversial, and often misunderstood leader whose messages of morality, unity, social justice, and compromise, are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. And he was surprised that there were no English language films about Begin.
“It was on my mind for days,” said Schwartz. “I thought it was shocking that with all of Prime Minister Begin’s accomplishments and sacrifices that no one had made a documentary.”
Directed by Jonathan Gruber, who also made the award-winning “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” the film chronicles the life of the controversial and consequential Israeli leader from his birth in Poland in 1913 to his death and burial on the Mount of Olives in 1992.
It recounts the impact of the Holocaust, which was for Begin, as for most European Jews, was the defining event in his life. A young man when the Germans invaded Poland in the 1930s, he lost his entire family and was himself imprisoned for a year in a Siberian gulag.
Upon release, he made his way to Israel and took up arms as the leader of the Irgun militia to free then Palestine from British rule and help establish the Jewish State. Elected to the Knesset and later, in 1977, as prime minister, he inked the peace deal with Egypt that remains in place today and that has been echoed in the recent Abraham Accords between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.
Using rarely seen archival materials and intimate interviews with Israelis and Americans who knew him personally and as Prime Minister, “Upheaval” portrays a brilliant, tough, complex, and proud man who never compromised when he felt that the survival of Israel and the Jewish people were at stake.
“What struck me the most was Menachem Begin’s character,” says Gruber, on why he decided to direct “Upheaval.” “His was fiercely committed to social justice and democratic values. Begin brought in and embraced so many in Israel who were disenfranchised, welcoming, for the first time, not only Ethiopian and Russian immigrants into Israel but even Vietnamese boat refugees who were turned away by every other country,” adds Gruber. “And he gave voice and a more equitable place in society to the North African Sephardic Jews.
“In much the same way, Begin felt that Israeli Arabs had just as much of a right to be full-fledged citizens as Jews were,” says Gruber. “And he fought to eliminate the military rule over Arab villages in the early years of the State.”
While highlighting Menachem Begin’s many meaningful and far-reaching accomplishments on behalf of Israel, the film does not shy away from the controversies that also dogged his leadership.
“Whether you agree with Menachem Begin or not, he was never a hypocrite,” says Schwartz. “He did what he thought was in the best interest of his people and their country. Sometimes he got it right — other times he didn’t — but he always took responsibility for his actions.”
“UPHEAVAL” is part of a larger, multi-layered undertaking by Hidden Light Institute (HLI), a non-profit organization founded by Schwartz to educate young Jews and especially, college students, about the founding of Israel and the lessons to be learned from Begin’s life.
As a companion to the documentary, a curriculum in six languages for high school and college students is being developed. Schwartz has assembled a broad group of supporters in Colorado, and around the country, eager to help him teach those lessons.
Among them, is Colorado businessman Ron Werner, founder of Boulder home furnishings company, HW Home, who spent part of his teenage years attending high school in Israel. “It’s a story of leadership that people need to learn,” said Werner. “Whether you’re Jewish or not, the lessons in leadership and humility are invaluable.”
HLI hopes to inspire young Jews to combat the antisemitism that has once again reared its head in the United States and around the world.
“College students are in a defensive crouch on college campuses,” said Schwartz. “Through the documentary, we are going to inform, educate and inspire a new generation.”
“People always underestimate Begin. They never could measure his heart, his strength, his toughness, and his steadfast commitment to the dignity of the Jewish people, and all people for that matter. That’s what I’m hoping audiences gain from my film.”–Rob Schwartz
The Denver Jewish Film Festival, which will be entirely accessible online for Coloradans, runs from February 8-17. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.jccdenver.org/arts-culture/festivals/denver-jewish-film-festival/. To participate in an opening night Q&A on February 8 at 6:00pm, visit Facebook @jccartsandculture.