The man who challenged Toynbee
New light on a gifted member of the Israeli establishment, who made a name for himself in foreign policy in the first two decades of the state
"The Life and Times of a Jewish Prince - The
Biography of Yaacov Herzog" by Michael
Bar-Zohar, Yedioth Ahronoth, 351 pages, NIS 88
Autobiographies and biographies, not just like the one by Hillary Clinton, are very much in demand among the general public as well as among researchers in all fields, from the history of religion and political leadership to nuclear science and biotechnology. But as one who has written a political biography, I know that the status and contribution of these works as reliable historical sources and a basis for the analysis of the subject of the biography, on the one hand, and areas of interest, institutions and arrangements on the other, are very problematic.
Just as autobiographies and biographies may serve as a vital source for the understanding of individuals, agreements and processes, they can also serve as obstacles to understanding them, and the tendency in one direction or the other depends on a number of factors: the author's philosophical and ideological bent, his or her feelings toward the protagonist of the book, intellectual integrity, a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances in which the protagonist acted, accessibility of sources, clarity of writing and the extent of the author's independence - that is, does he write to further a political or ideological agenda, or does he write at his own initiative.
This biography of Yaacov Herzog joins a not very long list of biographies (more autobiographies seem to have been written) of politicians and public officials in the Israeli foreign service of the first two decades after the establishment of the state. As the title of the biography hints, the book is about a young member of the Israeli establishment, the son of a privileged family that was - and still is - considerably involved in Israeli politics - the Herzog family.
Yaacov Herzog's father was Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Ireland and later of Israel. Chaim Herzog, his older brother, held various military and political posts, and was later elected president of the State of Israel. At least one member of the family is still an active politician. For those who did not know Yaacov Herzog, and for those who may have forgotten, here is a brief summary of his life and work.
Yaacov Herzog was born in Dublin, Ireland and surprisingly enough, attended a Protestant-Methodist school there. Still quite young, he studied and received a degree from the University of London. In Israel, he was ordained as a rabbi, and he later completed his law studies and a doctorate. His parents and brother immigrated to Israel before he did, and he arrived only on the eve of World War II. During and after the war, he served as an aide to his father - who succeeded Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook as the chief rabbi - in his various activities in Eretz Israel and Europe, and in his contacts with the British authorities in Palestine. During that period, the younger Herzog quickly became deeply involved in the political culture that arose here.
Between two worlds
Bar-Zohar's biography skillfully sketches out the effect of Yaacov Herzog's childhood and youth on the man he became. Herzog remained torn between two worlds - the religious and secular worlds; the rabbinical and secular political-diplomatic worlds; the Jewish and Western, particularly British cultures; that of his British education and the unrefined coarseness of Eretz Israel; the view of the "great world" and the Middle Eastern reality.
At quite a young age, immediately after the establishment of the state, he was appointed director of the Christian department in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and he carried out his job successfully, especially by improving relations with the various churches. In addition to his job in the ministry, he was appointed adviser to the foreign minister Moshe Sharett on religious affairs, particularly regarding relations with the Catholic church, and special adviser on Jerusalem affairs.
By joining the Foreign Ministry, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition - to become a professional diplomat. And indeed, the talented young man was quickly promoted to serve as acting director of the American department in the Foreign Ministry. On the eve of the Sinai Campaign in 1956, Herzog was appointed David Ben-Gurion's personal aide and assistant, after which he was sent to serve in Israel's Washington embassy. Against his will, he was appointed by Golda Meir, who was not one of his greatest admirers, ambassador to Canada. This appointment created the opportunity for the event that earned him a great deal of public attention - his celebrated public debate with the British historian Arnold Toynbee.
In a series of highly publicized lectures he gave in Montreal, Canada, Toynbee repeated anti-Jewish comments he had previously written, and said, in particular, that the Jewish people was "a fossil," that the Jewish people had no historical right to the Land of Israel, that the Palestinians had been deeply injured in the 1948 war and that morally although not numerically, the Jews had behaved toward the Arabs just as the Nazis had behaved toward the Jews.
