Champion of women's rights

Esther Herlitz, groundbreaking diplomat and Knesset Member, paved the way for women coming after her.

Esther Herlitz is applauded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on receiving the Israel Prize, April 24. (photo credit: GPO)
Esther Herlitz is applauded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on receiving the Israel Prize, April 24.
(photo credit: GPO)
NINE RECIPIENTS were awarded the Israel Prize during the festive annual Independence Day ceremony, April 24. The only woman to receive the prestigious honor was Esther Herlitz, a fact somehow symbolic of the 93-year-old’s career.
Herlitz, who received the prize for Lifetime Achievement of Contributions to Society and State, was an avowed feminist in a pre-feminist era. She played by men-made rules and succeeded ‒ often the first (or even sole) woman in a particular area of public life ‒ paving the way for many women coming after.
An officer in the British army in British Mandate Palestine during World War II and then in the newly formed IDF, she was an accomplished member of Israel’s Foreign Ministry from its inception, its first female ambassador, a two-term Member of Knesset, the founder of an umbrella organization for voluntary services, and an activist in promoting the status of women.
A few days after the ceremony, Herlitz’s apartment in a high-end assisted living complex in central Tel Aviv is full of congratulatory bouquets of flowers from well-wishers.
These days, Herlitz moves with some difficulty and is hard of hearing, but her memories and comments on the current political situation are as sharp – one could even say as cutting – as ever.
“Instead of building bridges with the rest of the world, we are destroying the ones we have,” she asserts to The Jerusalem Report about the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
She writes a weekly blog, gives lectures and remains active in several volunteer organizations, including as honorary chairwoman of the International Harp Contest. “I go to funerals and write obituaries,” she jokes.
Herlitz had many firsts in her life. In 1933, when her family moved to Palestine, she arrived on the first ship to dock in the new port in Haifa; she was in the first class of the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem; in 1947, she was among the first participants in the school for diplomats established by the Jewish Agency; and, in 1966, she became the first woman to be appointed an ambassador.
Herlitz was born in Berlin, in 1921, the daughter of historian George Herlitz, who established the Central Zionist Archives.
“I was brought up to understand that there is no future for Jews in Europe. My father brought someone from Palestine to teach me and my childhood friends Hebrew.” In 1933, when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the family moved to Palestine, building a house on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “We spoke German at home because mother never learned Hebrew,” she states, in her Mandate British accent.
She went to school at the Rehavia Gymnasia, but was called “Nazi” by the other children. One of her taunters was Shmuel Tamir, who later became justice minister. She moved to the just founded Hebrew University High School, many of whose teachers had come from Germany and were outstanding academics. That school, nicknamed “leyada,” would become the alma mater of the who’s who of local politics, the military and the arts. At 14, Herlitz joined the Hagana, the Jewish underground military organization.
“I didn’t do well in school; I was too busy working for the Hagana. At that time, you couldn’t do anything else. We were putting up posters and bringing messages. I learned to use a rifle, but I was better at telephoning,” she laughs.
During WWII, at the age of 22, along with many women in Palestine, Herlitz enlisted in the British army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, or ATS. At the same time, she continued her underground activities since the Hagana knew such service provided an excellent training opportunity for the anticipated Jewish struggle in the country. “We were serving two masters,” she states.
AS AN instructor of newly inducted recruits at the Sarafand Training Camp (now Tzrifin), she was following Hagana orders. When a new recruit told her she had “warm regards from Shulamit,” it meant that she, too, was part of the Hagana.
“I knew she was one of us, and I might need her and would send her for ordnance training or as an ambulance driver.” The knowledge these women gained was useful in the War of Independence, Herlitz relates, adding, “I don’t understand why women in today’s Israeli army aren’t drivers.”
After officers training, she was posted as an officer to Cairo, where there also was a secret Hagana command. Many of the young women under her authority smuggled arms to Cairo’s Jewish Quarter in case of attack by Egyptian mobs, and also smuggled arms from Egypt to Palestine.
After the war, she returned to Jerusalem. Still in the British army, she was put in charge of dealing with ex-servicemen and women, whose studies had been interrupted when they went into the British army, and thus were entitled to have their studies paid for by the Mandate. But those in the Palmach were disqualified. She cheerfully reports having doctored the documents submitted for review “to make the Palmach disappear.” (Yehuda Amichai, considered Israel’s greatest modern poet, was one beneficiary of this handiwork.) IN 1947, she was accepted into the new school for diplomats established by the Jewish Agency in anticipation of an independent state. The studies came to an abrupt end a year later when the War of Independence broke out. “Considering the way the world has developed, what we learned at the school was totally irrelevant,” she comments.
At the beginning of March 1948, two months before the British Mandate was to end, Herlitz, together with other Jewish servicemen and women, was drafted into the Etzioni Jerusalem brigade of the Hagana. Here she was asked to help establish the women’s corps in the besieged city (the unit which would become “Chen”), with the rank of major. She served as deputy commander of the unit of some 150 women.
Herlitz recalls that following a bloody battle to control the key neighborhood of Katamon in Jerusalem, “we had almost no food, but when the Hagana took over the Russian compound after British soldiers had left, they found huge stocks of caviar. We were told that ‘this is full of vitamins and good for the girls.’ So we added it to our diet.”
In 1950, Herlitz was appointed first secretary at the Israel Embassy in Washington, where the ambassador was Abba Eban (later foreign minister) and other senior staff members included Teddy Kollek (later Jerusalem mayor) and Chaim Herzog (later state president). She maintains that from Eban she learned how to speak in public and how to project the image of Israel. From Kollek, she says she learned how to “schnorr.”
