The note taker

For two decades, Yehuda Avner served four prime ministers and was privy to the deepest state secrets.

Yehuda Avner, Menachem Begin en route to Washington, 1977 52 (photo credit: Courtesy Yehuda Avner)
Yehuda Avner, Menachem Begin en route to Washington, 1977 52
(photo credit: Courtesy Yehuda Avner)
FOR YEHUDA AVNER the start of researching and writing his highly acclaimed 2010 memoirs, “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership,” dates back to the 1960s, when he squirreled away notes written in shorthand into a desk drawer.
The notes were made during secret government meetings involving four prime ministers: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin. The contemporaneous notes gave Avner an advantage that most historians would envy, an insider’s peek at day-to-day history in the making.
Today, at 84, the man who was a key adviser, secretary and English-language speechwriter to those prime ministers, recalls how valuable those notes became in helping him write the memoirs. As secretary to the prime minister, it was his task to take verbatim notes at those meetings, and then do a summary protocol.
He willingly admits to preserving the valuable notes rather than separate himself from them. Avner acknowledges, “I should have destroyed the notes or given them to the state archives,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “But I didn’t do that innocently. It never occurred to me that these notes would help me write a good book, so I just tossed them into a drawer. And then the drawer filled up.”
Avner not only created the protocols but also made notes about the tone of the speakers and the general atmosphere. He had what he called an “unspoken instinct” that he should go beyond what people said in his notes – and add the more colorful details a memoir requires. “I quickly realized that as much as the words were important, there was body language, atmosphere, and the tone of voice that were equally important,” he says.
So cabinet ministers did not simply “say” things, they did so jocularly or angrily, they spoke softly or with raised voices. Some spoke animatedly.
It was only in 2005, when he was 76, that he began his memoirs. While writing columns for The Jerusalem Post based upon his notes, Avner realized that he might be able to weave the treasure trove of anecdotes he had collected in the inner sanctum of Israeli politics into a book-length narrative.
He had no interest in simply writing history, but the anecdotes offered him the chance to tell a true insider tale.
He found the writing of the book daunting.
“To write a book is a tremendous, tremendous project,” he says. “You are exposing yourself to everybody and everybody’s cousin.” Still, he forged on, typing with two fingers on a computer keyboard. It took him five years – from 2005 to 2010 – to complete the 735-page manuscript.
We met on a hot summer day at a coffee shop near his home, and it was clear from the start of our hour-long talk that Avner is as articulate and excited as ever in discussing his insider’s view of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is undoubtedly pleased with the warm reception given to his memoirs, and completely bowled over by Hollywood’s interest in turning his memoirs into a documentary and a feature film.
Moriah Films, the film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced a two-part documentary based on “The Prime Ministers.” Part one, which premiered in April 2013 and covers the premierships of Eshkol and Meir, and featured Christopher Waltz as the voice of Begin, Sandra Bullock as the voice of Meir, Michael Douglas as the voice of Rabin, and Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Eshkol. The film will be shown in Israel in September.
PART TWO of the documentary covers the leaderships of Rabin and Begin, and will be released next February. Crystal City Entertainment plans a separate dramatic production based on the Avner memoirs for a 2014 release. “So,” says Avner, beaming with delight, “I have three movies based on the book.”
Avner’s childhood and early adult years prepared him far more for kibbutz life than for a ringside seat at Israeli history. Born in Manchester, England, in 1928, Avner was the youngest of seven children. From his childhood days in the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement and from gazing at photos of young Jewish settlers in Palestine, their faces bathed in sunshine, Avner felt he was destined to live in Palestine.
Helping young Holocaust survivors settle in England after the British Army had liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, he found even more reason to move to Palestine. “That touched me deeply,” he notes. By then Zionism was in his blood. The Zionist founding fathers gave him the final push. “I belonged to the very tail end of the generation that was reared on the philosophies of the founding fathers: Leon Pinsker, Max Nordau and Theodor Herzl for instance,” he comments.
Reaching Palestine in that crucial month of November 1947, when a Jewish state suddenly seemed possible, Avner fought in the subsequent War of Independence in the “bucket brigade,” digging fortifications at the spot where Yad Vashem stands today, anticipating an Arab attack from Ein Kerem.
He also saw battle in the Malha quarter as part of the battle for southern Jerusalem.
During the battle for Jerusalem, Avner befriended Esther Cailingold, a teacher from London who died during the fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City. Avner was one of the last people to see Esther alive and as such felt obligated, when back in England in 1949, to seek out her parents and Esther’s sister, Mimi. The meeting changed Avner’s life, as he and Mimi married in 1953.
A year after the war, in 1949, Avner, brimming with optimism about kibbutz life and the fledgling state’s future, became a founding member of Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee. “I became the guy in the poster pushing the plow,” he observes.
DOES HE wish he had spent his entire life as a kibbutznik rather than as an adviser to four prime ministers? “I am a very honest guy,” he says in our interview. “I tell people that I wish I were still a kibbutznik, but I don’t mean it.”
In 1958, he joined the Foreign Ministry and, while there, became close to Adi Yaffe, who became Eshkol’s chief of bureau. Asking Avner to join him in the Prime Minister’s Office as an English-language speechwriter, Yaffe launched Avner’s career as an adviser and wordsmith for Israel’s leaders.
