Shmuel Katz, a”h – underground leader, member of the first Knesset, publisher, historian, biographer and essayist – passed away May 9 in Eretz Yisrael at the age of 93. Katz was the most trenchant political thinker modern Israel has produced. His career was marked by a selfless political integrity; indifferent to personal advantage, he sought only the good of Israel and the Jewish people.
He was also the inspiration for the establishment of Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI) some thirty-three years ago.
In 1936, at the age of 22, Katz came to Palestine from South Africa (he would retain the accent of his native land.) A disciple, as he remained throughout his life, of Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Katz went to London at Jabotinsky’s request in 1940 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 upended 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 is best known as a writer and almost all his books are landmarks in their own way. Days of Fire remains the best book about the Irgun. Battleground is the best single history of the Arab-Israel conflict over Palestine. 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. And Katz’s massive two-volume Lone Wolf is the definitive biography of Jabotinsky.
But above all Shmuel Katz was a prophet in his own time. When Katz was only 22, 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.”
To almost his last day, Katz in his essays continued to lay out, with that same perfect clarity, the situation confronting Israel, the consequences of the actions of its leaders, and the alternative path that should be taken.
Katz saw the opportunities the Six-Day War opened for Israel. He became a leader of the Land of Israel Movement, which recognized that Israel could be a geopolitical factor in the region, what with the historic heartland of Judea and Samaria restored to the Jewish people, the oil and strategic depth provided by the Sinai, and possession of the high ground on the Golan Heights, which was a deterrent to Syria.
Like prophets generally, Katz was ignored, sidelined, heard by many, hearkened to by few. History will pay tribute to his prescience. We, his disciples in Americans for a Safe Israel, are proud to pay tribute to him even as we mourn his loss.