It was a morning of nostalgia on Wednesday when members of the Herzog and Rubinstein families, together with representatives of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, gathered at the President’s Residence within the framework of the commemorative events in Israel and abroad marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chaim Herzog – a versatile public figure who between 1983 and 1993 served as Israel’s sixth president.
A talented athlete, Herzog (Sept. 17, 1918–April 17, 1997) was a junior bantamweight boxing champion in his native Ireland. He was also an avid cricket and rugby player. In his later life he became a proficient yachtsman. He served as a major in the British Army during World War II, and was among the liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where a memorial stone stands in his honor. He subsequently headed the IDF’s military intelligence, and retired with the rank of major-general. He served as a military attaché in Washington, was a lawyer, businessman, diplomat, politician, radio and television commentator in Israel and on the BBC, and a prolific writer.
His family, in conjunction with various organizations, has initiated prizes and study courses in his name. Among these institutions is the Hebrew University which every two years, together with Yad Chaim Herzog, awards the Chaim Herzog Lifetime Achievement Prize for an outstanding contribution to Israel.
Hebrew University President Prof. Asher Cohen said the school was proud to memorialize a man who had accomplished so much in so many different fields. Because of Herzog’s multi-faceted career, all the recipients to date have had something in common with him. This year’s recipient, former deputy president of the Supreme Court Elyakim Rubinstein, not only shared Herzog’s love for Jewish and civil law but was a colleague and a personal friend. This year’s award ceremony took place in March, but President Reuven Rivlin was unable to attend.
When Herzog was Israel’s ambassador to the UN from 1975 to 1978, Rubinstein was the director of the office of then foreign minister Moshe Dayan. In that capacity Rubinstein frequently visited the United States, particularly during the latter half of Herzog’s tenure when negotiations were taking place to end hostilities between Israel and Egypt.
Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog recalled that his father was always delighted to welcome Rubinstein, whom he regarded as a genius, and often said so.
Rubinstein subsequently served as cabinet secretary during part of Chaim Herzog’s tenure as president, and within the sphere of his duties he updated Herzog weekly on government affairs. Those meetings always began with a brief Torah study, he said, noting that Herzog loved the Bible.
Rivlin said that of all of Israel’s presidents, including himself, Herzog had devoted his attention to the widest range of issues. Rivlin remembered him as an ardent advocate for civil rights, a champion of minorities, and an outspoken supporter of equal rights for women.
Alluding to Herzog’s famous 1975 UN speech in which he castigated those equating Zionism with racism, Rivlin said that Herzog epitomized the State of Israel itself in that for him there was no conflict between a Jewish and democratic state. “Herzog was a true Zionist with every fiber of his being,” he said.
Familiar with three generations of the Herzog family, Rivlin reminisced that in 1952 at his bar mitzvah at Jerusalem’s Yeshurun Synagogue, he was addressed from the pulpit by then Chief Rabbi of Israel Isaac Halevi Herzog, who was the father of Chaim Herzog and the grandfather of Isaac Herzog.
It is customary for the incumbent president of the state to attend the Chaim Herzog award ceremony. Since Rivlin was unable to do so, he compensated for his absence by hosting Wednesday’s hour-long meeting.
Among topics discussed was the controversial Nation-State Law. The consensus was that the Declaration of Independence, having sufficed for 70 years, could continue to do so; but if the law were to remain in place, it should be amended.
There was also mention of the Western Wall fracas, and the rift it has caused between Israel and the Diaspora.
The guests at the President’s Residence regretted the erosion of the values established by the nation’s founding fathers. But there was also pride that notwithstanding political and religious disputes, Israel’s security, economy and social fabric are sound.
Rivlin was warm in his praise not only of Chaim Herzog but also of Rubinstein, who likewise has had a multi-faceted career, and who played a pivotal role in the negotiations culminating in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Rivlin lauded Rubinstein for mediating both peace between nations and peace on the home front.
Harking back to the historic change in Israel-Egypt relations, Rubinstein said it was Herzog who in November 1977 personally received an invitation from Ahmed Asmat Abdel-Meguid, Egypt’s ambassador to the UN, inviting Israel to participate in the Cairo Conference the following month. Although Herzog and Abdel-Meguid had simultaneously been at many events to which each had been invited, they had scrupulously avoided even eye contact. As far as the world was aware, this was their first meeting at the home of a mutual friend.
Rubinstein also related to the talks at Camp David which had culminated in the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Though critical of statements and actions by former US President Jimmy Carter in recent years, Rubinstein acknowledged that no-one could deny Carter his credit for the success of those talks.