- At the opening ceremony of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, I stood in a modern, well-lit square room among many prominent leaders, politicians, donors, and supporters of Menachem Begin. As the hum of the various conversations persisted, and the drinks continued to be served, my impatience instantly vanished when I spotted the person whose arrival I had been anxiously awaiting.
The president of Friends of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation, the United States branch of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation, Mr. Hart N. Hasten, whose autobiography “I Shall Not Die” I had recently been consuming entered the room. I watched as he approached me, the image that I had configured from his book slowly coming to life with each step he took towards me.
Hart N. Hasten, who had arrived to the America, The Land of Opportunity on April 10, 1951 completely penniless, is now a recognized and respected entrepreneur as well as one of the top leaders of the Jewish Community in America. He embodied America’s “Rags to Riches” story by applying qualities he had learned from his beloved father who always appeared confident and fearless in order to save his family. Hasten, just like his father who decided to flee Poland days before the Germans arrived, was determined to make his own fate. With a starting salary of ninety cents per hour at Bemis, Hasten soon made his way up to the management team due to his hard working and perfectionist qualities. He was later transferred to be the manager in the Indianapolis branch of Bemis in order to save it from closing down. Hasten endured a highly rigorous schedule and difficult knots to untangle, yet he managed to increase the company’s earnings and improve conditions overall. Although he proved successful at Bemis, he soon realized there weren’t many opportunities that remained there for him or any more ladders to climb. Therefore, with courage and some chutzpah, he took enormous risks in order to take advantage of any business opportunities that came his way. True to creating his own fate, he bought out a nursing home business from Mr. Wells despite the severe disapproval from his banker, accountant, and lawyer. He was an extremely hard worker who understood that all efforts must be exerted to receive the result one desires. When Hasten acquired the nursing home of Rolling Hills, he rose at 4 a.m. every day. Hasten was able to improve the business immediately because of his management skills and understanding of how to satisfy his customers.
After we were introduced, I was given the chance to ask a few questions. Feeling as if I already knew him from his detailed and personal autobiography, I ventured to his relationship with Begin and the message he had received from him. Begin, who lead the Irgun after the second World War in order to remove the British from Palestine, had inspired countless youths like Hasten in the DP camps and had sparked up their devotion to Zionism. Begin was accused and titled a fascist and a terrorist while leading the opposition party for twenty-five years. Slowly, the world came to understand what people like Hart Hasten had known for years; Begin had the qualities and persona of a great leader which resulted in his appointment to Prime Minister. He was most famous for the Camp David Accords in 1978, signing the first peace treaty with King Sadat of Egypt, and preventing a civil war in Israel.
Hasten answered my questions in a wistful and sincere tone regarding Begin’s effect on him as a friend, a leader, and a government figurehead. Hasten was quick to respond as he listed the many virtues he had learned from Begin, and the overall impact Begin had on him. “He stuck to his principles, his faith and his convictions. He was an inspiration to me” Hart replied.
Before I proceeded, Hasten began to interview his interviewer. (After all, it was his people skills and knowledge of how to manage them that largely contributed to his economic success.) I relayed to him the close proximity of our birthplaces, our common knowledge of Russian, as well as our families’ involvement in the Holocaust.
While Hasten continued to answer my questions, I studied his demeanor as he spoke, mostly to satisfy my curiosity as to what extent he resembled the character he portrays in his autobiography.
I am pleased to report that they are one and the same.
Hasten’s character was a man who had common sense. He was taught by his father to always see the reality and to avoid dwelling in illusions. Hasten had applied this quality when viewing the political situation of Israel, especially with Arafat and the Oslo Accords, both of which Hasten had disapproved of long before the world had admitted their failures. Aside for Hasten’s practicality, he was also a man of morals. Unlike those high and mighty success stories who quickly forget those who have ever helped them once they are seated comfortably on their royal chairs, Hasten made sure to repay those whom he felt he owed. In addition he constantly attributes his survival to his father’s foresight to leave Poland just in time. As soon as he had saved up a little money, he wrote out his first check to repay Minneapolis Jewish Welfare Federation in the amount of $5. After all that Hasten has achieved, he never gloats about his accomplishments, just like his father who saved his family’s lives never said “I told you I was right.” Now, as Hasten spoke, his pride was evident yet it contained no trace of haughtiness. Hart N. Hasten exuded confidence when he spoke and he carried himself with an eloquence which clearly marked success. I thought about his childhood, and tried to locate in him that little ten-year-old boy, whose constant companion was hunger, disease and the taunting of “zhid”, and yet Hasten did not resemble him at all. Hasten had succeeded early on in shedding that image and lifestyle of the Jewish victim, the “shtetl” Jew, and instead he resonated Jewish pride which was precisely his goal. His pride stemmed not only from Jewish History but a newfound pride had developed for what his fellow Jews were doing in Palestine right now. This pride, which Jabotinsky had coined “Hadar” is a quality which Hasten uses to define himself. Along with it, Hasten has also incorporated the theme of “Never Again” into every project he takes on, from the Hasten Hebrew Academy in Indianapolis, to his presidency of Herut Zionists of America which led to a Jabotinsky medal award in 1980, and a seat with the Conference of Presidents, considered the Voice of the American Jewish Community. He displays it through his widespread fundraising, such as being state finance chairman for the Reagan/Bush campaign and his involvement with AIPAC which lobbies Washington for Israeli interests.
This concept of “Never Again” was evident in his unabashed and direct manner and his ability to defend his beliefs and opinions even when facing the president of the U.S. (Reagan)
I shook hands with Mr. Hasten in full awareness that his hand had come on contact with some of the greatest leaders of the past decades. Moreover, he was a man whose accomplishments could fill up…well a book. He had succeeded in many business opportunities such as real estate, where he established a property management company called “Harcourt Management” along with his brother Mark. The brothers also ventured into the banking business where they developed their own “Harrington Bank Chain.” He had even been involved in operating a cable TV service in Israel. Through his involvement with Israel Bonds, Hasten became acquainted with famed writer Elie Wiesel, Moshe Dayan, and former mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert. How many individuals have been privileged to give advice to Prime Minister Sharon, Yitzchak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu? Aside, from all these and more, Hasten still found the time to receive a silver medal for the U.S. tennis team in the Pan Am Macabbiah games. Here was a man who had used his abilities to dedicate himself to his family, his community, and the world.
As we parted ways and Hasten prepared to deliver his speech along with Prime Minister Sharon, President Moshe Katsav, Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin and President of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation Harry Hurwitz, I couldn’t help remembering how Hasten had described his first time meeting Begin, the leader of his youth. He writes, ” Sometimes when a person meets a hero in the flesh, there is a sense of disappointment as the legend becomes humanized. There was none of that with Begin.” Now, after meeting Hasten in the flesh, I too realized I had not been disappointed by his human image as opposed to the image I had read about it.
I was not disappointed at all.