“Remember to write Chaim with Ch and do not call me Vivian” he said to me when we first met in 1978. Also, for every weekly meeting between the two of us, I was to prepare bullet points.He had no time for gossip so bullet points were economical..He also had a small timer on his desk but when we had open meetings or with the other board members of The Committee of Concerned Citizens, he did not use it!
It was August 1978. I had returned from an extended stay in the UK with my family and I asked to meet with Chaim Herzog who had recently returned from a four-year stint in the USA as Ambassador to the UN. I wanted to enlist his help to bring my refusenik adoptee Vladimir Prestin and his family to Israel.
I arrived at his office and was warmly greeted. I explained the relationship with the Prestin and Abramovitch families and why after eight years of my involvement in trying to get their release from the Soviet Union, I had not succeeded.He was sympathetic and started to think about possible channels we could pursue. I could not help but notice that the Jerusalem Post was lying on a table near to me. It was open at an article which he had written about the Yerida(leaving Israel) of highly skilled Israelis for the States and other shores.
I had already read the article so I looked at him “What do you feel about this”? His reply “I feel that it’s like a bleeding wound which cannot be staunched”. It was merely a year after the MAHAPACH — the ascendancy of Menachem Begin to power after 30 years of Labour-dominated governments.
He went on to say “these young people who are leaving have lost faith in a system where no one is accountable to the electorate.” Ben Gurion had said, If the system is not changed it will be a disaster.” He had admired Ben Gurion and they had both been of the mind that the British Parliamentary one, would suit Israel.
He then turned to me and said “Would you help me found a movement? We start with immigrants from Western countries and then convince native Israelis that a regional proportional system, would be beneficial to everyone.” He had been overseas when Gad Yaakobi and others had actually tried to promote this idea but had not thought of involving those from English speaking backgrounds or going to the streets.
I replied, “I have only just returned from England I don’t know who is who.” He grinned “I too have only just returned and that’s why I think we should go for it.”Soon after that, he introduced me to Pamela Kaplan who had worked extensively with new immigrants and we started the ball rolling.
With Chaim, I traveled across the country speaking to groups, some in parlor meetings and others in halls and hotels which were donated to us through Chaim’s connections.
It was at one such packed meeting when someone called “Aren’t you ashamed to speak to a crowd in Tel Aviv in English” He replied with the Irish twinkle in his eye: “I would rather do that than speak to a crowded hall of Israelis in New York.”
Another time when someone grumbled about how hard things were in Israel he said “It was much harder during the siege of Jerusalem” and everyone clapped. He convinced his brother-in-law the late Abba Eban to join us and his brilliant oration brought standing ovations.
Although I can wax nostalgic over Chaim not as president but as a man with a mission, he was at times audacious. When we arrived at homes where the hostess was an immigrant from Ireland he would just become Irish. His face would light up when people would tell him how the Kichels (cookies) that his mother the Rebbitzen had made, were the best ever. He was also a visionary and understood the complexity of Israeli society. I once expressed my fears that there would be bloodshed between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. I had almost been attacked at a petrol station in Netanya because of Labour stickers on my car windscreen. He did not see that as such a problem but he did warn about what would happen between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. On that he was right.
When he became an MK the first thing he did was to open an office in Herzlia so that citizens could come to him with their problems.When the idea was first floated that he become President I did a poll in the streets near to our office.I asked people what they thought of him.The response was, “He helped us stay calm and sane during the wars when we thought we would lose everything”.
So, I was pleased to be invited to a somewhat intimate event at the Residence of British Ambassador David Quarry and Senor Aldo Henriques, last Thursday.
It had been a while since I was at the elegantly furnished Residence and yet as before, never cease to be enchanted by the ambiance within. Almost a time warp for me who grew up in England.
The pleasing brown hues of mahogany and walnut furniture. Comfortable armchairs upholstered in velvet and silk.Flowing drapes at the windows, occasional lamps. Fine artworks of their Majesties and others and the grand piano just waiting for someone to tinkle the keys.
The occasion: Memorial to mark 20 years of the passing of President Chaim Herzog. Attending were close family members plus representatives of the Diplomatic Corps, some others like me and Ambassador Dennis Ross and his wife Debbie.
Born in Belfast in 1918 to a Latvian mother and a Polish father who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Chaim Herzog moved with his family to Palestine in 1935 and at 16 joined the Haganah, the underground resistance led by David Ben-Gurion.
For this man’s fascinating history you can buy the book “Living History”
Chaim Herzog who had lived most of his life in Israel was a man for all seasons.
Raised in Belfast and Dublin educated at Cambridge.and University College London he was a family man, brilliant orator, writer lawyer, a sportsman, sailor and General.
He also will go on record as the person whose nightly broadcasts during the Six Day War kept the people of Israel calm. He did the same in 1973 at the time of the Yom Kippur War.
His son Michael Herzog spoke about his father and was followed by Ambassador Dennis Ross who had been a personal friend.
Ross described him as an outstanding military strategist and historian, who shaped the Israel Intelligence Agency. He also said that he wondered how Chaim would have dealt with the paradox that is the political reality in Israel, today. He added “he would have found a way”
I knew him as a man of precise vision whose knowledge of and deep love for Israel was evident wherever he happened to be.
Noshing on delicacies which were circulating with a good glass of wine in hand I was able to chat with Ambassadors from Sweden, South Africa and Kenya as well as the British Ambassador and his partner Aldo Henriques, who was most charming. A short conversation with his son Michael was very warm and a longer chat with Ronit his daughter gave me most personal pleasure. As a “vatika” of the Labour Party I know Itzhak (Bougie) Herzog well. I surprised them with anecdotes during the time when Chaim was Chairman of the Committee of Concerned Citizens.
May his memory and his example be with us forever.