Monday, July 28, 2008

Rael Jean Isaac's Tribute to Shmuel Katz


Rael Jean Isaac

Editors note: This tribute was given at a memorial for Shmuel Katz at Temple Emanuel in New York City on June 18th. Other speakers were Herbert Zweibon, Gerald Strober, and Joel Gilbert.

My husband Erich and I first met Shmuel in 1969. Erich was teaching for a year at Tel Aviv University and I was working on a doctoral thesis on the opposing movements that had burgeoned in Israel in response to those amazing six days in June 1967 in which Israel had suddenly become over five times as large. On one side was the Land of Israel Movement, which said Israel should keep the territories it had won in battle; on the other was the peace movement, which said Israel should relinquish them.

Studying these movements involved interviewing their leaders and Shmuel, naturally, was active in the Land of Israel Movement. Of all the people we interviewed we became closest to Shmuel. He was friendly, approachable, a wonderful story-teller and, a huge bonus for me, spoke impeccable English. It may be hard to imagine today, as Israel sinks ever deeper into retreat, demoralization and political decline, but 1969 was a heady time. There were tectonic changes in the political landscape. For Shmuel much of the Land of Israel Movement’s excitement and joy was in bringing together former enemies. The word “enemies” is not an overstatement.

The gulf was enormous between Labor activists and former members of the underground—and Shmuel had been a member of the high command of the Irgun. For years, in Knesset debates, Ben Gurion would not even use Menachem Begin’s name—he would refer to him as “the person sitting on the right hand of Professor Bader” or use similar circumlocutions.Shmuel told us of an incident that dramatized the transformed climate. Shortly before the war he had been invited to a kibbutz high school to present the Irgun’s version of the Altalena incident, in which a ship bearing arms for the nascent state of Israel was destroyed on Ben Gurion’s orders. The kibbutz had invited Benny Marshak, who had been a political officer in the left-wing Palmach when the Altalena was sunk, to present Labor’s version. Marshak refused to debate on the ground he would not enter the same room as Katz.

Yet a few months later they would be sitting amicably together on the executive of the Land of Israel Movement. To many in the Israeli public, all too familiar with the long internecine conflicts, it was stunning that leaders from the far left Mapam, from the Kibbutz Hameuchad movement, from Labor, would unite in a common platform with people like Katz, not to mention ultra-orthodox rabbis—this was every bit as astonishing as an agreement with the Arabs would have been.

Shmuel, never interested in putting himself forward, his eyes always on the cause, told us he was anxious that the Land of Israel movement maintain its image as primarily composed of converts from the left. He told us, and I quote: “I came into the Movement with some reluctance because of my background, and I told others to stay away. I just came to see that the movement stuck to the point. And on the whole there has been no need.

”Although I’m here to talk about Shmuel, not about these movements, I can’t resist pointing out that the Land of Israel Movement was united while the opposing peace movement was splintered into lots of disputatious grouplets. The peace movement was divided not only about how much of the territory to give up (all of it? all but Jerusalem? all but the Golan?) but was also divided about what, if anything, to demand in return and who would get the territory. There is virtual unanimity today among peace processors that a Palestinian state is the solution but in 1969 many in the Israeli peace movement sharply rejected this idea. Why? Some felt it wouldn’t work but others felt it would be morally wrong—it would be a species of Israeli “imperialism” to dictate to the Palestinian Arabs how to shape their future.

My husband and Shmuel agreed on the importance of spreading the ideas of the Land of Israel Movement in the United States, emphasizing that a strong Israel in defensible borders was not only in Israel’s interest but in the interests of the United States, this at a time when the Soviet Union was establishing client states in the region. At that time the always left-leaning Jewish community here was firmly attached to the notion that whatever the Israeli Labor government did was right, and Israel’s lightning victory in 1967 did nothing to change that conviction. This was the case even though the government’s position at the time produced paralysis. The government of Israel’s line was that it was prepared to give up almost all the territories—for peace. The Arab states had responded with the three nos of Khartoum, no recognition, no negotiations, no peace. So the government’s position was simply to hold the territories in limbo, waiting for an Arab change of heart.

