In the early 1960s, Teddy Kollek, then director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, invited author James A. Michener to live in Israel for several months and write a book about the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
Michener was tall, lean and a very clean-cut American type of the old school – polite, handsome and well-dressed, soft spoken, as a Quaker should be – and approachable.
Michener, born in 1907, was famous at the time. He had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, which was made into the famous Broadway musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein and was destined to be followed by two screen versions.
He had a very interesting way of working. He would hire a research assistant to prepare a historical, archeological or even geographic outline of the country involved. He then would write a fictional story of a family and historic incidents that linked one to the other over a span of centuries.
Kollek arranged for the research assistant, who actually was a staff member of the Prime Minister’s Office, and moonlighted with permission. I met James Michener a couple of times, including a visit to our home, with his wife, for a Friday night meal.
Michener was quick-witted and there was a sense of fun in him. As I write this some 60 or so years later, I can’t recall whether I called him Jim or Mr. Michener, but obviously we hit it off. The one conversation that is etched in my memory was my asking him how he became an author.
“Well,” he said, “when I was young I worked for a publisher in New York. In those days, British authors were popular, and a publisher could buy the publication rights for the United States for a lot less than what local writers cost. My job was to meet the British authors at the pier, and escort them on their book tours across the country. After I got to do this often enough, I said to myself, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too.’”
I could sense his warm attitude toward Jewish history and Israel. Those interested can find this expressed in his book The Source, which appeared in 1965. To me, the evidence for this came doubly clear as a result of the Six Day War of June 1967.
I was at that time studying at Columbia University and working in our economic mission to organize the American end of the future Jerusalem Economic Conferences. When it was clear that war was inevitable I had voluntarily attached myself to the Consulate General in New York. We well recalled that in 1956, American public opinion had not been prepared properly for the Sinai Operation of that year when the IDF conquered the peninsula in 100 hours. Once the 1967 war was won, we knew there would be immense pressure on Israel to withdraw from Sinai, the West Bank and Golan Heights. To pull back without tangible diplomatic progress would nullify the remarkable Israeli victory.
In all of this, US public opinion was vital. Because of our preemptive strike opening the Six Day War, we were being accused of being the aggressors. In the UN, the Arab-Muslim-Third World lobby was overwhelmingly powerful, spearheaded by the USSR and the communist bloc. The Europeans, as usual, wanted to appease the Arabs, whose Soviet-eqipped armies had collapsed in a matter of hours.
It was still the era of print magazines. LOOK had a readership in the multi-millions, second only to LIFE, now both defunct. Somehow, we heard the publisher or editor of LOOK was pro-Israel. I called to ask if he would accept an article from Michener. He gladly agreed. I called Bell Telephone information and asked for the number of James Michener in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So easy to locate people in a free country.
Not only did Michener remember me, he immediately agreed to do the article, provided someone would do the basic research for him. All this transpired on a Thursday, with a deadline for the following Monday or Tuesday. The timing was vital because of the scheduled emergency session at the UN. Michener asked me to get the research to him on Sunday and meanwhile his agent would contact LOOK magazine. A
t that point, Michael “Mike” Arnon, the consul-general, and I agreed to assign the research to one of the consuls, a friend from Jerusalem, Yehuda Avner. I asked Avner if he could get the research done by Sunday.
Both of us were Shabbat observers, and I never asked Avner how he managed to produce the material. In retrospect, he could have worked all Thursday night, part of Friday and all Saturday night. On Sunday, we airlifted the material to Michener. There was a beautiful color photo on the front cover with the caption for the article: James A. Michener “ISRAEL A nation too young to die.” (LOOK, August 8, 1967)
I was impressed with two things: Michener’s cool professionalism in involving his agent; in other words: ensuring that he would be compensated properly for writing the piece, and the speed with which he wrote the article. His opening thesis was one easily understood. He accused Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser of assault and battery: the assault being constant threats to destroy Israel and push all Israelis into the sea, and the battery being the actual fedayeen terror attacks carried out under the guidance of Egyptian intelligence.
Besides the actual circulation of the magazine, we now had a tool for our information activities that was 100% American. We purchased thousands of reprints for wide distribution to policy makers and journalists across the US.
James Michener was a gentleman, a scholar and a fine human being. A true friend when we were in need.
HOWEVER, dear reader, warm memories of the past cannot out balance the chilling concerns of today. Here are a few comments and reactions about the days ahead.
The following statements are factual:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has convinced Bezalel Smotrich to join with Itamar Ben-Gvir in running on a joint list called the Religious Zionist Party. Together they have a better chance to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25% and make it into the Knesset.
Their votes might enable Netanyahu to have more than 61 seats in Knesset. Therefore, he would again be prime minister. Netahyahu’s Likud Party has signed an agreement with the Smotrich-Ben-Gvir alliance that extra votes insufficient for a full new member of Knesset will be shared by the two parties. That is, the votes left after Knesset seats are accounted for could possibly add an additional member to the Likud or the Smotrich-Ben-Gvir alliance.
All this is engineered by Netanyahu to try to ensure his reign as prime minister continues, a greater need than usual by a man facing an exhausting court case threatening his entire legacy. As prime minister, he has a big free “bully pulpit” to fight the battle against the courts, the legal system, the police and the media, and to claim that all this legal action comes to dethrone a democratically elected leader.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, the “chief rabbi” of the Bnei Akiva and Hesder (part-time military service) yeshivot, endorsed the Smotrich Ben-Gvir party. Ben-Gvir is a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. The latter was shunned by Menachem Begin and was barred from running in the election campaigns because of his fascistic racist ideals.
Since Euclid of Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, it has been accepted that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.
Ben-Gvir=Smotrich=Druckman=Netanyahu=Kahane=The United “F” Front.
Q.E.D., that is quod erat demonstrandum, or in simple English, GUILTY AS CHARGED!
The writer served founding prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, was world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive for 10 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com