Katz

Samuel Katz

 

Up to the time Samuel Katz – future member of the Underground High Command and a future advisor to the Prime Minister of the State of Israel – was 15 years old, he “hadn’t thought about joining anything,” as he puts it today. During his first month of university studies in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1930, the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky came to town. Katz sat in on a speech. “I never heard anything like it before,” he remembers. Katz drew the operative conclusion from what he had heard and signed up. At the age of 15, Katz had set himself on the road that would determine his – and indirectly the Jewish people’s – life.

 

Despite his family’s desire that he continue with his studies, Katz dropped out after a year. He got the education that turned out to matter most, his Zionist education, by devouring the Zionist newspapers in which Jabotinsky and other Revisionists wrote. “As I was a South African and literate,” says Katz, “after a year I became the secretary of the Johannesburg branch of Jabotinsky’s Zionist party, the ‘Revisionists.’ Jabotinsky’s youth group ‘Betar’ and the Revisionist Movement took up all my time.”

 

In 1931 elections were held for the Zionist Congress. Katz, still a teenager, organized the Revisionist party’s Johannesburg campaign; they won two seats, one-quarter of the South African seats in the Congress. His fellow party members, all older and more experienced than he, did not begrudge Katz his meteoric rise in their ranks: “I didn’t make speeches in public, I worked behind the scenes. So no one saw me as a competitor for the leadership. They liked me because I relieved them of the work. And there was no financial problem, because no one ever offered me any money for my work.”

 

After a year out of college and unemployed, Katz took a job as a clerk in a tea company. Once again, Zionist activity got the better of the young man. He and a couple of friends were dissatisfied with the largely social-function agenda of the official Zionist organization in South Africa and decided to form a new organization, Tehiya (Renaissance), to educate the youth. Katz became the organization’s secretary.

 

On a mundane fundraising mission for Tehiya, Katz and his associates met with Michael Haskel, a well-known middle-aged Zionist. Haskel treated his visitors to a diatribe against South African youth, who, he said, were doing nothing to help Europe’s endangered Jews and nothing to help the one person who was trying to save them – Jabotinsky. Katz lost his cool and criticized Haskel for not joining Jabotinsky’s party himself. Katz and Haskel sat there shouting at each other for a while. Amazingly, Haskel wrote Katz a check before the latter left; he was pleased with Katz’s enthusiastic outburst and commitment. When Katz quit his tea-clerk job, Haskel hired him as his personal political secretary, a position he held until 1935.

 

Tehiya’s influence spread, and a Youth Council was appointed to reform all the lcoal youth movements and their approach. Haskel was given two seats, one of which went to Katz. Among the Council’s activities Katz recalls today is its successful physical disruption of a pro-Nazi speech in Johannesburg’s Town Hall.

 

Katz meanwhile came upon a Yiddish copy of Jabotinsky’s history of the Jewish Legion he had founded in World War One to fight for the British. The energetic Katz translated the book into English and, unsure of what to do with the manuscript, sent it to Jabotinsky. The two corresponded for some time about the book’s editing, which put Katz in a personal relationship with the great Zionist leader. (Katz’s translation was published as The Story of the Jewish Legion in 1945.)

 

In 1936, Haskel convinced the South African government to appoint him its representative in Palestine; Katz was appointed secretary of Haskel’s Jerusalem office. Thus, barely out of his teens, Katz began what he calls his “double life”: Till noon he was a consular official issuing visas and so forth. In the evenings he worked with David Raziel, the Commander of the Irgun Underground’s Jerusalem branch. Raziel and the other Irgunists knew that Katz could communicate directly with the Irgun’s Supreme Commander, Jabotinsky, by means of a commercial code Katz had developed for sensitive communications with Haskel. Katz maintained the Irgun’s communications with Jabotinsky for the next few years, though he refrained from enlisting in the Irgun, to avoid embarrassing the South African government should he be caught.

 

When Jabotinsky revisited South Africa in 1937, and again in 1938, a Revisionist journal was founded there called The Eleventh Hour (referring to the time that was running out for world Jewry). At Jabotinsky’s request, Katz wrote a weekly article, but he refused Jabotinsky’s suggestion he edit the paper, noting that he had “not come to Palestine in order to go back to South Africa.” Jabotinsky accepted this argument.

 

When he left South Africa for England, Jabotinsky traveled through Egypt. As he was barred by the British from entering Palestine, all his devotees went to Egypt, the closest he could get, to confer with him. Jabotinsky appointed Katz his personal secretary in Egypt, and it was there they cemented their relationship. For five days Katz decided who would meet Jabotinsky and who would not; he felt he was in a bit over his head, a 22 year old turning away older, more important people. But even when he erred once, blocking a foreign dignitary, Jabotinsky backed him up: “Discipline is discipline,” ruled Jabotinsky.

