(photo credit: AP [file])
President Shimon Peres had to cut short his meeting Monday morning with members of the Toronto UJA Prime Minister's Mission to attend the funeral of Israel's first naval commander, Mordechai Limon, in Kfar Shmaryahu.
But first, Peres chose to give them a humorous history lesson about the Israel Navy and about Limon, who died last weekend at age 85.
A member of the Hagana, the Polish-born Limon joined the British Merchant Marine during World War II, to learn the rudiments of creating a navy. After the war, he was engaged in smuggling Jewish Holocaust survivors out of British detention camps in Cyprus and bringing them by sea to Israel. Once Israel achieved independence, he was made commander of the nascent navy.
Of course a navy needs ships, and Peres recalled that Israel bought its first destroyer from Great Britain. The commander of the Royal Navy had hosted a party for the Israelis, and had told Peres, who was then working in a senior capacity in the Defense Ministry, that the first admiral in history had been a Jew.
This was news to Peres, who asked which admiral that was. "Noah," said the commander.
Anyone who had wanted to enlist in the navy back then, said Peres, had to fill out a questionnaire which included the question: "Do you know how to swim?" Peres recalled that one of the applicants wrote: "Why? Don't you have any ships?"
The last thing the navy had worried about in its infancy was uniforms, said Peres. But when representatives of the Israel Navy were invited to a party hosted by the king of Greece, they had had to get their act together.
They couldn't equal the smart uniforms and gold braid of the Greek Navy, recalled Peres, but they improvised.
At the party, Limon was asked by a British naval officer where he was from.
"Israel," answered Limon. "Israel? Where's that?" said the officer. "It used to be called Palestine," said Limon. At which the British officer had nodded his head and said, "Ah, Palestine. Are the Jews still causing a lot of trouble?"
Peres took time out to pose for photographs with the group before departing for Kfar Shmaryahu, where he eulogized Limon, who, he said, had been born to the sea. "It was as if it had been ordained, but it was also his choice."
A man of a few words but of great deeds, he was a key player in confronting two of the most important challenges in Israel's history, said Peres: the closing of the gates against Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust and the arms embargo which all but curtailed Israel's ability to defend herself.
In the War of Independence, recalled Peres, "we had an army without tanks and a sea without a navy. The arms embargo made Israel's position all the more tenuous. Israel turned to France for help without knowing if France was the right address. It transpired that not only was France the right address, but France was also very generous in the assistance that it gave.
"There was a long and wonderful period in the relationship between France and Israel till after the Six Day War, when France refused to allow Israel to take possession of five warships for which it had paid."
"There was no option but to salvage what we could," the president said, and "again Limon took control of the helm and navigated a stormy sea."
Peres was referring to the way the ships were spirited out of the Cherbourg docks on Christmas Eve, 1969, to arrive in Israel on December 31. The success of the operation was credited to Limon.
Peres said he was proud that Limon had, at age 26, become the first commander of Israel's fledgling navy, and was equally proud of the fact that Limon knew how to keep a secret.