All in the family

The legacy of Labor MK Isaac Herzog runs deep.

Isaac Herzog as a baby with his father, Chaim Herzog in 1960 (photo credit: Courtesy Herzog family)
Isaac Herzog as a baby with his father, Chaim Herzog in 1960
(photo credit: Courtesy Herzog family)
‘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 it.
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.
Herzog’s pedigree stretches back generations on all sides of his family and is marked by two specific characteristics – diversity and indepth community involvement.
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 clan.
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 kindergarten.
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 family.
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 shelter.
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 period.
“He rescued me from Bergen-Belsen,” she said simply.
In 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.
These were Jewish souls that had to be redeemed and re-nourished in the bosom of their own people.
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.
Not 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.
She 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.
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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 recovery.
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.
Aura Herzog’s 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 success.
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 and economics.
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.
Many people 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.
His 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 goals.
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 life.”
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 in 1920.
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 country.”
He recalls that as minister people telling him at institutions that he visited that his grandmother built or initiated the structure.
Her father Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman had been a rabbinical judge on the London Beit Din before retiring in 1934 and moving to Jerusalem.
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.”