 

Back in Eretz Israel, where Katz was a mild-mannered consul by day, an Underground conspirator by night, Katz soon found his services needed for the ousting and replacement of the Irgun Commander in Chief, Colonel Robert Bitker. The Irgun officers knew that their call for Jabotinsky to replace their commanding officer was delicate. The only one among them who knew Jabotinsky personally was Katz, so he was sent to win Jabotinsky’s approval. He found Jabotinsky in a Warsaw hotel packing his bags; Jabotinsky invited Katz to travel with him for the next few days. When he entered Jabotinsky’s room at the end of the trip to learn of his approval for Bitker’s replacement, he found Jabotinsky in conversation with a young Polish Betar commander: Menachem Begin. This was the beginning of Begin and Katz’s oft-star-crossed relationship.

 

Katz returned to Eretz Israel, where the British soon began rounding up Irgunists and Revisionists. Katz helped smuggle wanted men from city to city and find “safe houses” for them.

 

When Katz learned that the police were tracking him, he journeyed to South Africa to organize the closure of the South African consular office. Jabotinsky called him to London to manage a weekly newspaper. By the time Katz got to England, Jabotinsky was on a speaking tour of America. Nonetheless, just one month after his arrival in England, Katz, together with fellow Revisionist Nachum Levin, began publication of a newspaper that came to be known as The Jewish Standard, devoted to pressing for creation of a Jewish army and saving Jewish refugees.

 

Some time after Jabotinsky’s death (in August 1940), friction in the Revisionist ranks caused Levin to resign and Katz had no choice but to follow suit. Unemployed and far from Eretz Israel, Katz sought and found work on a local newspaper, as librarian at the Daily Express. Eventually he became the paper’s night editor.

 

When the war ended, Katz was appointed a member of a Revisionist mission in London, with responsibility for approaching members of a United Nations delegation meeting there; they lobbied against the creation of a Palestinian Arab state in Eastern Palestine (the Palestinian state now known as Jordan).

 

Katz made it to Eretz Israel in the summer of 1946. He believes he got by British security because the Irgun had blown up the British Criminal Investigations Department, probably destroying any files with his name in them.

 

Katz met with Menachem Begin, now the Commander-in-Chief of the Irgun, and gave Begin insights into Britain’s political condition and how it affects, and is affected by, the Irgun’s activity.

 

In addition to his political insights and first-hand knowledge of conditions in England, Katz’s importance for the Irgunists was that as a foreign journalist he, unlike them, was free to travel. Irgun Chief of Staff Haim Landau sent him to Europe and gave him a new pair of shoes for the occasion – which contained, in the sole, instructions to recall one Irgun emissary in France and blow up one British embassy in Rome. Both were accomplished. Katz then journeyed to Italy for clandestine meetings with Irgun agents on the run, and when one was murdered by his Italian jailers, Katz returned to Eretz Israel and informed Begin. Begin soon sent him back to Europe, this time to Switzerland, where he organized the Irgun’s propaganda at the Zionist Congress.

 

After another mission to France, Katz returned and became a member of the Irgun High Command, settling into the role that was seemingly tailor made for him: director of the Irgun’s English-language propaganda. Katz handled most of the meetings with the foreign press and dignitaries previously handled by Begin.

 

“People thought we were big guys, looking like bandits, carrying daggers,” recalls Katz. The British were arresting the Irgunists who were usually physically fit fighters in their late teens or early twenties, so the image had a basis in truth. But the journalists met the mild-mannered Katz. “After one interview with me, the AP correspondent reported the Irgunists looked like bank clerks,” Katz laughs. Katz has been called the Irgun’s unofficial “foreign minister.”

 

Katz spent many hours secluded with Begin in the Underground. Begin relied on Katz: There was no one else in the Irgun with his political background, or with his intimate contact with the revered Jabotinsky, a fact Begin remembered from their chance meeting in Warsaw, when Jabotinsky had told him, out of Katz’s hearing, that “I have no secrets” from Katz. Katz believes Begin accepted this statement more literally than it was meant.

 

Katz went on several more missions for the Irgun, gathering arms to be smuggled to Eretz Israel and raising money for arms shipments (including the ill-fated Altalena ship). As he says, “It was very simple; all you needed was a criminal mind…” At last he returned to Israel, by airplane, traveling with a mother and her infant, into whose clothes Katz had stuffed $50,000.

 

In 1948, the Irgun Underground morphed into the above-ground Herut party. Katz wrote the party’s platform for the country’s first elections in 1949 and was himself elected to the first Knesset. But the life of a politician did not sit well with the principled Katz. In 1951 he tried to democratize and encourage debate within the Herut party institutions. His allies deserted him under the party leadership’s pressure; Katz put the matter to a vote and had no supporters.

