One day in the summer of 1981, when I was still living in Brooklyn, I received a call from Dassie Marcus, a fervent supporter of Israel, the settlement movement, and Gush Emunim.
She informed me that a professor named Yuval Ne’eman was in town to garner support for the newly founded Israeli political party Techiya, whose platform was fighting the Camp David accords and preventing the evacuation of the Jewish city of Yamit in the Sinai.
Dassie suggested I interview Ne’eman for The Jewish Press.
Arrangements were made and I met with the professor. At the time, the pro-Israel community in the U.S. was vocally opposing the Reagan administration’s intent to sell two all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
I asked Ne’eman for his take on the controversy, figuring he’d give me a stock response. Instead he replied, “Indeed, it is a threat to Israel – but surrendering Sinai, from an intelligence point of view, is like giving Egypt 200 AWACS.”
A few weeks later I traveled to Israel and paid a courtesy call on Ne’eman in the Knesset. I also brought him a copy of the paper containing our interview. He was impressed and proposed that I become his spokesman to the foreign press.
I would spend the next six years working very closely with one of the most brilliant and exciting people I’ve ever met. Born in Tel Aviv in 1925, a member of the underground Haganah at the age of 15 and a child prodigy accepted by the renowned Technion in Haifa at 16, by the time I met him he had long been acknowledged as Israel’s leading scientist.
Ne’eman was credited with discovering the basic symmetry of the subatomic particles of matter while working on his doctoral thesis at London’s Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1960-61. In the 1960’s he founded the School of Physics and Astronomy at Tel Aviv University, where he later served as president.
In 1969 he won both the Israel Prize for exact sciences and the Einstein Medal for physics. He also played a major role in forging Israel’s defense system and strategies, serving as deputy director of military intelligence and IDF military attaché in England, as a member of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and as chief scientist in the Defense Ministry.
All those accomplishments were already behind him in the early 1980’s, but he would prove as vital as ever in the years to come – as Israel’s first minister of Science and Development, as founder of the Israel Space Agency, which he chaired until the end of his life, as a member of Knesset, and as the recipient of dozens of awards, prizes and honorary doctorates from major universities.
Yuval, as I now took to callinghim, had a keen insight into Israel’s leading political figures. It was he who first enlightened me as to the character of Ariel Sharon – so much so that when Sharon came up with the Gaza disengagement plan more than two decades later, I was not nearly as shocked as so many others seemed to be, particularly those in the national religious camp.
It was shortly after the evacuation of Yamit, which Sharon of course oversaw with an iron hand. I had been in Israel just a few months and was still a greenhorn, unfamiliar with Israeli politics and politicians. All I knew about Sharon was based on the impression, widespread in America, that he was a superhawk who would never dream of giving up an inch of land to Israel’s enemies.
With that image of Sharon implanted in my mind, I was stunned – even traumatized – when he carried out the Yamit evacuation. True, he was following orders – but in light of his past pronouncements I was sure he would resign on principle and leave the task to someone else. So Sharon’s apparent readiness to erase a thriving Jewish city really bothered me. But what I found even more disconcerting was that Yuval seemed totally unsurprised by Sharon’s actions.
While driving with Yuval from the Knesset to Tel Aviv in the aftermath of Yamit, I noted my disappointment with Sharon and asked him, as someone who’d known and worked with Sharon, to explain to me how such a hawk could have done such a thing.
Quietly, even coldly, Yuval gestured out the window and said, “Shmuel, you see those small hilltops over there? Sharon can today build you one like that and tomorrow take it down. Don’t ask questions about Sharon.”
One thing about Yuval that struck me as amusing was that he would always tell me he was not a believer. “I’m an atheist,” he’d insist, and he had a scientific answer for everything. And yet whenever he spoke – in private conversations or in Knesset speeches, with ministers or diplomats or addressing international forums – he would always mention God. He peppered his sentences with statements like “God willing” or “with God’s help” or “only God knows.”
Maybe they were just figures of speech delivered out of habit, but Yuval did have a very strong affinity for Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish people. He was the epitome of the proud Jew, a man whose Jewishness was never far from the surface and whose awareness of Jewish destiny permeated his very being.
This aspect of his personality was displayed vividly to me on a number of occasions, none more memorably than when, in his role as science minister, he was invited to visit West Germany. I usually did not accompany him on his trips abroad when the Knesset was in session, as he needed me, in my position as liaison between the science ministry and the Knesset, to keep my eye on developments in Jerusalem.
But as we were preparing for his trip to Germany he said to me, a visibly religious Jew, “Shmuel, you know, I would like to take you along with me. I want the Germans to see that despite what they tried to do to us, they didn’t succeed.”
As a longtime and key member of Israel’s atomic energy agency and a leader in building Israel’s nuclear reactor, Yuval was privy to state secrets and was a talented practitioner of diplomatic sleight of hand. In 1960 Yuval was appointed director of the nuclear reactor at Nahal Sorek and given the task of dealing with U.S. officials, who routinely attempted to ascertain just what the Israelis were up to.
Whenever an American envoy would arrive in Israel to investigate Israel’s involvement in nuclear and atomic ventures, Yuval would be on hand to host them – to, as he put it, “fardrei them a kop.” Inevitably, the visitors would prepare to return to Washington strongly suspecting that the wool had been pulled over their eyes, and Yuval would wave goodbye to them with a telltale twinkle in his eye.
