His father's son

Isaac Herzog's exposure to his father Chaim's political realm left him with no doubt about his own future.

By SHEERA CLAIRE FRENKEL
September 27, 2005 18:39

 
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Growing up in one of Israel's most politically prominent families had its perks for Isaac Herzog, now the minister of housing and construction. After all, one of his first jobs was a bartending a gig for UN ambassadors. "Living in New York, during my father's years as ambassador to the US, was a very formative time for me," said Herzog, whose father, former president Chaim Herzog, served as ambassador to the US from 1975-1978. "I was always surrounded by politics and met the great American politicians." On the night that turned into his bartending debut, the 16-year-old Herzog was approached by his frantic father who was to host a farewell reception in several hours but had forgotten to hire a bartender. "I said to him, 'How in hell can I do this, I don't even know how to drink alcohol,'" Herzog remembers. "He took me aside, and gave me a ten-minute crash course... and that was it. "My father was very cool about it, but he kept a close eye on me to make sure I didn't create an international crisis by poisoning someone," Herzog laughs. Vocational dabbling in the service industry aside, Herzog's exposure to his father's political realm left him with no doubt about his future. For the young Herzog, his family's involvement in politics was ineluctable. "I was exposed to politics from the first day I can remember myself," said Herzog. "I met and interacted with big political figures like Jackie Kennedy, who was a friend of my father. They were very formative years for me." Pictures of his father and grandfather hang prominently in his office, and his childhood name "Boogie" which was coined by his mother is still used by his aides and the occasional reporter at press conferences. Isaac Herzog first entered Israeli politics when he served as cabinet secretary for former prime minister Ehud Barak. He made his parliamentary debut in the current Knesset and surprised many in his own party by placing second in the December 2004 Labor Central Committee vote for ministerial posts in the coalition. He said he chose the Housing Ministry, which has historically played a key role in forging and implementing the government's settlement policy, because it would give him an opportunity to enact the social legislation which forms the foundation of his political agenda. It was in the US that Herzog embarked on his first election for vice president of his high school sophomore class. "It was a very big win," he said. "Israeli students were in the minority at my high school." What clinched the win, he said, was his speech. The school was nearing its 40th anniversary and the 15-year-old Herzog told his fellow classmates that "life begins at 40." "My father didn't even know that I was running, he was only told after I won," Herzog said. Later, Herzog would take part in a grassroots campaign, spending his summer going door to door for the Manhattan Borough elections. "It was great. I met every Jew there, and it was a great campaign even though we lost," he said. Herzog had been well prepared for the political arguments that he encountered on those doorsteps. Debates were part of the main course at his childhood Shabbat meals. "There was my father, the president, and then my uncles. One of them was a high-ranking military figure and the other was director-general to the prime minister. You can imagine what that dinner table was like," he said. The army chief of staff, Chaim Bar-Lev, was also a close friend of the Herzog family. When Herzog was eight, Bar-Lev took him on a flight from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion Airport to meet Golda Meir as she arrived from her historic visit with US President Nixon. "I remember standing there, at the end of the line, and looking up to see my two uncles standing at the front of the line," said Herzog. "It was strange yet I felt very much a part of every political event in Israel." Herzog, who was named after his grandfather, former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, recalls the Jewish high holy days having special significance in his family. "My family always came together on the holidays to celebrate," said Herzog. "What kept us stable was that my parents were more traditional and they tried to keep our lives normal. In some political families kids can break apart because of the pressure." Herzog takes a similar approach with his children, although he admits that his parenting style has altered somewhat to keep with the times. "It's a different age, I am more open with my kids," he said. "Things in the modern age are more complicated. Kids in the modern age are less obedient and feel much more equal to you. But I try to pass on the message of the holiday." Herzog has, however, avoided passing on his predilection for politics to his children. Instead, he said, they have carved out different paths in the community that he hopes they will pursue. "We are very supportive of our children, and encourage them to develop and grow in their own ways," he said. Unlike his own education and formative years, Herzog said he was encouraging his children to remain in Israel. "Now my goal is to live in Israel and to do as much to work for the Jewish people," he said. That work would take place in the political realm where he plans to remain "for the long haul," he said. "It was hard to give up a lucrative legal career," said Herzog, who had been a senior partner in Herzog, Fox & Neeman, a legal firm started by his father. "But after serving [as cabinet secretary to Ehud Barak] I got the bug." Herzog is considered a major player in the Labor party, said a party member, with many watching to see how he fares. "He has brought a lot of energy to his ministry, we are watching to see how he continues to do," he added. Herzog, however, is clear over where he wants to go. "I want to be in the cockpit," said Herzog. "I want to hold one of the top positions in the government."

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