Notwithstanding the dissatisfaction of the Foreign Ministry leadership and some leaders of the Jewish community in Canada, Herzog was drawn into the fray. He challenged Toynbee to a public debate, which received a great deal of media coverage. The extensive coverage made Herzog's reputation outside of Israel, and especially in North America. This was undoubtedly, as Bar-Zohar also writes, Herzog's most famous act.
In the early 1960s, Herzog returned to Israel and was appointed deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry. For two years, he was involved in talks with King Hussein of Jordan and other Arab politicians and officials concerning the possibility of resolving the Middle Eastern conflict. Following a period of sickness and his refusal to serve as the chief rabbi of England, Yaacov Herzog served as adviser to prime minister Levi Eshkol and as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office. During this period too, he played an important role in the contacts with King Hussein.
After Eshkol died, his successor, Golda Meir, who, as mentioned, did not especially like Herzog, distanced him from any influence and shunted him out of his position as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office. He died in March 1972 at the age of 50.
The author of the biography, Michael Bar-Zohar, notes in a number of places in the book, one of which has been mentioned above, the nature and contribution of Yaacov Herzog to Israel. Eli Eyal, who was one of Herzog's closest friends, described the subject of this biography with the following trenchant observations: "His personal views were marked more by the cautionary style of Sharett-Weizman than the activism of Ben-Gurion [in this, Eyal disagrees with the author, who underscores a certain affinity between the views of Herzog and Ben-Gurion and the hawkish strains in Herzog's views, especially on the matter of the settlements after the 1967 war]. But he was a civil servant with every ounce of his being, not a trailblazer or someone who outlines political perceptions [Bar-Zohar agrees with this]. He was, rather, a gifted interpreter of those perceptions, and as such he fulfilled his role under all prime ministers and foreign ministers."
Similar views are expressed by Bar-Zohar in other parts of the book. The book's tone is very sympathetic toward its subject; there are few critical assessments of Herzog or his actions. Thus, for example, he exaggerates Herzog's role in the mediation between the organizations in Jerusalem during the 1948 war; he refers to Herzog as the "redeemer" of the lands of Jerusalem (it is the title of Chapter 5); he ascribes crucial influence to Herzog over Ben-Gurion during the 1956 war, so much so that he calls the chapter that deals with this period, Chapter 7, "The Acting Foreign Minister"; he states, "A large proportion of the political system at the time was subject to Herzog's navigation"; he includes a large collection of compliments for Herzog written or spoken by Israeli figures who knew him.
Bar-Zohar's political opinions are also evident in the various assessments and analyses that appear in the book. He believes this is legitimate, because an author cannot divorce himself from his own views when writing a book of this type. But it is a good idea for readers and analysts to bear this in mind when reading the book or perhaps using it in historical or political writings about Israel. Examples of this abound in this book: The misleading statement that explained the initial steps taken in the 1956 war as an act of reprisal is, according to Bar-Zohar, a masterpiece of diplomatic flexibility; Bar-Zohar calls Ben-Gurion's "victory speech" in the 1956 war, which obscured his territorial intentions, "a linguistic failure"; Bar-Zohar calls the day Ben-Gurion received the threatening letter from Soviet premier Bulganin, which led to the decision to withdraw from Sinai after the 1956 war "a terrible, bitter day, one of the most difficult days in the history of the State of Israel"; his attitude to Moshe Sharett, whom he describes on one occasion as someone who "shirked his responsibility as a senior minister in the cabinet only to please the Americans"; the unequivocal statement that it was Shimon Peres who obtained the arms from France in 1956; and the statement that "His good relations with Hussein are what caused Herzog to construct a mistaken view regarding the future of the region and develop a vision of peace that appeared based more on wishful thinking than on sober assessment."
Like Bar-Zohar's other books, this biography is written clearly, deals extensively with trivialities, does not delve overly deeply into broad philosophical, historical, institutional-political and behavioral issues, and does not fill any unknown voids. At the same time, the biography sheds light on a gifted, interesting and well-connected man who filled a certain but not crucial position in the history of Israel's foreign policy. And perhaps that is enough, when one bears in mind people who currently serve in Israel's Foreign Ministry, few of whom would likely be willing to defend the State of Israel by engaging in a face-to-face confrontation with a prominent historian like Arnold Toynbee.
The political biography of Moshe Sharett, "Biography of a Political Moderate," by Prof. Gabi Sheffer, was published by Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press.