He may have been Israel’s top scientist and one of the country’s leading defense intellectuals, but Yuval knew how the political/diplomati game was played, and he played it with great relish.
Although many see Yuval’s greatest contributions to Israel in terms of science, space and technology, I can attest that it was thanks to Yuval that the settlement movement was strengthened to the extent it was in the 1980’s.
After the dismantling of Yamit, Yuval decided it was imperative to bolster the Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza to ensure they wouldn’t meet the same fate as Yamit. Gaza, of course, did end up going the way of Yamit, but what Yuval helped bring about in Judea and Samaria made it considerably more difficult for any Israeli government to completely write off the settlement enterprise as part of some future “peace” scheme.
One of the conditions for Techiya’s joining the Begin government in 1982 was that Yuval, in addition to becoming science minister, would head the Ministerial Committee on Settlements. This was the committee that had the authority to build new settlements and strengthen existing ones. It would convene every Sunday after the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office and decide on various settlements.
Yuval managed to authorize more than 50 settlements during that period. But that’s nothing compared to what he could have done had it not been for the constantly clashing egos of the housing minister, David Levy, and the defense minister, Moshe Arens. New settlements had to be okayed by these two ministers as well, but all too often they were at bitter odds with each other. As a result, petty political concerns trumped the authorization of additional settlements.
That was particularly true with regard to Hebron. Had the committee gotten its act together and approved the new settlements Yuval intended for Hebron – he was ready to settle Hebron en masse – no Israeli government would have been able to even entertain the notion of giving up that ancient Jewish city.
An interesting correspondence I was privy to was one between Yuval and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Yuval knew that Chabad once boasted a prominent community in Hebron and still owned property there. As mentioned above, he was intensely interested in building up the Jewish presence in Hebron, and so he wrote a letter to the Rebbe asking him to call on his chassidim to resettle Hebron. He promised to provide any and every available assistance.
The Rebbe thought highly of Yuval’s approach to military and strategic issues – at one time even writing to Professor Herman Branover that “[Ne’eman’s] security positions are identical to mine.” But he rejected Yuval’s request that he send chassidim to settle Hebron. The rebbe feared – presciently, in light of subsequent events in the West Bank and Gaza – that the Israeli government would not give the settlers adequate security and protection against Arab attacks.
“There is no need to elaborate to you, a minister in the government, on how the police and those responsible for the police reacted in the past in that area,” the Rebbe wrote to Yuval.
The Rebbe added that even if the government promised to ensure the safety of the Jews of Hebron and “provide adequate security for all the residents of the area as well as for those will come visit them from close by or far away,” he was certain “that I don’t have to explain to you that these promises are not at all sufficient as experience not too long ago has proven.”
In that letter the Rebbe also castigated the Israeli government for the expulsion of Jews from Yamit, its handling of the war in Lebanon, and its habit of blaming the U.S. for every Israeli misstep.
“I do not want to elaborate on such an alarming and painful matter,” he wrote. “The main thing is that you know what is going on in more detailbut Israel has made Washington a scapegoat for all its foul-ups.”
Uncommon Man With A Common Touch
One of Yuval’s most admirable traits was his ability to relate to all people, from the most eminent scientists, ministers, and professors to the plain man in the street. He was well aware of his status as Israel’s greatest living man of science, a key player in Israel’s defense establishment, and a figure revered by world leaders, yet he never displayed the slightest trace of conceit or superiority. For the longest time he did not have a state car or a chauffeur. He would take the bus to the Knesset like any working man or woman.
Many were the times we met at the central bus station in Tel Aviv to board the 405 Egged bus to Jerusalem. The drivers and passengers who recognized him were amazed that he waited in line to board the bus with everyone else. They would ask in disbelief, “Excuse me, are you Yuval Ne’eman?”
Yuval’s departure from the political arena and his full-time return to the academic world came in 1992 after Yitzhak Shamir lost the premiership to Yitzhak Rabin. Even prior to the election Yuval had become increasingly soured on politics. He had issues with his Techiya colleague Geula Cohen, who was angry at Shamir’s participation in the Madrid peace conference at the end of 1991.
Shamir had his own problems with Cohen, whom he at least indirectly blames for Labor’s 1992 election victory and the Oslo accords that came soon afterward.
Shamir once told me that Cohen “made life miserable with her daily threats of [forcing] new elections, so I decided to call for new elections myself six months before our term was due to expire. My mistake was that I relied on the Russian vote. I was sure that after helping them all to emigrate from Russia and to come to Israel they would vote for me. But they betrayed me.
“Yuval Ne’eman was against her actions and if not for her, my government would have lasted longer and maybe we would never have come to a situation like Oslo.”
At any rate, Labor’s victory and the signing of the disastrous Oslo accords hurt Yuval deeply and from that period on he distanced himself from politics, refusing to be interviewed or to answer any questions on political matters. He immersed himself in his job as director of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies, writing scientific papers and books.
Honors continued coming Yuval’s way in his final years. In 2003 he was awarded the EMET Prize for Arts, Science & Culture, and just last year the Knesset sat in special session on his 80th birthday in recognition of his outstanding achievements and contributions to Israel.
Yuval passed away at age 81 on April 26 of this year. He is survived by his wife, two children, two grandchildren, a sister – and the strong Jewish state he fought to create and to which he devoted his intellect, his energy, his life.
Avraham Shmuel Lewin is the Israel correspondent of The Jewish Press.