Mideast OutpostMideast Outpost
May 29, 2008


The loss of Shmuel Katz, whose forceful, articulate, and witty voice remained powerful up until the end, is irreparable. Few such voices as Shmuel's are sounding today, either in Israel or the Diaspora. He was that rare example of a learned polemicist, one who did not dilute what he knew in order to make it easily swallowable by people too lazy to think or to read. He was as much at home in the archives of research libraries and public record offices as in the combat arena of journalism.

I was privileged to know Shmuel from 1977 onwards, and especially during the eighties when I taught at Tel-Aviv University and Leah and I lived in Jerusalem, where he would visit us whenever he came to town. He was, as everyone knows, a great raconteur, who could regale you with anecdotes for as long as you were willing to listen. And you always felt that here was a man who not only knew things and people that nobody else did but also epitomized a time when Jews had a culture and an inner world of their own. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Hillel Halkin that appeared in The Forward (under the editorship of Lipsky, of course) in March 1996: "I was sent [in autumn 1937] from Palestine by the Irgun to speak to Jabotinsky about problems in the organization's leadership. I found him in a Warsaw hotel room, sitting next to a Polish count...who was throwing Jabo's socks into a valise. It seemed he had to catch a train to Lodz, where he was supposed to speak. 'Are you doing anything special in the next few days?' he asked me. 'No,' I answered. 'Then come with me,' he said. We took the train together to Lodz, and that night he spoke at a local cinema. Jabotinsky had only one message in those days for the Jews of Europe--'Get out any way you can, because there is a catastrophe coming.' On the way into the cinema, he was greeted by a crowd of howling hecklers, Communists, Bundists, and left-wing Zionists. The police escorted him in but left me behind, and when I tried to follow, a Polish policeman punched me in the chest and sent me flying. ...Jabo stood on a stool to see over the crowd and when he spotted me still sitting in a daze on the sidewalk, he walked over with a big grin and said, 'Katz, why is it that you can never stay out of trouble.?'"

We would occasionally visit Shmuel in his Dizengoff apartment. Such visits were experienced on the pulse as well as in the mind because of the physical effort involved: climbing up five flights of stairs and then not being able to sit down until Shmuel had cleared away the piles of books and magazines that concealed most of his furniture. He lived simply, if not quite ascetically. On more than one occasion, when he was at work on his Jabotinsky biography, I left his apartment carrying not only my briefcase but terrifically heavy shopping bags filled with hundreds of manuscript pages of the book in progress.

I would also from time to time bump into Shmuel on the non-stop Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem bus, and the 50-minute trip changed from an ordeal into a pleasure. Unlike other Israeli "eminentoes," I should add, he stood his place in the queue and did not claim special privileges as a former Knesset member.

He was the most loyal of friends. If you were sick, you could be certain that Shmuel would call nearly every night to see how you were doing; he checked on you more frequently than a nurse in a hospital.

It was said of Voltaire, whose letters alone now fill about forty volumes, that nobody ever discarded a letter from him. I think the same might be said of Shmuel, and I should like to offer some representative excerpts.

He could spot journalistic fraud at a distance of fifty miles, as in this instance from November 1986: "A characteristic [David Shipler] item in the NYT was the description of an Arab civilian addressing a Jewish soldier as adoni which, Shipler explained, means 'my lord'--demonstrating how Israelis demand groveling and subservience from the oppressed Arabs. Shipler was here for several years and knew that adoni is used a hundred times a day for 'mister,' 'hey you there,' or for 'waiter'....In short, Shipler is a deliberate malicious faker."

Many of Shmuel's letters convey the intellectual excitement and emotional immediacy of his great study of Jabotinsky. Again from November 1986: "...I'm dealing with a not unexpectedly complicated year--1919, at first glance triumphant, and so regarded for a long time...but in fact a tragic year, seminally disastrous. Many things were happening simultaneously, including already the retreat from the Balfour Declaration; and I have moral and structural problems because I am not dealing with a single-dimensional Jabotinsky. I intended putting him in the framework of his time and circumstances (British treachery, Weizmann's weakness much earlier than was thought)....When you come I'll be happy to tell you more." "I am still in thrall to Jabotinsky," he wrote me in October 1990, "but have to complete the writing more or less on time....By dint of working on the book every day I have reached 1937. You know what those three last years of his life meant--and did--to Jabo and to the Jewish people--and I have to relive them."

For those who had no personal experience of Shmuel's ineffable charm, 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 hopes of placating them.

Edward Alexander is professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington.

Posted by Ruth at 02:03 PM | OUTPOST