Sunday, December 18, 2005


Jabotinsky's hassid


Shmuel Katz is probably the last remaining link to Ze'ev Jabotinsky outside the prophet's own relations. Last week, on the occasion of his forthcoming 90th birthday on December 9, I went to Tel Aviv to see him.

It was the week in which the remnants of the Jabotinsky movement suffered yet another blow with Uzi Landau's defeat in the race for the Likud Central Committee chairmanship.

'Jabotinsky's photograph should be taken down from the wall of Likud headquarters. I don't want him to 'see' and 'hear' what goes on there,' says Katz.

The Johannesburg-born polemicist, slowed down physically by the infirmities of age - poor circulation in his legs and the after-effects of a stroke - now resides in an agreeable 'assisted living' facility. It's hard for Katz to get around, but his intellectual powers, and ideological steadfastness, remain strong.

A lapsed Jabotinskyte, I wonder aloud if the shifting facts on the ground - the past four years of war, Palestinian demographics, the polarization within Israeli society over the territories, and the constellation of international forces - should not lead us to rethink our stance.

Isn't Ariel Sharon right that a tactical withdrawal - 7,000 Jews from among 1 million Arabs - is militarily and diplomatically wise?

No sooner do I phrase the question than I realize how trifling my litany of contemporary challenges must sound to a man whom Jabotinsky himself sent to London in 1940 to propagate the cause.

Yet Katz isn't irritated. He simply outlines the unshakable truth: 'Leave Gaza, and Jews will be killed in Ashkelon.

'The Arabs have launched a war and we are responding as if it is some kind of squabble. When they say they want to get rid of Israel, that we have no right to exist, they mean it.'

A knock on the door. A nurse enters to administer eye drops and examine Katz's especially bothersome left leg.

When she leaves, the former member of the Irgun high command ('minister of foreign affairs, you might say') concludes his thought:

'Gaza won't be the end of our concessions. Watch.'

So what's the answer?

'There is nothing more left to do except to keep fighting them.

'We can win the war. We just have not won yet.'

WHILE MUCH of the secular Right has mellowed - in Sharon's case shifting to the center - those who have remained steadfast in their 'not one inch' worldview come largely from the theological, sometimes apocalyptic Right.

I ask Katz how this sits with him given that Jabotinsky was a 19th-century liberal, a rationalist and individualist.

Katz admits he has long been wary of Orthodox motivations. He has never forgotten that the religious - Zionist and non-Zionist - collaborated with Labor.

'Yes, they do cause me worry. I would have liked to put a number of questions to them.

'I can only hope Uzi Landau doesn't buckle,' and that, somehow, it is the secular Right that prevails within Likud.

Though he is not devout, Katz believes profoundly that the Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people. That unshakable faith comes not from scripture, but from the 1920 British Mandate.

'Read it.'

I do. The mandate system was established in international law by the Treaty of Versailles in 1922. It charged Britain with 'putting into effect' the 1917 Balfour Declaration; called for 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,' and recognized 'the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine' and 'reconstituting their national home in that country.'

Whatever history's twists and turns, Katz sees no point in ceding any of the rights bestowed by the Mandate.

Is such rock-solid ideology out of touch with today's realities? Maybe. But sitting opposite the man in his small sunny room cluttered with mugs, books, two telephones, newspapers, and writing pads - though remarkably few personal mementos - I reflect on his extraordinary career.

After the Irgun, he joined Menachem Begin's Herut Party, serving in Israel's first Knesset. Katz and Begin did not get on; each felt the other was laying (false) claim to be the true inheritor of Jabotinsky's mantle.

Disappointed with Begin's leadership Katz quit politics. From 1951 to 1977 he ran the Karni publishing house and brought out the Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary.

In 1977, when voters finally broke Labor's monopoly on power and elected Begin prime minister, the two rivals reconciled. But Begin rejected Katz's advice to create a powerful hasbara ministry and their brief rapprochement collapsed.

All the while Katz has been faithfully articulating the Jabotinsky line. Battleground is probably the finest Zionist polemical tract published; Days of Fire is the story of the Irgun; The Hollow Peace is a denunciation of Begin's concessions to Anwar Sadat. Lone Wolf, his latest book, is Katz's magnum opus, a two-volume biography of Jabotinsky.

Katz is nothing if not persevering. He's just sent off an op-ed warning that 'a Palestinian state will be the launching pad for the next phase of the campaign for all of Palestine.'

Till 120, Mr. Katz.

– From a November 29, 2004 Jerusalem Post column

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