Underground leader, member of the first Knesset, publisher, historian,
biographer, essayist, Shmuel Katz, born Samuel Katz (December 9, 1914 - May
9, 2008), was above all the most trenchant political thinker modern Israel
has produced. His career was marked by a selfless political integrity.
Indifferent to personal advantage, Katz sought only to promote the welfare
of Israel and the Jewish people.
Katz was a disciple of the great Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. At age
16, still in his native South Africa, Katz translated Jabotinsky's The Story
of the Jewish Legion from Yiddish to English. The book had a major impact on
him and he became active in the Revisionist movement which Jabotinsky led.
In 1936, at age 22, Katz reached Palestine. In 1940, at the request of
Jabotinsky, he went to London to start and edit a Zionist weekly. After the
war he returned to Palestine where he rejoined the underground Irgun Zvai
Leumi, becoming a member of its high command under Menachem Begin. With
Israel's independence, Katz became a Knesset member for Begin's Herut Party,
but left after a single term, unhappy with Begin's failure, as he saw it, to
reach out beyond his narrow constituency. Katz abandoned party politics to
run a publishing house for many years.
In 1977, when Begin finally upset the Labor Party's long monopoly on power,
Katz returned briefly to public life, initially as Begin's personal
representative to the United States. When Begin disavowed his commitment to
put Katz in charge of Israeli information abroad (Katz had seized on the
opportunity to transform Israel's miserable efforts in this area) and threw
aside his ideological principles to achieve a paper peace with Anwar Sadat,
Katz resigned. To the astonishment of Begin, who tried to buy him off with
an offer he was convinced could not be refused - the high prestige post of
UN ambassador - Katz refused.
Katz was best known as a writer. Jabotinsky said of his articles: "I must
very earnestly congratulate you on the perfect clarity, the forcible
simplicity, the sachlichkeit [matter of fact, to the point] with which you
present the most complicated situations." Evidential truth was the hallmark
of all his writings. Nothing before or since his classic Battleground: Fact
& Fantasy in Palestine has come near matching the effectiveness of his
assault on "the fog of fantasy and dissimulation" surrounding the
Arab-Israeli conflict - not least the hoax of forced Arab displacement in
1948 at the hands of the fledgling Jewish state.
Almost all his books are landmarks in their own way. Days of Fire: The
Secret Story of the Making of Israel remains the best book on the Irgun. It
was also the first book to expose the Allies' failure to bomb the Auschwitz
death camp. 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
Less well known but equally trenchant, The Hollow Peace is a devastating
account of how Begin, beginning with his unaccountable decision to install
Labor leader Moshe Dayan (whose failures in 1973 had discredited him with
the Israeli public) as his Foreign Minister, squandered the opportunity to
implement Jabotinsky's vision.
Shmuel's two-volume work on Jabotinsky's life, Lone Wolf, is a masterpiece
of biography and an invaluable contribution to the history of Zionism. On a
smaller scale, so too is Shmuel's The Aaronsohn Saga, the biography of
Aharon Aaronsohn. It was the last of Shmuel's books, the full set of which
are a monument to Zionist inspiration, energy and idealism.
Unlike some historians, Shmuel Katz never cushioned the truth, even when the
truth hurt. For all his devotion to his leader and mentor Ze'ev Jabotinsky,
there is not a hagiographic note intruding on the 1,800 pages of Lone Wolf,
his definitive account of the life and times of Zionism's towering
Following the Six Day War, Katz saw the opportunities opened by Israel's
victory. He became a leader of the Land of Israel Movement which recognized
that Israel could be a geopolitical factor in the region, with the historic
heartland of Judea and Samaria restored to the Jewish people, strategic
depth and oil from the Sinai, and the high ground on the Golan Heights a
deterrent to Syria. He also inspired the founding of Americans for A Safe
Israel, an American offshoot of the Land of Israel Movement.
Shmuel was a rock. He was principled and reliable. His convictions were
deeply rooted in his immense learning and he upheld them fiercely. As befits
a prophet, there was nothing soft, apologetic or trendy about Shmuel. His
reputation will rest on the decades-long tenacity with which he demonstrated
that the Diaspora strategy of accommodation had taken its deadliest form in
Zion itself, in the Chelm-like policy of yielding contiguous territory to
enemies dedicated to Israel's destruction--in the vain hope of placating
Those who knew him personally will remember Shmuel's charm. Among his
attributes were his generosity, his capacity for love and friendship, and
his modesty. One example suffices. In all of the many photos in the
two-volume Lone Wolf, Shmuel included only one of himself, and that with his
back to the camera.
Shmuel had a boisterous sense of humor. He commanded a vast store of funny
Jewish stories. (The old Jew, newly arrived in Palestine, walks in a
gorgeous grove and comes upon Rothschild's impressive tomb. "That's living!"
he proclaims.) He deployed them aptly and laughed at them himself with
When occasionally speaking about money, which Shmuel really did not care
about, his favorite line was: "There is no shame in being poor. Of course,
it is no great honor either." Unlike other Israeli "eminentoes," Shmuel
never did claim special privileges as a former Knesset member.
Like prophets generally, Katz has been ignored, sidelined, heard by many,
hearkened to by few. History will pay tribute to his prescience. We, his
disciples, are proud to pay tribute to him now.
Contributing to this text were Edward Alexander, Douglas Feith, Yisrael
Medad, William Mehlman, William Van Cleave, and Herbert Zweibon.