‘If there is such thing as aristocracy in Israel, then Bougie is an aristocrat,”
says Yoav Harel, one of the assistants of Isaac Herzog, as we wait for the Labor
MK in his elegant Ramat Gan office. Harel doesn’t know the half of
He is familiar with the fact that Herzog, a former government
minister, is the son of a former president of Israel and the grandson of
Israel’s first chief rabbi, but he does not know anything about Herzog’s mother
or her family. Of course it doesn’t stop there.
stretches back generations on all sides of his family and is marked by two
specific characteristics – diversity and indepth community
Whether it’s via a direct blood line, or the people who
marry into the family, there is a truly amazing volume and variety of community
service and a strong sense of social justice within the Herzog
Herzog says that for as long as he can remember he has felt the
need to help those who are less fortunate. He thinks it started when he was in
He lives in Tzahala, in the house in which he was born. In
the dim and distant past neighbors included Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and Ariel
Sharon. The kindergarten stood directly across the road (it has been torn down
since). Herzog was a mischievous child, and when he misbehaved, Sarah, his
teacher would wag her finger at him and say: “I can’t believe that a grandson of
Rabbi Herzog can be so naughty.” Herzog, who was born a year after his
grandfather’s death, is named for him, and because of Sarah, he really believed,
inasmuch as a three-year-old can, that he was desecrating his grandfather’s
memory whenever he did something wrong.
He was also influenced by another
Sarah, his paternal grandmother, Rabbanit Sara Herzog, who was well known for
her hospitality, caring heart and generosity. Herzog remembers being in her
house in Jerusalem when he was four years old. Strangers would knock on the door
and tell her about their impoverished circumstances. She embraced them, fed them
and gave them money. On Shabbat, she held an open-house kiddush to which people
would come from all over.
Bougie was the Frenchinspired nickname that the
family gave Herzog when he was an infant because he had such a cute “little
mouth.” Now, at age 51, he’s still called Bougie – and not just by his family.
Everyone calls Herzog Bougie.
Does it bother Herzog? Not in the least, he
says. On the contrary, “it’s part of my branding.”
Herzog and his three
siblings are often contacted by strangers who tell them that they used to attend
his grandmother’s Shabbat gatherings, or that Rabbi Herzog was the officiator at
their wedding, or that they have a photograph taken with a member of the Herzog
The younger Herzog, who is the most public figure in the family,
arguably hears these comments about the more famous of his relatives more often
than do his sister and two brothers. On one occasion when visiting a moshav, a
woman told him how much comfort she had derived from listening to his father’s
radio commentary during the Six Day War while she sat in a bomb
Somehow, with the soft Irish lilt that crept into his Hebrew, he
made her feel safe and diminished her fears. Then her mother joined the
conversation saying that she remembered his father from a much earlier
“He rescued me from Bergen-Belsen,” she said simply.
those days, Chaim Herzog, who was to become Israel’s sixth president, was an
intelligence officer in the British Army and a member of the supervisory command
that was responsible for the surrender and demobilization of the German Army. It
was in this capacity that he was among the liberators of Bergen-Belsen. In later
years he headed intelligence operations in the IDF, but not before being
Operations and Intelligence Officer of the 7th Armored Division in the War of
Independence, Military Attaché in Washington, and Commander of the Jerusalem
Brigade. After the Six Day War, he served as military governor of Jerusalem and
the West Bank. In 1975, he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United
Nations, famously emulating his father when he tore up the resolution equating
Zionism with racism.
Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog had publicly torn up the
British White Paper of 1939 in which Palestine was to be divided in such a way
as to give the Jews a minuscule piece of territory compared to the large tract
that the British were prepared to give to the Arabs.
Rabbi Herzog led a
protest march in Jerusalem during which he tore up the White Paper to
demonstrate his contempt for its contents.
While Chaim Herzog liberated
concentration camps at the end of World War II, his father was worried about the
orphaned Jewish children whom the Catholic Church took in during the war. Though
grateful that the Church had saved their physical beings, the chief rabbi did
not want the Church to take upon itself the saving of their souls.
were Jewish souls that had to be redeemed and re-nourished in the bosom of their
Rabbi Herzog eventually met with pope Pius XII in March 1946
and sought his help in persuading Catholic monasteries and convents across
Europe to relinquish the custody of Jewish children in their care. He went to
Europe with his younger son Yaakov Herzog who in his own right distinguished
himself in the service of his country and his people.
The Herzogs, father
and son, toured the ruins of postwar Europe seeking out Catholic institutions in
which Jewish children had been hidden and protected from the Nazis.
only was it difficult to persuade the people in charge of these institutions to
return the children, but some of the children themselves, not remembering any
other existence, did not want to leave.
Yaacov Herzog served in the
Hagana, was a political adviser to David Ben-Gurion, served as a diplomat, most
notably as ambassador in Canada, where in 1961 he engaged in a debate on the
morality of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel with
acclaimed historian Arnold Toynbee. Yaacov Herzog was subsequently director
general of the PMO under both Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir and maintained
excellent relations with King Hussein of Jordan at a time when there was no
peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
Pnina Herzog, his wife,
represented Israel in international forums on health and women’s issues, most
notably at the World Health Organization, where she served for more than two
decades and developed a friendship with the Syrian representative.
was also a vice chairwoman of the WHO Executive Board. On the home front she was
deputy director-general of the Health Ministry and she headed the health team in
the Israel-Jordan peace negotiations.
Isaac Herzog’s mother, Aura, would
have been born in Jaffa or Jerusalem, but for the fact that her father, Simcha
Ambache, who was born in Jaffa, was one of a group of some 15,000 Palestinian
Jews whom the Turks expelled in 1915.
