Our Shakespeare: A tribute to Yehuda Avner

May his memory serve as a role model for all of us and future generations to emulate.

Yehuda Avner (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yehuda Avner
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Yehuda Avner passed away Tuesday, Israel lost a noble citizen whose entire life was devoted to serving the Jewish state and the Jewish people. He was my dearest friend, with whom I was in almost daily contact over the past few years.
He served as adviser to five prime ministers and became senior adviser and speechwriter for Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Begin paid tribute to his superior translations and speeches by dubbing him “Our Shakespeare.”
He also served in senior roles in the Foreign Ministry, including at the embassy in Washington, and was subsequently appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James and Canberra.
His record as a diplomat and statesman epitomizes the outstanding quality of Israeli diplomats of that era, the majority of whom were regarded among the most talented envoys in the world.
What distinguished Avner was his absolute determination not to engage in partisan politics.
He thus established a reputation as a role model for the consummate civil servant.
Reading through his memoirs, one admires his modesty and resolve not to permit his ego or personal interests to override his civic responsibilities.
Traditionally, as soon as a new government is elected, the first to pack their bags are personal advisers. Yet as soon as they assumed the reins of government, disparate leaders with opposing political outlooks, like Rabin and Begin, invited Avner to retain his advisory role despite his association with their defeated political foes.
They trusted him to the extent that they treated him as a confidante, willing to share their most intimate thoughts with him.
Indeed, shortly before his assassination in 1995, Rabin fondly recalled his admiration for Avner throughout their long association and told me that he had invited him to resume a role as one of his advisers. Alas, this was not to be.
As a top political aide to successive prime ministers, Avner was an observer and participant in discussions and negotiations with presidents and prime ministers relating to the most momentous decision- making events in the state’s history, including Operation Entebbe in 1976 and the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in 1979.
Avner was born in Manchester, England, in 1928. He became a leader of the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva and made aliya in 1947 and fought in Jerusalem during the War of Independence.
He was one of the founders of Kibbutz Lavi, which he left to join the Foreign Ministry in 1958.
My first encounter with him occurred about half a century ago, when I corresponded with him from Melbourne to seek his advice as one of the trailblazers of religious Zionism in the UK. During my subsequent frequent visits to Israel on behalf of the Jewish community, our relationship grew, as he was usually present when I met with prime ministers and leading government officials. Our relationship grew when he served as ambassador to Australia while I was head of the Jewish community, and I have fond reminiscences of how he and his wife, Mimi, would often fly from Canberra, the rustic capital, and spend Shabbat at our home in the more thriving Jewish community of cosmopolitan Melbourne.
Our relationship blossomed further when I made aliya.
I was enormously impressed with the meticulous manner in which he retained memos and summaries of meetings and documents relating to his experiences, and encouraged him to write for The Jerusalem Post recounting some of those experiences.
Spurred by the tremendous impact from his columns, he decided to publish his memoirs under the title The Prime Ministers.
Based on copious notes and records from the countless meetings he attended, observing firsthand the momentous events of that period, the book provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of the inner circles of the country’s leaders as they grappled with the burning issues confronting them. The authenticity of the conversations and the prevailing atmosphere were endorsed by leading Israeli and foreign diplomats who had been participants.
It has become a bestseller and an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to understand the background of that era’s events.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “a fascinating account of someone who was an eyewitness to many historic moments in the history of the Jewish state... providing insight into the actions of our nation’s leaders and offering important lessons for the future.”
In 2014, the film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center produced a two-part documentary based on his book, in which he is the principal narrator.
While he dedicated his life to his country, “Gubby,” as he was known to his friends, was also a wonderful human being. He was a renaissance man who loved books, art and music.
Steeped in love for his people, he also derived enormous pride and satisfaction from his loving family, his devoted wife, his son and three daughters and their spouses, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom maintained his tradition of loving Torah, the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
May his memory serve as a model for all of us and future generations to emulate.