The passing this week of Professor Moshe Brawer, at the age of 101, known to generations of Israeli school children and university students for his atlases, caused me to reflect on the impact of people from the past generation on my life.
Whenever someone in their 90s passes away, it is common to hear the sentiment that he/she is one of the last of a generation which experienced pre-World War II Europe, or was present at the establishment of the state of Israel and other such events which took place seventy to eighty years ago.
We often forget that when we walk through the local park (in pre Corona times) and see elderly, frail people sitting on the wooden benches like bookends (Simon and Garfunkel), these people may have been actively involved in the pre State Hagana or Palmach, or engaged in major State building activities during the first two decades of statehood, and that they have a wealth of memories , many of them not recorded, which are a live history book of events, people and places which younger generations have only ever read about in a text book.
It was only in retrospect that I understood how privileged I was to encounter three such people, soon after I came on Aliya to Israel in 1982, and from whom I learnt a great deal about Israel, pre-State Palestine and the formative period of State building.
One of these, who passed away almost twenty years ago and whom I have written about in the past was Dr. Raanan Weitz, the legendary settlement planner, whose imprint on the Israeli landscape, especially during the 1950’s and 1960’s, was second to none. For a period of five years in the 1980’s, I was engaged in a research project with Dr. Leviah Applebaum, at the Settlement Study center in Rechovot, examining the styles of new settlements which were being established at the time, and which began to replace the dominance of the Kibbutz and moshav rural landscape. Weitz was opposed to such settlement activity (not least because much of its origins was the early West Bank settlements of Gush Emunim) but he allowed us to pursue our research, travelling far and wide throughout Israel and publishing our book (in Hebrew) on the new settlement forms in Israel which, since that time , have come to dominate the Israeli rurban landscape.
I travelled with Weitz twice a week from Jerusalem to Rechovot and, not appreciating what a significant figure he was at that time, would discuss, argue and shout (he was even louder than me) on all matters relating to Israel, Zionism Judaism and the world of planning and settlement. He was one of those character who was larger than life itself, and it was only some years after his passing that I understood what a huge lesson in socialization into Israel and Israeli culture I had received, rarely experienced by a new immigrant, by working, and arguing, with him.
When I arrived in Israel in 1982, following the completion of my Ph.D in the UK, I had absolutely no idea of where I would work or whether I would even continue within the academic world. I just knew that, like so many of my friend who had preceeded me by a few years and with whom I had grown up with in the Zionist movements of the time, I wanted and intended to come and live in Israel. The rest, as far as I was concerned, would work out and I was not overduly worried by the lack of advance planning and job seeking. We (my wife Elaine and the first child then on its way, conceived in the UK but born in Jerusalem) were also fortunate to spend the first two years of our permanent lives in Israel (so so different from the years we had previously spent on Kibbutz Hachshara, Yeshiva or Ulpan) to be the neighbour of another such figure, the late Rabbi Professor Louis Rabinowitz, the former Chief rabbi of South Africa (originally from the UK) who had taken early retirement to live in Israel and, for a short period of time was Deputy mayor of Jerusalem on behalf of the Herut party of Menachem Begin, when Teddy Kollek was the mayor).
Rabinowitz was close to Begin, falling out with him over the Camp David Peace Agreements. Notwithtstanding, when Menachem Begin’s wife Aliza died when Begin was on a trip to the USA, his loyal secretary of the time Dan Meridor, sought a minyan of ten people for some of the evenings of the shiva (Begin was depressed and did not want a big public shiva for most of the week). He turned to Rabinowitz, we lived just five minutes walk from the prime Ministers residence in Rechaviya, and he took me along on two consecutive evenings. Ten people, including the Prime Minister, Rabinowitz, the Gerer Rebbe , Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and a few other people, was the sort of event you don’t forget that easily, especially when you have only recently arrived in the country.
From Rabinowitz (due diligence, a great uncle of mine), I also learnt a great deal about the struggle for Statehood in the immediate pre-State days and his own role in smuggling messages (as the then Chief Rabbi of South Africa) to the Jewish prisoners in Kenya, and in throwing down his British war medals in a public demonstration called to oppose the post War British policy of Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, preventing the immigration of holocaust survivors to Palestine. He passed away at the all too young age of 78, but his funeral was attended by some of the people mentioned above, along with State President Haim Herzog (a relative of his) and legendary foreign Minister Abba Eban.
So off I went seeking a job. I was invited by the then Director General of the Foreign Ministry and former Mossad operative, later to be peace activist, Dave Kimchi, to come and see him. I suppose it didn’t do any harm that he and my father had attended school together in London in the 1930’s and that they had been evacuated together to Cornwall for part of the War, although they had long lost contact by the 1980’s. I was also invited, as a very young (no army service as yet) and unknown academic from the UK, to give some seminars in various Geography Departments, a discipline which, at that time, was a very Israeli discipline, with few of its faculty having studied outside Israel. So unlike today when, if you dont have either a Ph.D or a post doc from a major foreign university, the chances of you landing a job at an Israeli university is not very high). As it was, the day I was due to meet Kimchi, his secretary called to cancel the meeting – on the same day Israel started its invasion of South Lebanon (June 1982) and the Foreign office had other things on its mind.
