Category Archives: Law, Politics & Military

Jews in the World of Law and Politics

Jews of the Week: Zalman Shazar and Reuven Rivlin

Two Israeli Presidents

Reuven Rivlin (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem to a family descended from the great Vilna Gaon, that made aliyah in 1809. His father was a Hebrew University professor who first translated the Koran into Hebrew. Not surprisingly, Rivlin speaks Arabic fluently. That made him a key asset during those years when he served in the IDF Intelligence Corps. In the Six-Day War, Rivlin fought with the Jerusalem Brigade. He later studied law at Hebrew University, and served on Jerusalem’s City Council. In 1988, he was elected chairman of Likud and took his first seat in the Knesset. In 2003, he became Knesset Speaker, a position he held until 2014, when he was elected Israel’s tenth president. In that election, he had the support of Arab MKs, despite the fact that he has always been very right-wing, heavily criticized the withdrawal from Gaza, declared that “West Bank settlements are as Israeli as Tel Aviv”, and continues to push for a one-state solution. Nonetheless, he has been praised for building bridges in Israel, and being an eloquent spokesperson on the state’s behalf. Rivlin is a vegetarian and a big supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which he once managed decades ago. Earlier this month, his term as Israel’s president came to an end, and he has been replaced by (former Jew of the Week) Isaac Herzog.

Schneur Zalman Rubashov (1889-1974) was born in the Belorussian town of Mir, near Minsk, to a deeply religious Chabad family, and was named after Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. From a young age, he was drawn to Zionism and was also a member of Jewish self-defence organizations in Eastern Europe. He regularly wrote articles for a number of Yiddish publications. After being released from the Russian army in 1924, he made aliyah and settled in Tel-Aviv, changing his last name to “Shazar” (an acronym of his full name). There he worked for the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) and also as a journalist. In 1947, Shazar was part of the Jewish delegation to the UN during the critical Partition Plan vote. He was elected to the first Knesset in 1949 and became the new state’s Minister of Education. In 1963, Shazar was elected Israel’s third president. He wrote a goodwill message that was taken by the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, where it still rests. On it he wrote: “From the President of Israel in Jerusalem with hope for ‘abundance of peace so long as the moon endures’ (Psalms 72:7).” Shazar was a devoted member of the “Chein Circle” for Hasidic study in Jerusalem, often hosting the group in his presidential residence. He became a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and later helped him produce his renowned translation and commentary of the Talmud. Shazar kept a regular correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and often visited him in Brooklyn. He co-founded Kfar Chabad in Israel. Shazar passed away shortly after completing his second term as Israel’s president. Today, his portrait appears on the Israeli 200 shekel note.

Words of the Week

I have no doubt, and my positions are known, that the status of Judaism according to halachah is what has kept us going for 3,800 years.
– Reuven Rivlin

President Shazar toasts the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad headquarters (770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn)

Jew of the Week: Natan Sharansky

The Refusenik

Anatoly Borisovich Sharansky (b. 1948) was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. He was a child chess prodigy, and won his city’s chess championship as a teenager. He went on to study math in Moscow and later worked in a secret Soviet research lab. In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel and was refused. Henceforth, he became a vocal activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and became the world’s most famous refusenik. He soon expanded his scope to work for all human rights, and was the spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, today Russia’s primary human rights organization. In 1977, Sharansky was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, and sentenced to 13 years of hard labour. He was tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. (He would later remark that one of the things that helped him through it was playing chess in his mind.) After ceaseless activism from his wife, mother, and countless international supporters, Sharansky was finally released in 1986. Shortly after, he received a Congressional Gold Medal from the US government. He moved to Israel and started going by his Hebrew name, Natan. A couple of years later, he published a bestselling memoir, Fear No Evil. (This book was passed on by Helen Suzman to Nelson Mandela, then still in prison, and inspired his ongoing struggle.) In 1995, Sharansky co-founded the Yisrael BaAliyah political party to advocate on behalf of hundreds of thousands of new Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel. They won seven seats in their first election. Sharansky served as Minister of Industry and Trade, then Minister of Internal Affairs, and even Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. In 2003, as chairman of his party, he merged it with Likud, and became Minister of Jerusalem Affairs. In 2005, Sharansky resigned in protest of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He is a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements, and co-founded One Jerusalem, an organization that works to keep the Jewish capital from being divided ever again. President Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2006, and he won the Israel Prize in 2018. Last year, he won the prestigious Genesis Prize, and donated all $1 million of it for coronavirus relief. Currently, Sharansky heads the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, and continues to serve on the board of the Jewish Agency.

Sharansky: The Dangerous Rise of the Un-Jews

Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict in 5 Easy Points

Words of the Week

Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state… but not at the expense of the state of Israel.
– Natan Sharansky

Jew of the Week: Yitzhak Shamir

In Memory of a Great Israeli Prime Minister

Yitzhak Yezernitsky (1915-2012) was born in what is now Belarus and spent his youth in Poland. As a young man, he joined Betar, the Zionist organization founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. After a short time studying law at the University of Warsaw, he made aliyah and changed his last name to “Shamir”, after King Solomon’s Biblical stone-cutting tool used to construct Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Tragically, his entire family that remained back in Europe was killed in the Holocaust. Before his father was murdered by villagers, he reportedly said: “I have a son in the Land of Israel, and he will exact my revenge.” Shamir joined the paramilitary Irgun force to fight off British rule, and later was part of the more aggressive Lehi, or “Stern Gang”. For his activities, he was imprisoned a number of times. (During one imprisonment, he met his future wife Shulamit, who had been arrested by the British for “illegal” immigration, having escaped Nazi-allied Bulgaria by boat.) In 1946, Shamir was arrested again and this time exiled to Eritrea in Africa. He managed to escape by digging a 200-foot tunnel, and found asylum in France. Shamir moved back to Israel immediately after the Declaration of Independence in 1948. He participated in the War of Independence, and later joined the Mossad. One of his main missions was Operation Damocles, to assassinate former Nazi rocket scientists helping Egypt develop missiles. He later resigned from the Mossad due to controversy over that operation. In 1973, he was first elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud. He became Foreign Minister in 1980, and Prime Minister of Israel in 1983. A hard-liner, Shamir opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, blocked a planned 1987 “regional peace conference”, and opposed the 1991 Madrid peace talks. When the Soviet Union began to fall apart in 1989, many Soviet Jews were fleeing to the United States. Shamir stepped in to stop the “insult to Israel” (as he called it) and said Soviet Jews were not refugees, since they had a home in Israel. The US changed its refugee policy and henceforth most Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel. Similarly, when the Ethiopian government collapsed in 1991, Shamir ordered Operation Solomon to airlift 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Shamir steered the country through the difficult years of the First Intifada and the First Gulf War. During his premiership, Israel established formal relations with over a dozen countries. He stepped down as Likud leader in 1993, but continued to sit in the Knesset until 1996. It was Shamir who launched Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career by appointing him to his first post (Israel’s ambassador to the UN). He would later leave Likud due to disputes with his young protégé, and only returned to the party in 2001 to support Ariel Sharon. That year, he also received the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. Shamir left politics entirely in 2004 due to declining health. He wrote two books, including an autobiography. He has been described as one of Israel’s bravest warriors and most influential leaders. His yahrzeit is this Sunday.

Words of the Week

In their war against Israel’s existence, the Arab governments took advantage of the Cold War. They enlisted the military, economic, and political support of the communist world against Israel, and they turned a local, regional conflict into an international powder keg.
– Yitzhak Shamir