 

Katz left politics and founded a publishing company, Karni. Katz’s next foray into politics came after the liberation of Israel’s heartland, Judea and Samaria, along with Gaza and the Golan Heights, in the Six-Day War of 1967. Prominent Israelis, mostly from the Left, created the Land of Israel Movement to press for permanent Jewish control over the territories. Katz became a regular contributor to the movement’s journal, This Is the Land.

 

In 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented a hotel in Hebron, turned it kosher and invited Jews to hold a Passover seder there - and remain. The Land of Israel Movement sent three representatives, including Katz. He became the group’s contact with then-cabinet minister Menachem Begin. Without Katz’s and others’ pipelines to the government, the group might well have been evicted. Ultimately this group evolved into the Gush Emunim movement.

 

Gush Emunim won much of its first publicity, and large numbers of new members, after the Yom Kippur War. Kissinger was pushing Israel to make concessions to Egypt and Syria. Katz suggested a hunger strike opposite the Prime Minister’s house. The country’s youth, as Katz puts it, “saw us hunger fasting and they said: If the older people can do it, so can we.” The fast became a major stimulant for the movement’s growth.

 

The pattern set in Katz’s own youth was repeated in his middle age. He spent so much time in the United States in the 1970s speaking on behalf of the Land of Israel Movement – one of the results of his travels was the founding of Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI) – that his personal and business affairs suffered. Faced with a choice between continued success in publishing or fighting for settlements, Katz made the same choice he had while attending university and sold Karni.

 

In 1977 Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister. Begin appointed Katz his emissary to the U.S. Katz left for the U.S. and lambasted the editors of Newsweek and Time and others who had vilified Begin. Katz’s straight talk and television appearances stemmed a flood of anti-Begin reports.

 

Begin then appointed Katz as his Advisor on Hasbara [Information, or Propaganda] Abroad. He held this post for six months, but, as he notes, “I have a terrible habit of objecting when I object to something.” Katz’s stand on principle – in this case, in support of Jewish settlement anywhere in the Land of Israel, despite American opposition and Israel’s willingness to compromise – caused him to resign in January 1978. Katz again brought his disagreement with Begin to the Herut party institutions, and again lost a vote.

 

A day later he was hired by the Israeli daily Maariv as a columnist, and soon after also by the Jerusalem Post. The Post, supportive of – and at the time partially owned by – the Labor party, promised Katz he would have a free hand editorially. In 1984 he entitled one of his articles “[Shimon] Peres in Cloud Cuckoo Land,” and a Post employee told him it would not run because she “was not comfortable with it.” Katz replied, “I didn’t write it to make you comfortable,” and resigned. He spent the next seven years writing a monumental biography of his mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Lone Wolf. A new editor later brought Katz back to the Post, and since the late 1990s he has again been publishing his political commentary there on a regular basis.

 

Katz’s books are a must-read for students of Jewish history in the twentieth century. His commentary in the Post continues to clarify issues and light the way to political common sense and the directions Israeli policy should take in the twenty-first century. Arguably, Katz’s greatest legacy is his commitment to truth and principle, his willingness to forego personal pleasures in order to advance the cause of Zionism, even if this choice puts him in the ranks of the unemployed, even if it sends him into hiding Underground, whether at the age of 15 or at the age of 90.

 

Books by Samuel (Shmuel) Katz:

 

The Story of the Jewish Legion, translator (Bernard Ackerman, 1945)

Days of Fire (Doubleday, 1966)

Battleground (Bantam, 1973)

The Hollow Peace (Dvir, 1982)

Battletruth (Dvir, 1982)

Lone Wolf (Barricade Books, 1996)

Hareshet [The Network] (Hebrew, 2000; English publication not yet scheduled)

 

Positions held by Katz:

 

Member of Betar, 1930

Secretary of Johannesburg Revisionist party, 1931

Zionist Congress campaign director, Johannesburg Revisionist party, 1931

Founder and secretary, Tehiya youth organization, 1932-34

Member, Youth Council in South Africa, 1932-34

Political secretary to Michael Haskel, 1932-35

Secretary of South African political office in Jerusalem, 1936

Irgun contact with Supreme Commander Jabotinsky, 1936-40

Columnist, The Eleventh Hour, 1937-39

Personal secretary to Jabotinsky, Egypt, 1937

Irgun emissary to Jabotinsky in Warsaw, 1937

Editor, The Jewish Standard, London, 1940-42

Night editor, Daily Express, London, 1943-46

Irgun emissary to Europe, 1940s

Member of Irgun High Command 1946-48

Director of Irgun’s English language propaganda, 1946-48

Co-founder, Herut party, 1948

Member of Knesset, 1949-51

Publisher, 1951-76

Member of leadership of Land of Israel Movement, 1967-77

Contact between settler movement in Hebron with government, 1968

Advisor to Prime Minister on Hasbara Abroad, 1977-78

Columnist, Maariv and Jerusalem Post, 1978 and afterwards

Author and columnist, 1978-current


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