We weren’t surprised when Shmuel showed up not long after our return to the United States, to prod us into doing something, and AFSI was born. My husband was chairman until the task was taken over by Herbert Zweibon, the only person I know as dedicated and as selfless as Shmuel. Shmuel would come to the states repeatedly in the following years, full of plans and ideas, meeting with a great many people. I remember a running argument with Shmuel in those years. Shmuel would insist that AFSI could do more and I would say that it was tough to be more Catholic than the Pope. I would contend that until Israel’s government adopted a policy assertive of Jewish rights, it was an uphill battle here to persuade the Jewish community and the political elite, however supportive of Israel they might like to be. Shmuel did not want to hear this, insisting that our efforts in showing that a strong Israel was in U.S. interests were quite independent of what went on in Israel. In the end Shmuel would pound the table, and that would end our chicken and egg discussion—at least until his next visit.

In 1977 it looked like such arguments would be a thing of the past. Like Shmuel we were filled with hope when the seemingly permanent hegemony of the Labor Party finally crumbled. We were especially encouraged when Shmuel himself arrived as the advance representative of the new government. It was his task to reassure a Jewish establishment-in-shock and defuse a media that ran headlines like Begin rhymes with Fagin. It was precisely because of Shmuel’s earlier single-handed, independent efforts in the United States that Begin reached out to his long-ago associate in the Irgun.

What Shmuel wanted, and he would have been absolutely ideal for the task, was to reshape and reinvigorate Israel’s information programs abroad, hasbara, as it is called in Israel. These were in woeful shape, and remain so today. But although he promised Shmuel a cabinet level post to do this, Begin backed down when Moshe Dayan, his miserable appointment as Foreign Minister, objected, insisting that hasbara remain under his control in the Foreign Ministry. To be sure, even if Shmuel had won control of information policy and performed brilliantly, his tenure would have been short. There is no way Shmuel would have presided over an information policy promoting a policy of retreat and defeat. This became Begin’s policy as he turned over the Sinai to Sadat, destroyed the Jewish communities in northern Sinai and paved the way, in the Camp David accords, for Judea and Samaria to go to the Arabs.

Deeply disappointed with Begin, Shmuel returned to private life, writing op-eds and most important, working on the definitive biography of his hero and mentor, Zeev Jabotinsky. Shmuel was convinced that it was vital that the heroes and pioneers of the Zionist enterprise not be forgotten, that their lives and sacrifices and ideas inspire new generations. And so he turned his attention to those outside the dominant narrative who had played a vital role in the creation of Israel—people vilified and sidelined by the mainstream in their own lifetime, but subsequently proven right. After Jabotinsky, he turned to the saga of Aaron and Sarah Aaronsohn, who ran the Nili spy ring, which played an important role in the British victory over the Turks in Palestine. They too had been harassed and vilified by the local Jewish community.

Despite his humor and good nature, Shmuel is often thought of as an unbending ideologue. As a result many of those who agreed with his views felt it was impossible for him to have been a political leader. In fact Shmuel was unbending only on issues having to do with Israel’s security. His first break with Begin came on the issue of inclusiveness: when Shmuel was a member of the first Knesset on the Herut list he felt it was important for the party to cease being an Irgun club and open itself up to attract Labor members. Personally ascetic, living in the most Spartan way, Shmuel was willing to make concessions on economic issues — I never spoke to him on these matters but I would be surprised if he were not suspicious of huge prosperity in Israel, fearing it would undercut the qualities of discipline and self-sacrifice the population needed if Israel were to survive.

Shmuel had the characteristics of which Israel was most in need in a Prime Minister. He had vision, optimism, high intelligence, political understanding, determination, his own firm road map, the ability to inspire and lead. He was incorruptible. Can anyone imagine Shmuel agreeing to Oslo? To the destruction of the Jewish communities in Gaza? Can anyone imagine Shmuel even considering giving the Golan to Syria? Or taking wads of cash for favors granted? It is Israel’s tragedy that it did not bring Shmuel Katz to the helm and instead has installed in the Prime Minister’s office an ever more dispiriting collection of political drifters and self-servers.

Shmuel’s unfailing optimism was sorely tested in recent years. He understood, none better, where the country was heading. And so it was a blessing that something wonderful happened to him near the end of his life: he discovered a son he did not know existed; they became close; and his life was greatly enriched.

Shmuel led a life full of adventure, physical adventure in the first part of his life, when he was an underground leader, intellectual adventure thereafter. Shmuel wrote by far the best book on the Irgun, Days of Fire, as gripping a read today as when it was written over forty years ago. In Battleground, Shmuel provided the definitive work on Jewish rights in the context of the Arab-Israel conflict. There remains today no better single source to counter the lies of Arab propaganda. Then there are the collected essays in The Hollow Peace and Battletruth and the major biographies, of Jabotinsky and the Aaronsohns. We hope that a way will be found to perpetuate Shmuel’s legacy for a new generation.

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