Avraham Avi-hai reflects on his exceptional career in public service

Avi-hai’s CV includes diverse experiences that somehow have a common denominator.

Avraham Avi-hai at his home in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avraham Avi-hai at his home in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
What is an optimist? One answer is a 90-year-old man commissioning a renovation of his home.
Optimism certainly characterizes Toronto-born Jerusalemite Syd Applebaum, better known to readers of The Jerusalem Report and the world at large as Avraham Avi-hai.
We interviewed Avi-hai, who turns 90 on January 23, at his home in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Henrietta. He was quick to tell us that he entered Yemin Moshe “before the millionaires discovered it.” Several times in the course of our interview drilling by workmen drowned out the conversation, sometimes causing Avi-hai to stop mid-sentence. After the noise died down, he unfailingly returned to where he had left off.
“I am aware that my knees are 90, but the rest of me is young,” he said, laughing. We needed no proof that his brain was in good working order.
He was highly alert, with an unhesitant flow of sharp responses to our questions, except for when the drilling made conversation impossible.
Three weeks after our interview, Avi-hai celebrated the 68th anniversary of his arrival in Israel on December 28.
He said he came from a Zionist family of “very Jewish, Yiddish-speaking” Polish immigrants. His father arrived in Canada in 1925, and his mother and two sisters followed two years later.
His grandparents lived with them. Although the family was not entirely Orthodox, they were close to Shabbat observers. In fact, looking back, Avi-hai could not remember anyone in the Toronto “ghetto” who did not keep kosher.
From Canada to Canaan
While there are several Jewish day schools in Toronto today, they did not exist when Avi-hai was a boy, so after regular school he went to an afternoon Talmud Torah. All the teachers were Mizrachi or Hapoel Hamizrachi and imbued their students with a deep sense of Zionism, in addition to whatever they received at home.
Active membership in a pro-kibbutz, religious-Zionist youth movement, a sense of the revival of Hebrew through Israeli songs and his Jewish pride further fired by stories of the exploits of the Jewish pioneers in the Holy Land all had a deep influence on him. The Holocaust was felt deeply and personally in his home.
He still has memories of his mother sitting with the family photo album and saying, “This is uncle so-and-so and cousin so-and-so – all gone.” He later learned that his maternal grandmother was shot on the forced march to Treblinka because she was old and could not keep up. Also, the fact that the Jews in the pre-Israel Yishuv were fighting the British to bring survivors to Mandatory Palestine added to the impetus for a young man from Canada to follow the biblical injunction to leave his father’s house and land of birth to head for the biblical Canaan.
Avi-hai has a visceral hatred for the Poles as they were then, and his perception of the Polish government today is that it is “unrepentant.” The Poles, he said, have neither sufficiently admitted involvement in murdering Jews nor have they adequately restored Jewish property – both private and community – something that rankles with Avi-hai.
“At least the Germans tried to do something,” he said. “Germany has admitted guilt, educated about the Shoah and paid out tens of millions of dollars in pensions to Holocaust survivors and billions to Israel.”
While Avi-hai was still in the youth movement in Canada, a fellow member – a pretty young girl by the name of Hannah Adinah (Anne) Spiegel – caught his eye. She was no less passionate about Zionism and joining in the building of the nascent Jewish state than he was. Coincidentally, they were born on the same date, only a few hours apart, and were barely 19 when they married.
Two years later, after a volunteer stint with his youth movement in Los Angeles, they moved to Israel. The Avi-hais (or the Applebaums as they were then) headed for Kibbutz Kfar Darom (now B’nei Darom) in the south of the country. He worked mainly as a construction laborer, and Hannah – being the female newcomer – was put on kitchen duty for the first three months.
One Thursday night, Avi-hai was making his rounds on guard duty while Hannah was all alone in the kitchen preparing for the Shabbat meals.  She opened the refrigerator and removed the chickens, which had been slaughtered by the kibbutz shohet (ritual slaughterer) that afternoon. The modern, labor-saving devices that are intrinsic to both industrial and private kitchens today did not exist in Israel in the early 1950s. Plucking chickens’ feathers was done by hand.
Upon reaching the warm room temperature, the chicken she was about to pluck expelled air from its lungs. The sound was like a squawk. When Avi-hai returned from guard duty, his distraught new immigrant wife was spooked: “The chicken squawked. It’s still alive!”
Many people around the world who found jobs in the 1950s stayed in those positions for the whole of their working lives. Not so Avi-hai, who not only changed employers, but also changed employment. If anyone can say, “Been there, done that,” he can.
He did not stay on the kibbutz long (“Too bucolic for my temperament!”) before transferring to Jerusalem, where he has lived for 67 years.
There have been many, varied stations in his life. When asked which, aside from family, was the most rewarding, his instant reply was: “They were all rewarding, but to work with Teddy Kollek, David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol were the highlights. I feel that I did my part to build the state through them, to help create the state.”
He can never forget that he was a relatively new immigrant who had been in the country for only seven or eight years when Kollek brought him into the Prime Minister’s Office. By that time, Avi-hai was quite fluent in Hebrew. He already had a rich background when he came to Israel, but after working on the kibbutz and later as a journalist for The Jerusalem Post and a broadcaster for Kol Yisrael, his proficiency in Hebrew improved quite rapidly.
As a reporter, he was thrust into the center of Israeli life. Jerusalem’s elite in those days were in the government and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Avi-hai had almost instant contact with cabinet ministers and people who had an impact on the country. He covered a number of beats during the first year, from municipal affairs, finance and the economy to the cabinet and foreign affairs. As a result, he learned in depth about Israel while simultaneously improving his command of Hebrew.
But as is the case even in one’s native language, there were Hebrew words that eluded him. One example was when he attended a two-hour lecture by Prof. Don Patinkin, a renowned economist and later president of Hebrew University. Although Patinkin was an American, his lecture was in Hebrew, and the subject was Shuliyut. Avi-hai understood every word of the lecture other than the word, “shuliyut.” Some kind neighbors in the lecture hall explained that it meant “marginality.” Immediately he identified it with a verse in Isaiah VI, where the word “margins” appears.
Multi-faceted service
Avi-hai’s CV includes diverse experiences that somehow have a common denominator. He was director of public relations at Israel Bonds in Jerusalem, and then became deputy director of the organization. In 1957, while with Israel Bonds, he was loaned to the Jewish Agency to serve as deputy director of the Information Department and as spokesman for the Agency and the World Zionist Organization. The chairman of the department was Avraham Harman, who became an additional mentor and played an important role in Avi-hai’s future.
That year he also served on the committee that was orchestrating Israel’s 10th anniversary celebrations. He was in charge of written materials, most of which he personally prepared. While at Israel Bonds and the Jewish Agency, Avi-hai began in 1955 to work as the English speechwriter for Levi Eshkol, with whom he developed a deep personal connection. It was partly based on their common appreciation of Yiddish expressions and their love of traditional Hebrew.
Avi-hai adjusts Levi Eshkol’s tie in 1964. (Photo credit: Courtesy Avraham Avi-Hai)Avi-hai adjusts Levi Eshkol’s tie in 1964. (Photo credit: Courtesy Avraham Avi-Hai)
At the end of 1959, Kollek appointed Avi-hai to the new position of director of the Overseas Division in the Prime Minister’s Office. When Eshkol succeeded Ben-Gurion in mid-1963, Avi-hai became secretary to the prime minister for public affairs. This included speechwriting and the connection with the Jewish world, as well as serving as spokesman to both the local and foreign press.
Although he found something rewarding in every position he held, nothing could quite compare with accompanying Eshkol to the White House. Eshkol, who had been invited by US president Lyndon Johnson in May 1964, became the first Israeli premier to pay a state visit to the United States.
It was a hectic time for Avi-hai, with 12-hour days, but he loved every moment. Eshkol’s delegation included Yaakov Herzog, the younger son of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, who was Eshkol’s adviser on foreign affairs
In preparation for the trip, with Herzog’s diplomatic input, he wrote 44 speeches or statements that Eshkol had to make. What lingers permanently in his memory is the entourage, in three Marine helicopters, landing on the South Lawn of the White House and seeing the president of the US waiting, and then shaking hands with Eshkol and Miriam, his wife.
An honor guard of the four armed services of the US presented arms while the Marines’ band played Hatikvah to the accompaniment of a 19-gun salute. “That was powerful, and I was so lucky to be there and be part of that ten-man entourage,” he recalled.
For the young Canadian immigrant, there was a sense of living in history as well as creating it. Avi-hai sent a note to Kollek in which he wrote: “The greatest day in my life is when I took the oath of allegiance as an Israeli civil servant.”
Fast forward 54 years. “What pains me today,” said Avi-hai, who Hebraicized his name on becoming a civil servant, “is that there are supposed public servants such as Knesset members and ministers who take that oath of allegiance and break that oath every single day.”
Banging his hand on the table, he declared, “It’s disgusting! This Knesset is a disgrace and this government is a disgrace.”
Returning to the Eshkol visit, he recalled that the prime minister’s entourage had stayed at Blair House, the residence for presidential guests, facing the White House. He had called his mother in Canada. “Mom, guess where I’m speaking from?” he said. “Where?” she responded.
“From Blair House,” he replied – to which his mother retorted in Yiddish: “Not from the White House?”
BOTH ESHKOL and Ben-Gurion took a keen interest in the people who worked with them. One day Ben-Gurion called Avi-hai in and said: “I heard there is a religious young man here! Do you put on tefillin every day?”
“Almost,” replied Avi-hai.
“Then you’re not religious,” said Ben-Gurion. “If you don’t ‘lay tefillin’ every day, you’re not religious.”
With tears in his eyes, Ben-Gurion confided that the only time that his father had hit him was one day when he was 15 and admitted he had not put on tefillin. His father had slapped him across the cheek – “The only time he ever did that,” said the prime minister.
So why didn’t Avi-hai put on tefillin every day? “I was late, I had to take my daughters to school, I was in a hurry. I wasn’t perfect,” he said.
When he worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, he also – of necessity – began to answer the phone on Shabbat. One Friday night, one of his colleagues telephoned and said, “They murdered Kennedy.”
It was November 22, 1963. Avi-hai immediately called Eshkol, who sent a car to pick him up. Armed with his portable typewriter and sitting in Eshkol’s house, Avi-hai wrote a message to Johnson. Then he personally delivered the message to the telegraph office and to the Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) radio station.
Avi-hai at Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) studios on Heleni Hamalka in 1957. (Photo credit: Courtesy Avraham Avi-Hai)Avi-hai at Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) studios on Heleni Hamalka in 1957. (Photo credit: Courtesy Avraham Avi-Hai)
Nowadays, the prime minister has a hefty staff, but in the 1960s, it took a while before he was given an assistant. With both Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, Avi-hai helped to initiate many projects. Before he worked for Eshkol, he had been involved with sending youth leaders to the Conservative movement camps, which became a model for many Jewish summer camps. When he was in Ben-Gurion’s office, he took the Declaration of Independence literally.
If freedom of religion is guaranteed to all, “Jews are also equal.” If other religions could function freely in Israel, he saw no reason to exclude any stream of Judaism. He helped open the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and also aided Rabbi Bernard Mandelbaum, a leader of the Conservative movement, to open Neveh Schechter, which is today a leading Conservative world center.
While in the Prime Minister’s Office, he received a call from two mayors, each asking if they could rent municipal facilities to Reform congregations for High Holy Day services. He immediately said yes, without consulting anyone.
“Even though I was Orthodox, it was clear to me that if we guarantee the rights of Christians and Muslims, how can we not guarantee the rights of Jews?” he explained. “I got Ben-Gurion to agree to come to the opening of the HUC. By the way, when the Reform movement built the college a block away from the King David Hotel, the Orthodox factions mollified their opposition by making a condition that the Reform would not conduct religious services there. You know the story about the Jew who comes to a synagogue in New York on Yom Kippur to say Yizkor. There’s a big man standing in uniform at the door who says, ‘Show me your ticket,’ and he says, ‘I don’t have a ticket, but it’s a memorial service; and I have to honor my parents.’ And the gatekeeper says, ‘Alright, but don’t let me catch you praying!’”
Just ahead of the outbreak of the Six Day War, Avi-hai – who was on study leave in New York – was asked to organize the American side of the prime minister’s economic conferences. These were initiated by the American Jewish leader, Sam Rothberg, together with Eshkol and Herzog.
Years later, Avi-hai asked scientist Yuval Ne’eman what these conferences had accomplished. Prof. Ne’eman told him they had laid the basis for Israel becoming a hi-tech nation.
When Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran on May 23, 1967, Avi-hai joined the Israeli consulate staff in New York for several months. He worked, among other things, on a massive information campaign in support of Israel, supposedly unconnected to any official body,
“We had several two page ads of support for Israel in The New York Times, which were copied in other areas as well. One was signed by rabbis, another by academics and a third by Christian clergymen,” he said. “Rabbi [Dr. Abraham Joshua] Heschel was amazing in helping with all of this. In the Sunday edition, a day before the Six Day War began, he also got Martin Luther King Jr. and the head of the Protestant Union’s Theological Seminary to join him in signing a full-page ad.”
As a result of his work, Abraham Harman, who was then Israel’s ambassador to the US, asked him to become deputy consul-general in New York. Avi-hai replied that he hadn’t gone to Israel to bring up his kids in America. “We’d been there two and a half years already,” he said. “Our oldest girl was beginning to experiment with lipstick and I didn’t want to have a bunch of JAPs (Jewish-American princesses) in my house. So we came back to Israel, and ever since, their lives have been great. They went to Orthodox schools and Bnei Akiva, but we worked very carefully to make sure they had a broad scope of knowledge, with ballet and music and so on.”
When Eshkol died, Avi-hai had the choice, which he did not realize at the time, of going into diplomatic service or entering politics. Before he had the opportunity to think about either, Harman – one of Israel’s pioneer diplomats who had become president of the Hebrew University – invited him to become associate dean of overseas students. Avi-hai had been very close to Harman under whose tutelage he had worked during the year he was on loan to the Jewish Agency. That relationship was enhanced in the US.
He accepted Harman’s invitation and his title was later changed to vice-provost, after he was instrumental in establishing the Rothberg School for Overseas Students, which was officially opened in 1971. At the same time, he continued writing his doctoral thesis at Columbia University and received his PhD in 1973.
This, he remembered, was a fascinating period in his life.
“We had very high entry requirements, because people were afraid that it would lower the standards of the university. They were also afraid that the Americans would use drugs, and I made it a policy that anyone caught with marijuana would be immediately expelled. I believe that was the right policy at the time. We succeeded in creating an institution that has brought tens of thousands of people to Jerusalem. We did even more than Birthright, because Birthright is a quick fix, whereas this was a long-term investment.
“Almost all our graduates became leaders in the community or professionals or rabbis. Among them were Tom Friedman from the Times; Martin Indyk and Dan Shapiro, who later became US ambassadors to Israel, and Natalie Portman, who wanted to maintain her incognito status. That was a wonderful experience. I began teaching there and at the same time got my doctorate from Columbia, writing my PhD thesis on Ben-Gurion, which later became a book.”
AVI-HAI MAINTAINED contact with people whom he had met at various stages of his career, often working at several positions simultaneously, including as a part-time lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. In 1977, when Shimon Peres was running against Menachem Begin in the Knesset election, Kollek – a Peres colleague – asked Avi-hai to be part of the team planning the Prime Minister’s Office, which Avi-hai saw as a first national priority. But then came the revolution in Israeli politics: Begin’s party won.
 Avi-hai with Menachem Begin, circa 1980. (Photo credit: Courtesy Avraham Avi-Hai) Avi-hai with Menachem Begin, circa 1980. (Photo credit: Courtesy Avraham Avi-Hai)
Avi-hai began working for the Jerusalem Foundation under Teddy Kollek. In addition to trying to enhance Jerusalem’s public image, he raised the initial funds for the Liberty Bell Garden. Then he was asked by finance minister Simcha Ehrlich to take over the Sapir Fund, which had been set up by the late finance minister, Pinchas Sapir.
“Suddenly I found myself director of the Sapir Fund, which was located in the Jewish Agency building and was funded by the government,” he said. “I got a diplomatic passport and all the rest.”
One day, Kalman Sultanik, the leader of the Confederation of United Zionists, offered Avi-hai the position of head of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. In next to no time, he was elected to the WZO and Jewish Agency executives as world chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA.
At Keren Hayesod, he had a direct impact on many thousands of people. “Firstly, I made thousands of speeches in 10 years on every continent and those speeches were educational; they were never just a pitch. Secondly, I tried to put our fundraising on the basis of non-schnorr; in other words, from a beginning of ‘oy gevalt’ – which I thought was the right approach for a time – we were now inviting those in the Diaspora to partner in building the nation. You don’t want to live in Israel? This is your contribution; these are your taxes. The young people would say, ‘No money, no fundraising.’ And I’d say, ‘If you’re in love with a woman, you give her a ring and spend money on her. That’s okay! And if you love Israel and spend money on Israel, that’s bad?’
“When Jews were in danger in various countries, I’d say to them, ‘This is your insurance policy. You may choose to go here or there or anywhere else, but as Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett said, every Jew sleeps better knowing he has an Israeli passport under his pillow.’”
He also initiated Kiddush and Havdalah at weekend conferences with no visible breach of Shabbat.
Keren Hayesod was instrumental in bringing to life Menachem Begin’s vision of Project Renewal of underprivileged neighborhoods. Under Avi-hai’s helm (1978-88), the organization invested strongly in building the Young Leadership and Women’s Division.
Like many couples who marry at a very young age, Avi-hai and Hannah outgrew each other, and after some three decades of wedlock, decided to divorce. In 1983, he married Henrietta (née Wagner) Bassan, who interestingly enough – considering Avi-hai’s passion for all things Zionist – was named after Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah.
She came to the marriage with two sons and he with three daughters. Since then, both have been blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The clan now numbers more than 50. His oldest great-grandchild, who will soon celebrate his bar mitzvah, has been studying his haftarah portion with Avi-hai.
Avi-hai’s three daughters and Henrietta’s two sons served in the IDF. Of his 12 grandchildren, all but one who was exempted for medical reasons served in the IDF. He is particularly proud of the fact that all of his offspring have a rich grounding in Judaism, including those who are not religiously observant, and that they remain a very close-knit family.
Avi-hai continues to maintain a keen interest in all that goes on in Israel. Like many other Israelis, he is disturbed by the political situation in general, and the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the second prime minister of Israel to face charges of corruption in court after Ehud Olmert.
Avi-hai finds it hard to see how two of Netanyahu’s subordinates and his lawyer – who is also a relative – could not have been involved in alleged corruption in the purchase of German submarines and ships, and that the prime minister knew nothing about it.
“This is very serious, because anyone who takes money from the defense budget is committing not only a crime against the people but against the very principle of the state,” Avi-hai said. “What Ben-Gurion created was the idea that in a way, our defense is holy, and there’s been much too much interference in the army and in police, and it’s got to stop.”
In surveying the political spectrum, Avi-hai said that unfortunately, at this moment, there is no major opposition party that can convince the people to vote for them. With the collapse of the Left, “which is to a very great extent the fault of [outgoing Labor Party leader] Amir Peretz, the only possibility for national leadership at this stage, unless someone new pops up, is [Yamina leader] Naftali Bennett. He has already stated that the annexation of Judea and Samaria will have to be put on hold until Israel recovers economically from the coronavirus crisis.”
Avi-hai hopes that Bennett will also be pragmatic enough to declare a moratorium on changing the role of the Supreme Court and the legal system. If Bennett does this, Avi-hai suggests, he could lead a grand national coalition that should exclude both the far Left and the far Right, as well as those Ashkenazi haredim who are non-Zionists.
Avi-hai describes Netanyahu as “a walking Greek tragedy,” adding: “He could have been one of the great leaders in the world, but he has too many character flaws and family problems. In a way, it pains me to see such a brilliant man, truly brilliant and truly understanding of international affairs, let his ego and other interests take precedence.”
Does a man of 90 still have ambitions? In Avi-hai’s case, the answer is affirmative. He would like to be an adviser to a new prime minister.
Among the dreams he visualizes for himself – with a smile – is having the power to walk into the office of a crook (who is a public servant) and have that person thrown out. This should apply to anyone who subverts the oath of office. He would also like to see a higher level of spoken Hebrew and decent dialogue in public life, and perhaps most important, “an open rabbinate and equality for all Jews and all Israelis.”
These days, he is busy completing a book on his life which is primarily for his family, but may evolve into something bigger. “It should be along pretty soon,” he said. “I’m trying to leave a book which will be a legacy for my family, and if we find it of any interest, maybe for the public.”
Tura Films is also making a movie on his life for his family and friends.
Asked what he had learned in his 90 years, Avi-hai concluded: “My prescription for a long life is to be happy, positive and optimistic – to give a lot of love and to get a lot of love.”■