In May 1951, prime minister David Ben-Gurion came to the US to launch the issue of Israel Bonds. With the country financially overwhelmed, Ben- Gurion turned to the Diaspora community for help for development in Israel. At the time, the Israel Bonds concept was a contentious issue. “Many communities didn’t like the idea,” she says. “American Jews were willing to donate to the United Jewish Appeal, but weren’t happy about being asked to contribute to another fund-raising event.”
As first secretary at the embassy, Herlitz was in charge of the visit, which, she recalls, was coordinated like a military campaign. Ben-Gurion’s most important appearance took place in Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people jamming the arena and thousands more outside listening to his speech on loudspeakers. Abba Eban had prepared Ben-Gurion’s speech, but in the excitement of the moment, the prime minister spoke extemporaneously to an enraptured audience. “He made an exceptionally good speech and the audience loved it,” recalls Herlitz.
But when she went to see him at his hotel the next morning, he was furious. “‘Who’s the prime minister of Israel?’ he said, pointing to the morning newspapers.
‘You are, of course,’ I said. ‘So why do they publish a speech on the front page I didn’t give?’” she says recalling their conversation. The embassy press officer had sent the original speech to the papers for publication. “I told him that the Madison Square Garden speech had been heard by 40,000 people, but the newspapers are read by millions. He began to calm down.”
Herlitz met Eleanor Roosevelt during her first trip to the US, in September 1949, as a member of the Israel delegation to the United Nations, and they would develop a lifelong friendship. The famous widow of president Franklin Roosevelt had moved far beyond the inbred anti-Semitism of her class and upbringing, and became outspoken in her support for Israel.
“She was one of the wisest people I’ve ever met,” says Herlitz, recounting her first meeting with the “tall, large-limbed and stunningly ugly lady, in which there was a sort of rare charm. I learned many things from this remarkable woman. One was the ability to explain the most complicated topics in concrete terms and to fight for her opinions.”
Invited to Roosevelt’s family estate at Hyde Park in 1960, Herlitz relates that as the two women were sitting in the living room, the phone rang. Roosevelt signaled to her to lift the extension and listen. It was someone asking her to support John Kennedy for president at the upcoming Democratic convention. “If Master Jack wants my support, let Master Jack call me himself,” Roosevelt told the man. Ten minutes later Kennedy himself called her to ask for her support.
In 1966, Herlitz was appointed ambassador to Denmark. As one of the first women in the diplomatic corps, the question of dress became an issue. The Foreign Ministry had no protocol regarding what women should wear when submitting credentials, or, for that matter, to any formal event.
“In those days, there was a lack of knowledge about fashion. No one knew what women were supposed to wear,” she explains. For her first formal dinner she bought a long black silk skirt and a blouse with Yemenite embroidery.
“In the first years, this became the preferred dress in the Foreign Ministry.
It sounds silly today, but then it was very special.” For the submission of her credentials to the Danish king she got permission to order a special long dress in “midnight blue” from material bought in France. The dress lasted throughout her career and is now on display at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art.
FOLLOWING HER return from Copenhagen, she served on the Tel Aviv City Council and founded the Center for Volunteer Services, responsible for reducing social gaps by encouraging volunteering.
In 1973, Herlitz became an MK on the Labor Party list, and returned to the Knesset in 1979. It’s been 34 years since she left the Knesset. “It took me a year before I understood what was going on. You must work with other people to get anywhere. Politics is not a nice game; my mother was very upset when I went to the Knesset,” she says.
During her time in the Knesset, only 10 percent of the members were women; today it’s barely 24 percent. In Netanyahu’s new government, there are three women cabinet ministers. “That’s progress of a sort, but it’s not enough,” she says. “And they’ve been assigned areas always related to women and welfare. If women don’t take on the areas traditionally handled by men, they will get absolutely nowhere,” Herlitz insists.
In 1972, women members of the Labor Party wanted to insert into the party bylaws that a 20 percent quota of all elected posts go to women. Although then prime minister Meir famously didn’t like other women, she agreed to help and the quota was adopted. “She made a very good speech to the party council. Such a decision would never have been made had it not been for her help,” says Herlitz, adding ruefully that, to this day, it has never been implemented.
Herlitz was considered the watchdog of women’s rights in the eighth and ninth Knessets. “My political activities annoyed quite a few of my male friends,” she states. “I never dealt with topics that were traditional women’s affairs like education, health and welfare. I dealt mostly with foreign affairs and local authorities, which were considered purely masculine preserves. On the other hand, in matters relating to women’s rights I admit to making an unbearable nuisance of myself. Most of the questions I asked in the Knesset were about women’s rights.”
Herlitz was one of the members of the Commission on the Status of Women established by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1975, headed by Ora Namir, which she describes as an eye-opening experience, exposing the inferior status of women of every age and class. She played an active role in formulating and ensuring the passage in 1977 of a liberal abortion law. “When Menachem Begin came to power, the bill was reduced and made less effective, a very sad situation,” Herlitz comments.
Herlitz expresses disappointment at the status of women today, blaming it, in part, on a lack of leadership. “I feel there is no female leadership in this generation, not only in Israel [but also] in the world.”
Herlitz’s spirited autobiography, published in Hebrew, in 1994, is titled, “How Far Can a Woman Go?” – a phrase taken from a disparaging comment made to her by the then Foreign Ministry director general, when she first joined his staff.
In her book she talks quite openly about the difficulties most women have in politics. “Politics is an afternoon and evening occupation and working mothers are not available these hours of the day. They’re taking care of their homes and families,” she writes. “I would not have been capable of the achievements I made had I had a family, a point that has never bothered any man.”
Asked a few years ago in a TV interview whether she had “paid a price” for the work she’d accomplished over the years, she replied, “I never married and had a family, something most women would prefer. I have a huge ‘family’ of friends in Israel and the world who to this day are very supportive. For me, it was worth it.”