Meir Amit, a great Israeli and a wonderful 'saba'

A personal tribute to the former Mossad chief, who passed away last week at age 88.

meir amit 248 88 (photo credit: Archive)
meir amit 248 88
(photo credit: Archive)
The first time I met Meir Amit, my husband's grandfather, was the first time I met a truly great man. A good man is easy to identify: a devoted husband, a loving father, a supportive son. Perhaps a good man is also industrious in his job, helpful in his community, committed to his faith. We all know good men. A great man is transcendent. He makes the sacrifices that none of us is willing or able to make. A great man devotes his life to a purpose larger than himself, larger even than his family. He seeks no accolades for his achievements, nor does he care to feed his ego. A great man puts his life on the line for the ideals and values that the rest of us just believe in. A great man is not merely a part of a just cause; he is that just cause, and without him that cause does not exist. The State of Israel is mourning the loss of one of its great men. Meir passed away on Friday, July 17. His peaceful exit from the world marks the end of an era: a generation of great men who built the modern State of Israel with their bare hands, driven by an unrelenting devotion to the security and prosperity of the Jewish people. Many books and articles have been written about Meir's life. I would do him a disservice to attempt a real biography here. To highlight a few key details, when he was just 15 years old, Meir, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization during the British Mandate of Palestine. He commanded units during Israel's War of Independence and in battles for Israel's security after statehood was established. He became a major general of the Israeli Defense Forces, a major general of IDF Intelligence, and served as the third head of the Mossad, from 1963-1968. As a military commander and Mossad chief, he was responsible for extraordinary achievements for which, as President Shimon Peres put it, "entire generations of Israelis owe... a debt of gratitude." Indeed, he was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. EVEN IN his eighties, when I had the fortune to meet and get to know him, Meir was tirelessly devoted to his work as Chairman of Israel's Center for Special Studies, an organization that focuses on issues concerning intelligence and terrorism; as a senior adviser to Israeli high-tech companies; and as a founder of Israel's "Amos" satellite project. Undeterred by the physical limitations of old age, he awoke at 5 a.m. every morning to swim before getting to work. You did not have to meet him to respect him, to be in awe of him, to gain inspiration from his life. Just reading a brief summary of his achievements, like you are now, has that effect - particularly if you are Jewish or a Zionist, but even if you are not. But I did meet him, and I spent many hours over the course of six years in his company. Did I feel awe, respect, inspiration? Yes, of course. But I also felt love. Meir became my own saba, and he treated me as his granddaughter. He welcomed me, an American Jew with no Hebrew skills and no prior connection to his beloved Israel, into his family. He traveled overseas, while physically frail, to be at my wedding in the US. We toasted each other over shots of vodka and mused about our common Russian ancestry. He recited poems in Hebrew about his dream that I would one day live in Israel. He showered affection on my baby girl, his fifth great-grandchild, who is named for him and his wife, Yona. He drove me to some of his favorite places in Israel and showed me the kibbutz where he grew up and raised his children. Along with my husband, he instilled in me a passion for the land and people of Israel that has fundamentally changed my life. Meir Amit was a truly great man, and there is no doubt that his passing is a unique loss for the State of Israel and Jewish people throughout the world. I feel incredibly fortunate to have known him, even if only during the final years of his long and amazing life. But most of all, I miss my saba.