Back in 1992, I was a seventeen year old attending Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv Israel. It was an election year in Israel and being the enterprising young man I was, store recipe I started enquiring on how I could earn a few dollars during the election period. I knew that many of the political parties would be looking for extra cheap labour for a short period and I hoped that I would be able to fill the bill for at least one of the parties.
One of my friends introduced me to the Kahane Chai party, salve who were running candidates in the election and at the time was run by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s son the late Binyamin Kahane. Kahane Chai hired me and I worked for them most of the year I was there.
But I had another job, a job that very few people knew I had. I worked for the Prime Minister’s office.
In October 1992, I was visiting some friends in Jerusalem when one of them asked me to join him on an errand. We walked a few blocks and stopped in front of a non-descript house. He knocked on the door and after quick introductions and a pretty thorough security check we were led inside to meet with a gentleman. The gentleman looked us up and down and invited us to sit down and have some coffee (I had water).
He explained to us that the Likud party needed some volunteers to help in the upcoming election. He asked us if we would be interested in being the party’s youth liaison on campus and perhaps recruit some other young university students to help distribute flyers and hang posters. We both readily agreed. Then he asked if either of us spoke French.
Being an Anglophone from Quebec, I had a basic working knowledge of French and I volunteered the information. The man looked at me and said good, then come back here tomorrow and I will test you. We were then dismissed.
The next day I returned to the house and the man gave me three newspaper articles to read and translate. They were from a French newspaper out of Paris and the articles had to do with Israel and rumors of an upcoming meeting between the PLO and Israel. I translated the articles and was told to wait. The man left the room, when he came back he told me I was hired, but I would have to do a personal interview with the boss. He then led me outside and into a waiting car where we drove to the Office of the Prime Minister in Tel Aviv. I was ushered inside and before I knew it I was sitting in front of the Prime Minister of the country, Yitzhak Shamir.
Shamir was a Jewish national hero and I was in awe. He asked me, in English what my name was, I told him. He said he knew a Silbiger from Poland and asked if the person he knew was a relative. I had no idea. Shamir spoke to me in French for a little while, then he nodded his head and said something in Hebrew (a language I ironically didn’t know) and I was led out of the office.
The man who brought me there explained that I had been chosen to work out of the Prime Minister’s office, to facilitate any translations from French that was needed and to help with any election related tasks that may require non-official help. He explained that because I wasn’t an Israeli citizen, and because I didn’t speak Hebrew, I couldn’t be official help, so I would be labelled as an intern.
The tasks required of me were quite simple, I was to drive election material to the various election offices, I was to read the French press and report on any articles I thought were interesting and should be noticed. My payment would be fair and by cheque. I readily agreed.
While working for the PM’s office, I became very close to Ariel Sharon, the then minister of housing and construction, who treated me like a family member.
A few months into the job, Yitzhak Shamir decided to meet with the PLO in Madrid Spain. It was the first official meeting between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
I joined a protest in Jerusalem with the Kahane Chai group holding a sign that called Yitzhak Shamir a traitor. I was subsequently arrested and roughed up by the IDF. After being released from jail, I headed back to the university in a Likud car, I was tired, so I turned the car over to a friend who subsequently crashed into the rock wall on the Tel-Aviv/Jerusalem highway. We were ok, but the car was totalled. We left it there and hitched a ride back to Tel Aviv.
The next day reported to work. I was told by security that I was fired, my clearance was revoked and I was not allowed to enter the office.
When the Prime Minister came back from Madrid, it was time for the Likud primaries. I attended the primaries with a friend and as we walked around I came face to face with Prime Minister Shamir. He looked at me and shook his head, he took my hand as if to shake it and pulled me close, he whispered in my ear, “I’m disappointed in you.” I said “I’m so sorry.” He then let go of my hand and quietly walked away.
Those were the last words I ever spoke to Yitzhak Shamir who died this week. I truly admired the man, I wish there were more strong Jews like him. He was from a generation that didn’t give up, they saw the horrors of the Holocaust, they saw their own families tortured and murdered, yet they held steadfast and built a nation.
In retrospect, I now realize how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to work with such a great man. As kids, we tend to take things for granted, at the time, I didn’t even care that I was fired. It’s amazing how with age perspective changes. I regret how I treated my job with Shamir, I regret not spending more time getting to know the man and I most of all regret how things ended between me and him.
I’m sure over twenty years later, Yitzhak Shamir would have no recollection of my existence, but I will always have the sweet memories of the few months I worked in close contact with him, the few months that I had access to the top echelon of Israeli politics, and the few months, where my youthful immaturity and ignorance, not only cost me a job, but cost me the respect of a true hero of Israel.
May his family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion.