Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Shmuel Katz - My Appreciation

I "met" Shmuel Katz for the first time, as probably most people have done, through one of his books. I was on a year's program in Israel in 1966 when "Days of Fire" in its original Hebrew edition appeared and it was one of several dozen books I brought back with me. Unlike some of the other Irgun memoirs, this book presented history not only from a personal perspective but it read on an additional level entirely as if an academic was writing. Dr. Rafael Medoff, of the Wynman Institute, has noted that this was the first book to expose the Allies’ failure to bomb the Auschwitz death camp.

Using documents from British and Zionist archives and a map, Katz recounted how Jewish Agency leaders were rebuffed by British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden in July 1944 when they requested an Allied air attack on Auschwitz and its rail lines. “It was fifty-seven days, September 1, before the British Foreign Office sent its reply, a period during which the majority of the Jews of Hungary were exterminated,” Katz wrote. At that same time, air drops to the Polish Home Army forces were undertaken by British planes, flying from the Foggia air base in Allied-occupied Italy. “The death camp at Auschwitz was 200 miles nearer than Warsaw to the base at Foggia,” Katz pointed out.

In 1973, when his classic "Battleground", putting forth the Zionist claim for a national homeland and unraveling the mendaciousness of anti-Zionist propaganda was published, "Moekie" Katz's position as the foremost disciple of Ze'ev Jabotinsky had been cemented. Shortly thereafter, I made contact with him (although we never really managed to pinpoint the exact circumstances of our first meeting. I seem to recall a meeting in Flushing, Queens on one of his Land of Israel Movement trips when I also happened to be in New York but it could have been earlier and in Israel). Upon my return from a two-year stint working with Betar England, during which time, incidentally, Barbara Oberman and I traveled to Paris to join Moekie for the launching of the French edition of Battleground when I first met Michel Gurfinkiel, we discussed my working with him. He was expecting that Menachem Begin would appoint him Minister for Public Diplomacy and that we would set aright the failings of Israel's chronic Hasbara (information services). But it was not to be as Moshe Dayan sabotaged the project.

I had been working for Geula Cohen at her Academy for National Studies in Tel Aviv and returned there when employment with Moekie panned out. Finding myself occasionally stranded in Tel Aviv, Moekie offered me his couch at his Dizengoff apartment. Until he moved to the WIZO home for seniors a few years ago, I estimate I had made use of that couch hundreds of times. And every time, before going to bed and just before leaving, Moekie and I would discuss the political events of the day. Moekie was invited to family events which he attended with relish and always made a point to inquire how I was doing in my work and income. He found ways to supplement my salary for which I was grateful despite my protestations that just doing the work for him was payment enough for me.

After leaving his position as Begin's advisor in early 1978, he began publishing op-eds in Ma'ariv and the Jerusalem Post. In 1981, after the appearance of "The Hollow Peace", his devastating critique of the Likud peace efforts, Moekie asked me to edit what became "Battletruth" which appeared in 1983. His next book was "Lone Wolf", his monumental biography of Jabotinsky for which he turned me into his research assistant, a position I gladly held until his death. From then on, several times a year, either for a book, an article or for some other project, a call would come from Moekie and I’d be off to the Zionist Archives, Knesset newspaper archives or another library. For example, last year I was engaged in seeking out documents on the French-British arrangement which lost Israel the Golan in 1923 when the British traded the region for Mosul. Moekie was seeking another act of British betrayal. During the long period when he wrote "Lone Wolf", I would never ask him how he was feeling (he always suffered in his feet; a circulatory problem) but would ask 'what year are you in?', referring to the progress he was making in the book.

These last few months, I was attempting to collect his articles for a sequel to "Battletruth" which he very much wanted to be published. He also wanted very much that Chapter Four of "Battleground" be reprinted for mass distribution among students. He was concerned that he would not be leaving a body of thought that represented his last 30 years of political analysis.

We agreed that the anthology would follow the pattern I had proposed 25 years earlier: the articles on a specific subject would follow in a chronological pattern to show how Moekie had been correct in his analysis. I supplemented my own files with archive material made available through Elliot Jager from the Jerusalem Post and the total number of articles from which we were to make our selection seemed to be over 400. But I succeeded in transferring to him only the titles and my idea that the section headings would be more generalized. I had come up with a name, "Battlesense", but that, too, came too late. My hope is that the book will yet be published.

I was especially proud to witness Moekie on the occasion of his 90th birthday which we celebrated at the Begin Center. It was a most honorable tribute. The book launching of "The Aaronsohn Saga", on the NILI spy ring during World War I, held on February 29th this year was also a great occasion for him. Sir Martin Gilbert spoke and praised Moekie and Moekie, in his wheelchair and already displaying his frailness, responded for some 20 minutes. His last public appearance was a fortnight later, at a gathering of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel when he was honored again.

My last visit was two weeks or so before Passover, just after he came out of hospital where they had amputated his lower left leg. He repeated what he had been saying for a few years, that he was satisfied that, at the least, everything above his neck was in perfect condition. And that was true. Until his last hospital stay, he read two newspapers daily and we talked usually once a week or so when he displayed a complete grasp of events - and jokes - along with, by now, his regular withering critique of Israel's leadership. What was obvious to us both was that it pained him to be as pessimistic as he was and I am sure that contributed to his final physical breakdown of his body.

There exists a public persona of each of us and in that role, Moekie was towering. As an unofficial diplomat, as a participant in academic colloquia, an advisor, commentator and author, he was undefeatable and indefatigable. Rarely did I observe become angry but he could do that, too, and his words and tone could become slashing. He never hesitated to criticize, those near and far, when an error he perceived was to be made. But he was kind, gentle and considerate and, as he sometimes admitted to me, all he wanted to be was a Yiddishe mentsch, a good Jewish person.

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