Remembering Yaacov Herzog, one of Israel's great diplomats, visionaries - opinion

He was, I believe, the only person over the past 100 years of Jewish history equally qualified to serve as chief rabbi of Britain and as director-general of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog speaks, in January, at the funeral of his mother Aura Herzog, buried alongside her husband Chaim Herzog, who served as president 1983-1993, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. Yaacov Herzog was the brother and uncle respectively of the two presidents. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog speaks, in January, at the funeral of his mother Aura Herzog, buried alongside her husband Chaim Herzog, who served as president 1983-1993, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. Yaacov Herzog was the brother and uncle respectively of the two presidents.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Yaacov Herzog died much too young, at age 51 in 1972, which is why few people remember him today. This is a shame, because he was one of Israel’s greatest diplomats, brilliant orators, most learned and visionary leaders.

He was, I believe, the only person over the past 100 years of Jewish history who was considered equally qualified – in religious scholarship and diplomatic skill – to serve as chief rabbi of Britain and as director-general of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, Herzog was simultaneously offered both jobs in 1965, and had to make a choice. He chose to stay in Israel.

Who was Yaacov David Herzog?

Yaacov David Herzog was born into an illustrious family. His saintly and scholarly father was Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, who was chief rabbi of Israel until his passing in 1959. His brother was Maj.-Gen. Chaim Herzog, who also served as Israel’s sixth president (1983-1993). His daughter, the late Shira Herzog, headed the Canada-Israel Committee (and was my distinguished boss before I moved to Israel). His nephew, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog, is the esteemed current president of Israel. Another nephew, Brig. Gen. (res.) Mike Herzog, is the current Israeli ambassador to the US.

Born in Dublin, Yaacov Herzog held rabbinic ordination from one of the greatest scholars of European Jewry, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. Herzog even published an English translation of a commentary on the Mishna. He also was an expert in international law and a brilliant analyst of global affairs.

As a young man, he planned and participated in his father’s rescue operations of Jewish orphans in Europe after the Holocaust. Later, he was the principal architect and implementor of Israel’s relations with the Vatican and was the main back-channel envoy to King Hussein of Jordan. He was deputy ambassador of Israel to the US, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, and as mentioned, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office from 1965 until his untimely death.

DAVID BEN-GURION: ‘I’m the prime minister of 2.3 million prime ministers,’ he told JFK. (credit: REUTERS)DAVID BEN-GURION: ‘I’m the prime minister of 2.3 million prime ministers,’ he told JFK. (credit: REUTERS)

But what made Yaacov Herzog truly stand out, then and still today, I believe, was his intellectual formidability; his “cool, subtle and powerful brain, a pure and warm heart, nobility of character and a simple and untroubled moral vision” – as Sir Isaiah Berlin described Herzog in an obituary.

It is no wonder that David Ben-Gurion, to whom Herzog was a trusted personal adviser, called Herzog “Tzafnat Paneach,” meaning the explainer of hidden things, or the man who reveals mysteries. Of course, Ben-Gurion was referencing the biblical figure Joseph (who served as viceroy in Egypt, and whom Pharaoh, in Genesis 41:45, dubbed “Tzafnat Paneach” because of his ability to interpret dreams, see into the future, and craft a coherent plan of action).

Indeed, few were able to articulate the meaning of the People of Israel’s resurgence in the 20th century, to explain the spiritual destiny of the State of Israel, to outline the soaring aims of Israeli foreign policy, and to formulate the dichotomy and unity of Israel-Diaspora relations – better than Yaacov Herzog.

A DEAR cousin of mine, Phyllis Pollack, in 1981 gifted me a copy of Herzog’s collected speeches and writings, and I immediately fell under Herzog’s spell. Whether speaking to the World Jewish Congress or at Princeton University, in the Vatican or in an American synagogue – Herzog offered perspectives that were dazzling in their analyses, near prophetic in their prognoses, and eloquent in the extreme.

The book, A People that Dwells Alone (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), opens with a transcript of a debate that was perhaps Herzog’s greatest triumph. This was the public debate held at McGill University in 1961 between Herzog and the foremost historian of the day, Prof. Arnold Toynbee. It was a battle of titans, an epic duel to the intellectual death, and has since become a classic text of disputation (as well as a documentary movie).

Toynbee had declared the Jewish people a “fossil of history,” and the State of Israel an inexcusable travesty against the Palestinians. He even equated Hagana operations in 1948 with those of the Nazis. He declared this with all the authority of his recognized global expertise (which included the publication of the 12-volume landmark reference work, A Study of History.) Nobody except Herzog had the courage to take Toynbee on, and just about every Israeli and Jewish leader tried to dissuade Herzog from doing so.

