Shamir Begins a 10-day U.S. Visit by Accepting Degree in Los Angeles

Beginning a coast-to-coast U.S. junket that involves major speeches and a White House meeting Friday with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel ran into a few snags here Sunday, but took them in stride.

For starters, a number of alumni of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion objected to its conferral of an honorary degree on the leader of the right-wing Likud bloc.

Then some major fund-raisers complained that he was slighting the official leadership of the organized Jewish community in favor of local Likud supporters.

But despite these hitches, his Los Angeles appearance seems to have begun well, and his remarks were vintage Shamir.

Accepting an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the Reform seminary, the premier gently chided his hosts about their movement’s opposition to Zionism in its early days.

“At the beginning of this century, when our national flag was unfolded, your organization was not among the most ardent supporters of the Zionist movement,” Shamir recalled.

“But with the passage of years, the perception changed, and some of your leaders became the most outspoken advocates of our ideas and goals,” he added.

Shamir paid tribute to the late Abba Hillel Silver, a leading Reform rabbi and Zionist, and to the work of the HUC-JIR campus in Jerusalem.

It is not certain whether he was aware of the letter sent several days earlier by 33 seminary graduates, reminding HUC-JIR President Alfred Gottschalk of Shamir’s opposition to the Camp David accords and his “cynical deals with religious zealots and extremist politicians.”

Four of the 11 HUC-JIR faculty members at the Los Angeles campus absented themselves from the academic procession in protest.

A MEETING WITH THATCHER

Bestowing the degree, Gottschalk lauded Shamir’s efforts to assure religious pluralism and an equal status for Reform Judaism in Israel. The prime minister was also praised for his opposition to changes in the Law of Return, which would have nullified conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis.

Accepting the honor, Shamir warned that the road to Middle East peace “may turn out to be full of difficulties and complications,” but he pledged that Israel would continue “with all our might to strive for peace.”

He described his government’s two primary obligations as assuring the security of the state and the ingathering of the exiles.

Yet despite the emphasis on armed defense, “we have not become and we shall not become a martial people,” he said. “Judaism has never glorified martyrs or encouraged martyrology. Judaism is a faith of life.”

Following the HUC-JIR ceremony, Shamir visited the Simon Wiesenthal Center to address students at the Yeshiva University High School.

Although he postponed some scheduled private meetings with entertainment industry leaders Saturday, he met later with some 30 pastors, writers and television preachers, representing about 20 million evangelical Christians.

Their spokesman, the Rev. Frank Eiklor, assured Shamir that the group had not come to give him advice, but to lend him their prayers and their “arm of solid support.”

During a few minutes with Israeli reporters, Shamir touched briefly on his upcoming meeting with Bush.

He said he would urge that Israel and the United States coordinate their policies on the Middle East peace process. He warned that unless existing disagreements were resolved, neither country would achieve its peace goals.

Shamir had an unscheduled meeting early Sunday morning with his old friend, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher told reporters afterward that there is now a universal interest in settling conflicts in the Middle East and that she is optimistic a solution will be found in time.

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