Like many Jews living in the Middle
East, Ambache was concerned about what would happen to him and other Jews if the Afrika Korps of German field marshal Erwin
Rommel continued to advance. So in the middle of the war, he took his family to
South Africa where Aura Herzog earned her B.Sc degree in mathematics at the
Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
The family subsequently
returned to Egypt, but did not feel safe there and fled in 1947 back to the land
of Ambache’s birth. Aura joined the Hagana and it was also in 1947 that she
married Chaim Herzog. Serving as an officer in the Science Corps in the War of
Independence, she was wounded during the siege of Jerusalem, but made a full
She went on to initiate the annual Bible Contest of
Independence Day events in 1959, and found the Council for a Beautiful Israel in
1968. She served as its president for many years and is now its honorary
international president. Under her leadership, the Council encouraged people
without gardens to plant window boxes, persuaded factory owners to build gardens
around their production plants and launched programs in schools so children
would learn to care for the environment. She also wrote a book on etiquette,
which at the time was an almost unknown art in Israel.
older sister, Suzy Eban, was married to statesman Abba Eban, an active advocate
for the creation of the state and who later served as Israel’s ambassador to the
United Nations and to Washington, as foreign minister, education minister and
president of the Weizmann Institute, among his many roles in public office. She
was the founder of the Israel Cancer Association over which she presided for
some 30 years. She died last September at age 90.
In April 1979, she and
her husband accompanied then prime minister Menachem Begin on his first state
visit to Cairo. Suzy Eban took advantage of the opportunity to see her father’s
home, which she had not set foot in for more than 30 years. In the interim it
housed the Saudi Embassy, but the ambassador was absent, having left the country
in protest at the peace treaty that Israel and Egypt signed. Suzy Eban was at
her husband’s side when he was a diplomat and later when he was a politician.
She participated in both his diplomatic and political activities, and in her own
right worked with American Jewish community organizations, during the years in
which the family served Israel’s interests in the US.
Isaac Herzog, who
had a very warm relationship with the Ebans, has a cartoon collage of Abba Eban
hanging in his office, just above his desk. The cartoons not only inspire him
but help him to relive fond memories.
Herzog spent part of his
adolescence in the US when his father served as ambassador to the UN, and
attended the prestigious Jewish Ramaz school. When he decided to run for office
in the school’s student body, he opted not to tell his parents, because he
wanted to do things by himself, and if elected, he wanted to be sure that his
victory was based on his merits and not because he was the son of an ambassador.
He waged a successful campaign, and his parents knew nothing about it until the
school principal, Rabbi Lookstein, informed them of their son’s
Herzog’s taste for politics was ingrained in him from an early
age. His parents did not believe in excluding children from the dinner table
when important guests from the top echelons of society, academia, politics and
diplomacy came to dine. Herzog can remember scintillating conversations to which
he was privy, in this way receiving an informal education in politics, diplomacy
His father, a lawyer, founded Herzog Fox & Neeman, the
largest law firm in Israel, in which Isaac Herzog was also a senior partner
until he decided to throw his cap into the political ring.
cannot understand why he would give up such a lucrative profession in favor of
politics, but Herzog believes that community service is in his genes.
wife, Michal, a criminal lawyer, also opted for community service and for many
years worked for the Rich Foundation for Education, Culture and Welfare. These
days, she is the Israel representative of the Wohl Foundation, which has similar
Recalling his period as minister for social welfare, Herzog says,
“I entered her world,” referring to his wife.
“Without Michal, I wouldn’t
be where I am,” he says. “She knows how to balance between public and private
Michal Herzog’s father, Shaul Afek, was born in Ein Harod, was a
commander in the Palmah and coincidentally served with Chaim Herzog in the Six
Day War. Her maternal grandparents, the Berins, were among the founders of Afula
Isaac Herzog became so involved with social welfare that he
wrote a book, Working Plan: A Recipe for Social Welfare, in which he encourages
parents to open bank accounts for their children and deposit a minimal monthly
amount with matching funds from the government.
Herzog remains profoundly
interested in social welfare, and continues to be indirectly active. He says he
would like to see the Jewish community emulate the Arab community’s care for the
aged. As social welfare minister, he visited Arab villages and was always
impressed by how they treated the elderly.
Families seldom put their
oldest members in institutions but kept them at home even if they had dementia.
They did not isolate them, but made sure to keep them within the family circle
surrounded by love, honor, respect and care. “You don’t see that nearly as often
in the Jewish population,” he says.
“The way we are tested as a society
is the way in which we treat our aged.”
It’s possible that his strong
feeling for the needs of the aged is something that he inherited from his
grandmother Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, whom he describes as “a true legend who
turned Ezrat Nashim into the largest geriatric and psychiatric hospital in the
He recalls that as minister people telling him at institutions
that he visited that his grandmother built or initiated the
Her father Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman had been a rabbinical
judge on the London Beit Din before retiring in 1934 and moving to
With his son-in-law Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, he established
the Ohel Torah Yeshiva and served as its head. When he died in 1953, thousands
of people attended his funeral, which was a sign of the huge esteem in which he
was held by all sectors of the population.
Relating to the diversity in
his family, Isaac Herzog notes that his grandfather, the chief rabbi and Israel
Prize laureate for his contributions to rabbinic literature, was also a marine
biologist and a linguist. Chaim Herzog, in addition to being a military man,
diplomat, politician, businessman and lawyer was also a boxing champion, an
author and a film maker. Aura Herzog, who studied astronomy was also a chemist
and went on to become an environmentalist.
Herzog says he comes from a
family “with endless curiosity.”
But are his children following in the
family footsteps? His children are aware of their legacy, says Herzog, “but we
don’t push them to do anything.”