Former Knesset speaker Shilansky passes away at 86

Shilansky, a Holocaust survivor and IZL commander, was a former Likud MK; Netanyahu: The story of his life is the story of our people.

December 9, 2010 12:20
4 minute read.
Dov Shilansky

dov shilansky 311. (photo credit: Knesset)

Former Knesset speaker and Holocaust-survivor advocate Dov Shilansky, a man whose life story was intertwined with the narrative of the birth of the State of Israel, died Thursday in Tel Aviv at the age of 86.

“The People of Israel has lost one of its most dedicated and exemplary leaders,” eulogized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “Shilansky was among the founders of the national movement who survived the Holocaust. He dedicated his life to ensuring the revival of the Jewish people on its land.

“In all of his posts, but especially that of Knesset speaker, he was a symbol of integrity and the absolute commitment to the Jewish people, the memory of the Holocaust, Zionism, the Land of Israel and moral human values,” Netanyahu continued. “The entire nation bows its head in memory and deep appreciation of his work and his personality. The story of his life is the story of our people.”

Shilansky was born in Siauliai, Lithuania, in March 1924, and survived the Holocaust as a young man, a story that he recorded years later in his book Darkness at Daylight. A fervent Revisionist Zionist, he joined the IZL (Irgun) and operated in both post-war Italy and Germany before immigrating to Israel aboard the Altalena, the IZL-sponsored ship that was shelled by the nascent IDF.

Undeterred, Shilansky served as a combat officer during the 1948 War of Independence.

Four years later, in 1952, Shilansky was arrested while attempting to bring an explosive device into the Foreign Ministry. Shilansky was accused of smuggling in the suitcase bomb to disrupt the negotiations between Israel and Germany over German monetary reparations for the Holocaust. Allegedly a member of an unnamed underground organization, Shilansky was sentenced to two years in prison.

While working for years as a prominent attorney and a member of the ethics committee of the Israel Bar Association and the International Organization of Jewish Law Professionals, Shilansky never lost sight of his ideology.

In 1977 he was elected to the Knesset during the “Revolution,” when Shilansky’s former IZL commander Menachem Begin led his Likud Party to election victory for the first time in Israel’s history. Once again serving under Begin, Shilansky was appointed to serve as the Knesset representative on the Committee for the Appointment of Judges. After his reelection to the Knesset in 1981, he was made deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Shilansky was appointed Knesset speaker in 1988, a position that he held until the 1992 elections. In 1993 he was a candidate for president, but was defeated by fellow former IZL member Ezer Weizman.

Although Shilansky lost his seat in the 1996 elections, he was often included in the ceremonial 120th slot in the Likud’s election lists in ensuing Knesset races.

A year after assuming the Knesset’s top post, Shilansky initiated the “Every Person Has a Name” ceremony, in which MKs take the podium on Holocaust Memorial Day to read the 6 million names of Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Shilansky explained that he believed that the number 6 million was otherwise incomprehensible, and that the victims of the Nazis must be personally remembered. Shilansky’s initiative quickly caught on, becoming a prominent Holocaust memorial tradition in communities worldwide.

“Dov Shilansky was one of the representatives of the generation of Holocaust survivors,” recalled Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev. “As a board member at Yad Vashem, he made a significant contribution to Holocaust remembrance and understood its importance for future generations.”

Throughout his political career, Shilansky remained a hard-line, traditional Likudnik.

When asked how he felt during the flight on an official visit to Jordan not long after the peace treaty, he quipped: “It’s not like leaving home at all,” and began singing the Betar movement anthem: “Two banks has the Jordan. This is ours, and that is as well.”

Nevertheless, he was not above reconciling with former adversaries. Although he arrived aboard the Altalena, which was fired upon by the Palmah under Yitzhak Rabin’s command, the two men later made up. When Rabin was assassinated, Shilansky was devastated. He told The Jerusalem Post’s Knesset reporter at the time, Liat Collins, that they had made their peace when Rabin paid him a condolence call after his son Yosef was killed in action on the Lebanese border in 1974.

“Shilansky was a man who was aggressive in his beliefs but pleasant in his relations with others,” recalled Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who shares Shilansky’s ideological leanings.

“He was a Holocaust survivor and one of the Altalena’s commanders, who fought for his people and his land. He made a great donation to Israeli democracy and the culture of debate. He had a constant smile on his face, despite the difficulties he faced in his life – the terrors of the Holocaust and the loss of his son. He will be remembered as a solid rock and as a symbol of faith in the justness of one’s path.”

Shilansky is survived by his son, and will be buried Friday in Tel Aviv.

Liat Collins contributed to this report.

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