Yehiel Kadishai, aide to Menachem Begin, dies at 90

Kadishai helped liberate Holocaust survivors and smuggle them into pre-state Israel, served at Begin’s side for 30 years

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Portrait of Yehiel Kadishai, in October, 2013. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Portrait of Yehiel Kadishai, in October, 2013. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Yehiel Kadishai, a longtime aide to former prime minister Menachem Begin who helped Holocaust survivors make their way to Israel after World War II, died at the age of 90 on Saturday after suffering a heart attack.

Kadishai was a close confidant of Begin for decades and served as the former prime minister’s personal secretary and chief of staff, including during the period in the late 1970s that saw Israel and Egypt negotiate and sign the Camp David peace accords.

Kadishai was born in Poland in 1923, emigrating along with his family the following year to the then-fledgling city of Tel Aviv, where he grew up as a member of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Beitar movement.

During World War II he joined the British Army, where he was involved in providing aid for newly released Holocaust survivors. Later, after the war, he joined the Irgun, Jabotinsky’s pre-state political/paramilitary movement, and worked in Europe to smuggle Jewish Holocaust survivors into Palestine, in contravention of British Mandate quotas.

Kadishai returned to Israel in 1948 aboard the Altalena, a boat filled with French arms commissioned by the Irgun but confiscated by the newly formed IDF as it arrived in Israel, during the period before the Irgun fighters were completely integrated into the IDF.

He later became involved in politics and in the 1960s was secretary of Begin’s Herut party, the main right-wing party of the time. He stayed with Begin when, in 1973, Begin founded the breakaway Likud party, which four years later became the first right-wing party to win the elections in Israel. Kadishai retired from politics in the 1980s, but remained close to Begin until the latter’s death in 1992.

Kadishai was “modest, smart, witty and completely dedicated to the State of Israel and to the people of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday. Kadishai was someone who “everybody loved,” who had “a Jewish soul and a warm heart” and, despite the challenges, “accompanied Begin along his path, in the political desert and in leading the country.”

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that Kadishai was “part of the experience of my youth” and his passing was another sign that “a special generation of leaders who fought for independence, safeguarded values and principles in politics, and made important decision for our future” was at an end.

Kadishai’s death is “difficult to digest,” MK Reuvin Rivlin (Likud) said Sunday. “Even in his later years, [he] was sharp and alert, with a sense of humor and opinionated criticism,” Rivlin said, adding that Kadishai was “a living piece of history who will be missed.”

Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat said Sunday that she had known Kadishai for decades, and always found him “modest and well-mannered… Until his last day he felt a mission to serve the country and to spread the legacy of Begin and the Herut movement.”

In May, at an event at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem honoring his 90th birthday, Kadishai said, “Begin used to say, when the enemy says he wants to destroy us, we should believe him and do everything to prevent it. Today, they still want to destroy us, but, thank God, we are here, more than six million Jews in Israel. I never would have dreamed of it, praise God,” Israel National News reported.

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