To make a long and complicated story short, Herzog wiped the floor with Toynbee, demolishing the arrogant historian’s wholesale dismissal of Jewish life and relevance in modern times. Legend has it that several years later, after the 1967 Six Day War victory when paratroopers wept at the Western Wall, Toynbee awkwardly admitted to Herzog that he had erred in his assessment of Jewish vibrancy and Israeli legitimacy.

(In Makor Rishon, President Isaac Herzog last week published a beautiful tribute to his late uncle, marking his 50th yahrzeit, focused mainly on the concepts of history and memory debated by Herzog and Toynbee.)

In any case, Yaacov Herzog’s stalwart and splendid stance versus Toynbee in defense of the Jewish People and the State of Israel was a source of pride and inspiration for Jews everywhere. So are the 30 other speeches and essays in A People that Dwells Alone.

Often, I have drawn upon Herzog’s deep thinking and magnificent prose to explain Israel to Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues around the world. I find that Herzog’s reflections remain as relevant today as they were 50 or 70 years ago. Here is a snippet:

“In this generation of ideological confusion, of erratic thought, in the press and rush of civilization haunted by doubt, fear and spiritual inadequacy, the still small voice of Israel reborn has a significance overreaching the criterion of material capacity, extending beyond the boundaries of geographical dimension and the gradation of international status.

“Ask yourself: what is the deeper meaning of Israel’s resurgence? How has the Jewish People, a third of whose sons and daughters were led to slaughter only a half-century ago in endless humiliation, in unmitigated cruelty, who were at the nadir of their fortunes, flung to the abyss of a cruel and merciless fate – whence do they rise again, phoenix-like, with force, with vigor, with faith and regain the capital of their eternity, Jerusalem?”

"I do not believe in the distinction between the secular and the spiritual realms; I do not think that has any place in Judaism."

Yaacov Herzog

Yaacov Herzog’s answer was a spiritual one: “I do not believe in the distinction between the secular and the spiritual realms; I do not think that has any place in Judaism. I, at any rate, cannot grasp nor understand the significance of the return to Zion against the background of historical continuity without a spiritual conception.

“After all, in the sweep of history, there have been greater battles, larger transfers and emigrations of populations, bigger construction and technological projects, more eminently impressive displays of might. So, in secular terms, Israel is not that big a deal.

“But as vindication of spirit, as validation of tenacious faith, as proof of the Jewish people’s right of return to its indigenous home, Israel’s establishment and advancement is a very big deal indeed… Israel represents a vindication of faith and prayer through the ages; it is a symbol of revival, a message of hope, indeed lasting evidence of the integrity of the spirit.”

The Land of Israel, he continued, is a land “hallowed in history, repository of religion, but burdened by the desolation of millennia – that has sprung to life, its children from every corner of the globe gathering to water its parched soil… People and land united in a unique tapestry in which torment ushered in faith, and which in turn, ushered in achievement…

“Indeed, the scar of exile has been healed; the continuity of Jewish statehood restored; Jewish dignity rescued and uplifted.”

Yaacov Herzog’s bottom line, he once explained (in a 1970 address to a Bnei Akiva conference in Jerusalem) was that “there is something unique about the Jews in the history of mankind, ‘a people that dwells alone,’ and so long as the world agrees, it cannot deny the right of Jews to this land.”

ON THE OTHER hand, those who consider history only in terms of national politics and international relations underestimate or misjudge Israel, Herzog asserted. They fail to understand that Israel is guided by an “astral calculus that is not always perceptible, a reckoning that blurs the lines between imagination and reality, between the possible and the feasible.”

Jews themselves passionately must believe this, Herzog argued. For if they don’t, “if they discard the idea of Jewish uniqueness in human history, if they appear to be cut off from their Jewish heritage – they cannot defend our right to the Land of Israel. Then, they have no riposte to arguments of the New Left which charges: ‘Ye are robbers, because ye have conquered the Land of Canaan.’”

Herzog would then harken back to the very famous first passage in Rashi’s commentary to the Bible, on Genesis 1:1, which he viewed as the ultimate defense line: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth, and the same God who created the Heavens and the Earth gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.”

“Somewhere, somehow, a thread runs through our distinctive march across history under providential guidance. This is the enigma of the spirit that we are privileged to behold. May we be worthy of the destiny it enshrines.”

The writer is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and in the research department of Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim). The views expressed here are his own. His diplomatic, defense, political and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.