Appreciation: Woolf Perry: An officer and a Zionist

My father fell in love at first sight.

By ASHLEY PERRY
December 26, 2006 17:59
4 minute read.

My father, Woolf Perry, passed away recently in his beloved State of Israel. Although not widely known, he was a very important personality in the early years of the state. During these years, money was always needed and, as the head of the Keren Hayesod, my father was always the man Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Sharett and others would turn to raise the necessary funds. I grew up with stories of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Zalman Shazar as my father's personal friends, not the Zionist historical figures most knew. What made my father special was that he was part of a dying breed of "emotional Zionists." Those versed in Zionist history are well aware of what a "practical Zionist" and a "political Zionist" were, but I would like to add this third category. My father was born and bred in London to an established and assimilated Sephardic family. His upbringing was neither religious nor Zionist. When the Second World War was in the offing, my father felt it was his patriotic duty to volunteer for the British Royal Air Force where he soon rose to the rank of officer. During the war he was based in Egypt. One weekend he decided to visit Mandatory Palestine and the Jewish Yishuv. As my father told us many times, he took the train from Cairo and just got off the train to spend the weekend by the sea. Something inexplicable happened to my father over those few short days as from that moment on he became a committed Zionist. THOUGH MY father was an extremely eloquent man, and spoke all over the world on behalf of Israel and even substituted for many Israeli ambassadors when they had to give a big speech, he could never fully describe what happened to him at that time. Here was a British officer in the RAF - a patriotic Englishman - falling in love with a disputed backwater of the colonial empire. Yet for the rest of my father's days, even when he lived in England, Israel was to be his only home. On his release from the British army, he became active in Zionist politics and rose rapidly through the ranks of the British, then European and finally world Zionist bodies and organizations. In the 1950s my father was elected as the youngest-ever member of the Jewish Agency Executive, which at the time was akin to a second government, and took up the post of World Chairman of Keren Hayesod. Only now after his passing, with the help of Jewish Agency officials, have we been able to unearth the true extent of my father's work. These were the years when the Jews of North Africa and Asia were coming to Israel in the middle of the state's "Austerity Plan." My father would be constantly traveling to every corner of the Jewish world raising money to give these immigrants and Israel a better start. Although inconceivable today, Israel once had excellent relations with Iran and my father was part of the many secret negotiations that took place in Teheran to establish diplomatic relations with Iran. He was adviser and spokesman for prime ministers and presidents, long before that position had properly been invented. Articles from the Jewish communities that my father traveled to always described him as a great orator, very charming and very unlike the usual Israeli emissaries they became used to receiving. However, many communities did not like my father's maximalist Zionist message. He would waltz into town and immediately tell the local Jewish community that Israel should be the No. 1 address for their charitable donations, way above any local charities. To many this was a very unpalatable idea and he created quite an uproar in many parts of the Jewish Diaspora. As youngsters growing up in London, my siblings and I could never quite understand this attachment to Israel. We bemoaned having to spend another holiday in Israel, buying Israeli products that perhaps were not as tasty and a whole lot more expensive than their British counterparts, and his public berating of any rabbi who refused to say the Prayer for the State of Israel. I have since made aliya and have a great passion for Israel, while in no way matching my father's. His passion for Israel did rub off on me in the end and when I "returned home" I know it was one of his proudest moments. My father himself moved back home a couple of years ago to an Israel he wasn't as familiar with. He could never quite believe my stories of prostitution or drugs problems. "Not in my Israel," he would contest. And he was right, these things didn't happen in "his Israel," the Israel he fell in love with at first sight. Emotion sometimes clouds our perception of the reality of a situation. My father always outwardly looked the quintessential Englishman, never leaving the house without a tie and a blazer. However, inside him beat a truly Zionist heart that made this British officer understand that we may have been born in different lands and cultures, but as Jews we only have one home. The writer, a freelance journalist and lecturer, is development coordinator at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.


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