Tag Archives: Belorussian Jews

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

Jew of the Week: Larry King

King of Interviews

Lawrence Harvey Zeiger (1933-2021) was born in Brooklyn to Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Belarus. His father died when he was just a child, leaving the family impoverished. Young Larry was fascinated by radio and always wished to become a broadcaster. In Miami, he found a job cleaning at a radio station and, when the station’s broadcaster suddenly left the show, Larry was given a chance to take his place. The manager said “Zeiger” was not a good stage name, so Larry quickly chose “King” (based on an ad he had just seen for King’s Wholesale Liquor store). He got the job to radio DJ for three hours every morning, earning $50 a week. King soon started doing interviews, too, and would occasionally have a celebrity who was in town to do a show. He was then hired as a commentator for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. It was in 1978 when The Larry King Show aired its first episode (on radio). It would be broadcast live every weekday at midnight, starting with a one-hour interview and followed by several hours of discussion. By 1985, King was a household name and was hired by CNN to star in a television version of his interview show. CNN’s Larry King Live went on to set a Guinness World Record as the “longest-running TV show hosted by the same person on the same network”. Many iconic moments took place in his studio, including the Perot-Gore debate of 1993 (which became CNN’s most-watched segment ever), and the joint interview of Rabin and Arafat in 1995. Famous people loved to come on his show because he asked simple questions and made his interviewees feel at ease. He famously avoided reading up on his guests, preferring not to know much about them. King retired in 2010 after 25 years and a whopping 6000 episodes. Over that same time period, he was a regular columnist for USA Today. King went on to do several more popular shows on other networks, including Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King. Over the years, he made countless appearances in sit-coms, commercials, movies, cartoons, and even the WWE. All in all, King conducted some 60,000 interviews over his career. He won two Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. After suffering a heart attack in 1987, King started the Larry King Cardiac Foundation which has donated millions to pay for life-saving heart surgeries for people who cannot afford them. He also helped raise millions for Israel and for Chabad. He generally identified as a “Jewish agnostic” and said several years ago: “I love being Jewish, am proud of my Jewishness, and I love Israel.” Sadly, Larry King passed away earlier this year.

Words of the Week

Everyone loves the truth, but not everyone tells the truth.
– Yiddish proverb

Jew of the Week: Shimon Peres

A young Shimon Peres with his wife Sonia

A young Shimon Peres with his wife Sonia

Szymon Perski (1923-2016) was born in the shtetl of Vishnyeva (then part of Poland, now in Belarus) to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family. He was the great-great-grandson of the famed Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, and was greatly influenced by his own grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer. At the young age of 11, Perski’s family moved to Tel Aviv and Hebraized their last name to Peres. (Their entire extended family back in Vishnyeva would later perish in the Holocaust). After finishing his schooling, young Shimon went to live on a kibbutz working as a dairy farmer and shepherd before co-founding his own kibbutz. He was soon elected secretary of a Labor Zionist youth organization. From there, he joined the Mapai party, whose leader David Ben-Gurion took a personal interest in him. At 21, Peres was imprisoned for two weeks by the British for leading an “illegal” expedition into the Negev to scout a new place for Jewish settlement. In 1947, now married, Peres was appointed to the Haganah and put in charge of recruitment and weapons purchases. The following year, he took charge of Israel’s nascent navy. In the 50’s, while part of Israel’s delegation to the US, he studied at NYU and Harvard. At 29, he became the head of Israel’s Ministry of Defence – the youngest person to ever hold the position. He was praised for building strong military alliances with other countries (particularly France, who awarded him their highest distinction, the Legion of Honor), and securing large amounts of modern weapons that propelled Israel into a regional powerhouse. He also helped establish the crucial Dimona nuclear reactor. In 1959, Peres was elected to the Knesset. At one time or another, he served as Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Minister of Transportation, Minister of Defence, Foreign Minister, Minister of Finance, and Information Minister. In 1984, Peres was elected Israel’s prime minister, and in 2007, Israel’s president. Among his other major achievements are the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation (which he pushed through the Cabinet), the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and his Peres Center for Peace, which has trained over 250 Arab doctors and brought life-saving treatment to thousands of Arab children. Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his work with the Oslo Accords, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2008, presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by Barack Obama, and with the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2014. He was also the author of 11 books. Sadly, following a debilitating stroke, the last of Israel’s founding fathers passed away in his sleep early Wednesday. Dignitaries from around the world are flying in to pay their respects, including past and present heads of state of Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and the US – many of whom Peres had guided and advised. President Obama has ordered flags in America to fly at half mast. Despite his age, Peres worked tirelessly until the very last days of his life. He had once said, “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”

Words of the Week

It’s better to be controversial for the right reasons than to be popular for the wrong reasons.
– Shimon Peres