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A highly popular speaker in Anglo circles, not only because he’s one of their own, retired diplomat Yehuda Avner always commands a large audience because his oratory is punctuated with so much passion, and his elegant turn of phrase is poetry in prose.
Thus it was no surprise on Saturday night to find the hall in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue packed to overflowing, so that anyone who didn’t arrive by 8:15 had to sit in one of the rows of chairs placed in the mezzanine section of the staircase.
Audiences are always interested to hear Avner’s views on current affairs but even more so his anecdotes about penetrating not only the corridors of power, but the inner sanctums.
Not that he adopts a boastful attitude. On the contrary, despite the drama in his tone of voice, he is quite self-effacing, and although he may blush at the comparison, he is something in the nature of a latter day Josephus.
There are people who have been as close or closer to political leaders, but it’s rare for anyone other than secretarial staff to work with political leaders of different political persuasions, especially when the person entrusted with so much inside-track information belongs to none of the parties of the prime ministers whom he has served.
But what made Yehuda Avner the quintessential public servant was his ability to put the interests of the state above his own personal interests, or the interests of the ideological movement in which his weltanschauung was formed.
A witness to the nuclei of thought from which Israel’s political postures developed, and the writer of many of the speeches in which those thoughts were publicly expressed, Avner saved his notes for the day in which he could use them to give fellow Israelis and the world a better understanding of some of the people who led the country and left an indelible imprint on its history.
Readers of The Jerusalem Post
have been privileged to get a preview of the book that has now emerged from these thousands of notes via the columns that Avner has written for the paper. The book – The Prime Ministers
– is finally in print, and that’s another reason that there was such a large showing at the lecture series co-sponsored by the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh and The Jerusalem Post
. Many people had come to get an autographed copy and to exchange a few personal words with him in the process.
After all, it makes for great dinner conversation to be able to say that one talked to Yehuda Avner, the man who served as speech writer and secretary to prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir and as adviser to prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.
Avner was signing copies of the book both before and after the lecture, and anyone walking along the capital’s King George Street after 10 p.m. may have wondered what it was that so many people were carrying in a blue nylon bag.
To the surprise of some members of the audience, Avner did not recount
very many anecdotes about the prime ministers with whom he worked. He
failed to mention Rabin, referred only briefly to Eshkol, told a couple
of stories about Golda Meir who he said was definitely not a Venus but
a Mars, mentioned Peres only in the context of having lost the 1977
elections to Begin, but was exceedingly generous in his references to
Begin, whom he obviously admired more than any other prime minister
before or since.
“Menachem Begin, the Ashkenazi from Brisk, gave
those Mizrahim their dignity back. Begin brought them into the
democratic parliamentary system. Nothing in this country has been quite
the same since.”