For the next two decades, Avner was part of the inner circle, serving four prime ministers, and writing and polishing their English-language speeches. Today, Avner’s four former bosses are deceased, but his memoir and the 2012 documentary based on the book have placed Avner in the limelight.
Of the four prime ministers he served from the mid-1960s to 1983, Avner felt the greatest love for Begin, and the greatest respect for Rabin. Oddly, because Begin seemed so sympathetic with Jewish ritual, Avner thought that being an observant Jew as he was (“I’m a kippa-wearing guy”) would allow him to avoid working during Shabbat even if a crisis was under way.
But Begin was not that religious – for example, he did not attend synagogue very much – and the speechwriter had to choose between observing Shabbat and helping out with a crisis if it spilled over into Friday night or Saturday. Avner felt the pressure deeply. “I have the Yehuda Avner law, which states that if there is ever a crisis, it will always happen a few minutes before the onset of Shabbat,” he says.
And indeed there were crises that fell over Shabbat – the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1976 raid on Entebbe. In an effort to ease his personal dilemma, Avner consulted the eminent Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who noting that preservation of life overrode other commandments, and since the latter crises involved risk of life, approved his working over Shabbat.
Begin, who spoke and wrote very decent English, enjoyed being playful with his speechwriter, acknowledging that he needed a Yehuda Avner to polish his “Polish English,” as the prime minister called it. Begin jokingly called Avner “my Shakespeare,” and asked his speechwriter to “Shakespearize” his speeches. After the Egyptian media assailed Begin as a Shylock (the Jewish moneylender from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”), Begin began notes to Avner, “From Shylock to Shakespeare.”
It was in 1976, when he was serving as speechwriter for Rabin, that Avner wrote the text of which he is most proud. The occasion was Rabin’s address to a joint session of the US Congress, and it marked the first time that an Israeli prime minister had spoken to that audience. Because Rabin’s English could be weak, Avner aided the prime minister by adding Hebrew vowels below the English words. For certain words, Avner put the Hebrew equivalent above the English word.
Avner’s closest professional friendship was with Shlomo Argov, who, in 1979, was appointed ambassador to England. It was the attempted assassination of Argov on June 3, 1982, by terrorists based in Lebanon, which gave Israel justification for launching the first Lebanon War three days later. With Argov permanently paralyzed after being shot in the head and under care at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, Avner visited him regularly, talking and praying with him.
THEN CAME the agonizing day for Avner when, in 1983, he had to tell Argov that the cabinet had appointed him as Argov’s replacement.
“I didn’t know how to tell him,” he admits. “I held his hand. He looked me in the eye and began speaking in perfect Yiddish, giving me his blessing.”
In the early days of his five and a half years as ambassador in London, Avner presented his credentials to Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace. Wearing a white waistcoat, a white tie and tails (“Everything you saw in the movie ‘Top Hat’”), he rode in an 18th century coach pulled by four white horses. As Avner entered the palace gates, his four sisters and two brothers, who lived in England, mingled with tourists at the gates. “I saw them out of the corner of my eye,” Avner recalls. “I think they were shouting, ‘Yehuda, Yehuda.’” After presenting his credentials to the queen, she looked at Avner quizzically, observing, “I do believe this is the very first time I ever received credentials from a foreign ambassador born in this country.
How did you manage that?” Avner replied, “Your majesty, though born in this country physically, spiritually I was born in Jerusalem, from whence my ancestors were exiled by Roman legions 2,000 years ago.” To which the queen replied, “Really? How unfortunate.”
Avner notes, “It was as if someone had told her it was raining outside.”
In 1992, four years after stepping down as ambassador to England, Avner served for three years as ambassador to Australia.
While researching his memoirs, he began evaluating the results of the Zionist enterprise. When our interview appeared to be coming to an end, he scolded, “What you haven’t asked me about is my inner thinking. I rethought Zionism.” And his new thinking has left him deeply disappointed. He wonders how the Jewish state has become so isolated, still so much a pariah among nations, its very existence so imperiled.
Recalling those Zionist founding fathers, he notes, “The people I so admired did not take the Arabs into account. How come they didn’t have the faintest idea of the trajectory of Arab nationalism? The Zionists promised normalization. We have emancipated ourselves.
But how come 60 odd years later Israel is still the odd state out?” However saddened Avner was at his perceived failure of the Zionist founding fathers, he exhibited far more emotion over seemingly loose-lipped heads of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) in the 2012 documentary movie, “The Gatekeepers.” The film featured interviews with five former Shin Bet directors. In a voice mixed with shock and fury, Avner says he is mystified how security officials, presumably sworn to secrecy for life, appeared on camera, revealing their inner thoughts when in office. A bitter Avner juxtaposed the difficult negotiations he had with the military censor to preserve parts of his memoirs, with the free-flowing televised candor of the former Shin Bet supremos.
Today, Avner, leaping out from under the shadows of the prime ministers he advised, eagerly awaits the premieres of movies upon which “The Prime Ministers” is based. He finds the whole Hollywood experience strange. After all, he was a note-taker, working for others, not promoting himself.