Three-time defense minister and one-time foreign minister Moshe Arens died on Monday in his home in Savyon. He was 93.
A Likud stalwart who began his Knesset career in 1973, Arens served as defense minister in the governments of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu, and as foreign minister under Shamir, with Netanyahu as his deputy.
As ambassador to the US, Arens hired Netanyahu as an attaché and later appointed him ambassador to the UN. He thus is considered the person who discovered Netanyahu and brought him into the world of diplomacy and politics.
Arens was born in Kovno, Lithuania (today Kaunas), in 1925 and moved with his family to Latvia in 1927, with both countries claiming him as their own.
This past March, he was the keynote speaker at an event in Tel Aviv organized by Latvian Ambassador Elita Gavel and the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel to mark the 100th anniversary f Latvian independence. The occasion was also used to launch a booklet about 28 Israelis with Latvian backgrounds who significantly contributed to the State of Israel. Arens was the best known figure in the tribute book and, at the time, the only one still living.
Arens recalled an idyllic childhood and adolescence in Riga where he skied and skated in winter, and spent summers at the beach. Minorities, including Jews, were autonomous and had their own schools, places of worship and cultural centers. He went to the Ezra School where the language of instruction was German. But a law enacted in 1934 gave Jews the right to choose between Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Latvian.
In 1939, with the onset of the Second World War and the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, the Arens family fled to America. Moshe Arens was 14 at the time, and the language he knew best was Latvian. Over the years, however, he had no use for his native tongue and largely forgot it.
“But I have not forgotten the wonderful years of my youth in Latvia or the Latvian landscape,” he said.
Then, on a somber note, he recalled that 90% of Latvian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, most of them by Latvians. The worst of these crimes was the 1941 massacre in the Rumbula Forest near Riga, where thousands of Jews were systematically killed on November 30 and December 8, 1941.
“I could not understand where this evil had come from,” Arens said. “Yet it had been there all the time, beneath the ground.”
When he read the names of distinguished Latvian Jews in the booklet, he said, he thought of how many other educated, talented and active Latvian Jews could have done great things for and in Israel had they not been murdered. “All of that has disappeared,” he said.
Fast forward to 1992. Arens was in Riga meeting with the Latvian defense minister after that country had been freed from the Soviet yoke. Arens recalled that because of a lack of resources to provide for heat, the two men sat bundled against the freezing cold. While bundled in their heavy coats, Arens told the minister that if Latvia wanted good relations with Israel, it had to acknowledge its responsibility for the Holocaust.
“It wasn’t the only place where they killed Jews,” said Arens.
He spent a good portion of his youth in America, and served in the US Army Engineering Corps from 1944-1946. He then became national leader of Brit Trumpeldor, or Betar, before moving to Israel in 1948, where he joined the Irgun, and was sent as an emissary of the group to North Africa.
Following his return to Israel, he joined a group of American Betar members who were immigrants and settled in Mevo Betar, a border settlement in the Judean Hills.
Unable to find work in Israeli military technology because of what he called his “wrong” political views, Arens returned to the US and studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology. He then became a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and later the deputy CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries.
In that capacity, he oversaw the Lavi fighter jet project. Notwithstanding the plane’s cutting edge technology, the Israel Air Force sought to reduce its fleet, and planned to reduce the number of Lavis from 120 to 80. That would have considerably increased the cost of production, and made the Lavi more expensive than the F-16. As a result, the Lavi program was scrapped by the cabinet in a 13-12 vote. In the years that followed, the IAF acquired 200 F-16s.
Arens was awarded the Israel Defense Prize in 1971, and only revealed the story of the Lavi’s demise 30 years later in a column he wrote for Haaretz
in September 2017.
(Moshe Arens in a 2010 interview with the
Post's Elli Wohlgelernter. Credit: Toldot Yisrael/Youtube)
He wrote eight books, most recently an autobiography published in 2018. When he became a columnist for Haaretz, he taught himself to type in Hebrew. His most recent column, in memory of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fighter Simcha Rotem, was published a week-and-a-half ago.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the participation of right-wing Jewish Military Union (ZZW), whose members were adherents of the political philosophy of Irgun and Likud forebear Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was of special interest to Arens. His 2009 book Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto memorialized the ZZW fighters and their leader Pawel Frenkel. It disturbed him greatly that Mordechai Anielewicz and his left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) fighters received all the credit for Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.
In 2012, Arens was in Warsaw for a ceremony in which a plaque for Frenkel and those who fought with him was placed in what is now known as Pawel Frenkel Square in the former ghetto area. The ceremony was attended by the mayor of Warsaw, representatives of the Polish government, Israel’s education minister and its ambassador to Poland.
Before that, in 2008, an intersection in Herzliya was named for Frenkel at a ceremony attended by some 200 people including Arens, Benjamin Netanyahu, Uzi Landau, Danny Danon and veterans of the Irgun and Stern Gang (Lehi) pre-state underground movements.
Arens lectured and wrote about giving Arab citizens a sense of belonging by treating them with dignity and respect, and integrating them into mainstream Israeli society. While not as successful in that endeavor as he was with memorializing Frenkel, he persevered.
In a February 2018 article, Arens compared the separation barrier in Arab east Jerusalem with the infamous Berlin Wall, writing that for 50 years, east Jerusalem’s residential areas had suffered criminal neglect.
The widespread esteem in which he was held as a scientist, engineer, politician, statesman, writer, chairman of the board of governors of Ariel University, and above all, as a gentleman, was evident in the flood of eulogies on Facebook and Twitter from people who had been with him at different stages of his life. Even those who did not share his political views wrote and spoke of him with admiration and affection.
Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin called Arens by his nickname Mischa. Netanyahu referred to Arens as his teacher and guide.
“He knew my father, who was at [Arens’s] wedding with his dear wife, Muriel. Since then, there have been deep ties between our families,” Netanyahu said. “I saw Mischa do wonderful things to fortify the State of Israel, as our ambassador to Washington, as foreign minister, as Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee chairman and as defense minister, time after time.
“In recent years, he was dedicated… to documenting the full story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which people of Betar played a central role.”
Netanyahu said that when he visited Arens several weeks ago, he was clear-minded and sharp.
“There was no greater patriot than he. The great contribution of Moshe Arens to our nation and our state will forever be remembered,” Netanyahu said.
Rivlin described Arens as one of the most important leaders of the Herut movement, and as a man of honor who never flinched from a fight.
“Mischa was one of the most important ministers of defense the State of Israel ever had,” said Rivlin. “He was not a commander or a general, but a devoted man of learning who toiled day and night for the security of Israel and its citizens.”
Rivlin explained how Arens worked in key positions to ensure Israel’s development and success – as a member of the Irgun, as a scientist, engineer, statesman, ambassador and as a manager of the most important industries for Israel’s security.
“Mischa was a man of maturity, determination and unbounded love for our country,” the president said.
Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog said, “Despite our differences, there was always mutual respect between us.”
“From his youth in the United States, to his time as a student of Jabotinsky, up to his final days writing for Haaretz, Moshe always fought for Israel’s security and Eretz Israel, and for our democracy and minorities. May his memory be a blessing.”
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