A few weeks later, before the Foreign Ministry meeting had been rescheduled, I was invited by the then Dean of the faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, professor Moshe Brawer, to come and see him. He had heard, from his Geography Department – a department which he had founded twenty years previously (he also founded the Geography Department at Bar Ilan University) that there was a young academic with a Ph.D in political geography (his own discipline) who had come to live in Israel and was seeking gainful employment. He offered me a junior position in the Tel Aviv Department, where I spent five years before eventually moving to the then dynamic younger university of Ben-Gurion in Beer Sheva, where I have remained until today – another one of those unexpected life moves, having only ever thought of living in Jerusalem.
This week, at the grand age of 101, Professor Brawer, passed away. No Corona or other illness afflicted him. His age finally caught up with him, even though just two weeks before his passing he was still busy working at home, and with his colleague Dr. Haim Srebro, former head of the Israel Mapping Agency, on the next edition of the University Atlas due to be published in 2021.
As I learnt over the years, Brawer was another of these unique personalities. Born in Vienna into an orthodox family, he was brought by his strongly Zionist parents to Palestine when he was one year old. His grandfather had been the head of the Vienna bet Din, while his father, Avraham Brawer, a haredi Jew with long beard and black coat and kippa, became Israel’s first ever geographer, writing books on the landscapes and views of Eretz Yisrael in the 1920’s and 1930’s. From his father, Brawer caught the geography bug and would travel with him, as a young child, throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Moshe Brawer later went to London to undertake research in the 1930’s. He earned a living as a journalist – for the Hatzofe newspaper of the religious Zionist moment reporting on Diaspora and European Jewry, and for the Jewish Chronicle in London reporting on Palestine and pre-State Israel. He was married to his lifelong partner at the impressive Hampstead Synagogue (still a functioning synagogue) in North West London. Following WWII (during which he was back in Palestine) he completed his Ph.D at the London School of Economics under one of the leading geographers of the time Charles Fawcett, was present, as a journalist, at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and, perhaps most importantly for his future career, reported from the Rhodes Armistice Talks in 1949, following Israel’s War of Independence, where the borders of the state of Israel were demarcated. His subsequent interest in Political geography with a specific focus on borders, became one of the two main areas of interest for the next 70 years of his career, until his death this past week.
He also was involved in the re-opening of the Austrian Mapping Office immediately following the end of World War II (herein lies yet another story of interest involving the Hagana and their desire to have some good maps) and starting producing his own atlases of Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world which, for over seventy years have been the atlases and maps used in schools and universities throughout Israel.
He also had time to be involved in field research in Jewish and Arab villages, both before and after the establishment of the State, returning to them after the Six day war to see what changes had taken place in the intervening nineteen years. He founded two of the country’s five University geography Departments, published the authoritative book on the history of Israel’s borders, became President of the Israel Geographical Association, Chairman of the State committee for naming new settlements, Dean of the Faculty and involved in some of Israel’s peace negotiations whenever maps or expertise on borders was needed by the negotiators. The demarcation of the Israel-Jordan border is down to him, while he also argued that with greater map expertise Israel would have had a strong case to Taba in the Israel Egypt arbitration.
To crown it all, he received the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2002.
They don’t make them like that any more. And I was fortunate in having him as a mentor, a colleague and as a friend during the last 40 years of his life. Our conversations would often start with a discussion of borders (my own research focus), of academic colleagues around the world (he was internationally recognised and respected for his expertise), or academic gossip and politics in Israel. I was privileged, as Dean, to invite him for a public lecture at Ben-Gurion University in honour of his Israel prize. But the conversations then went on to discussing his life history, his transition from the religious world after WWII, his father (and his interesting correspondence with Chief Rabbi Avraham Kook concerning the territory and borders of the land of Israel), his own post War experiences. Eighteen months ago, he allowed me to record part of his life history on the condition I would not release it until after his death.
He continued to lecture, without notes, until just a few years ago. He was a walking encyclopaedia on all matters relating to maps, borders and European history of the twentieth century. I spoke with him on the phone just two weeks prior to his death and he was a lucid as always. He excused himself that he had to finish the conversation as he still had to check out some new maps for their accuracy before they were sent off for publication.
He was buried this week in a small private family ceremony due to Corona restrictions but he will be remembered by past colleagues and students throughout the world and, I am sure, there will be appropriate conferences in his memory in the coming year. He leaves a legacy of atlases and other research publications, second to none.
Raanan Weitz, Louis Rabinowitz and now Moshe Brawer. Three people who experienced events from a past generation, who were part of history itself, and who I was privileged to work with and learn from, even if I wasn’t always aware of the significance of being with these people at the time.
Tonight a year ends and a new year begins. Reflecting on what was, the old is relegated to the past but not forgotten, while we look forward to the new. It is however unlikely that we will see a new generation of people, activists, scholars, rabbis who will have the sort of impact that this past generation has had.
Moshe Brawer lived a long and productive life. Working and lucid to his very last days. May his memory be for a blessing and as an example to all those who come after him.