Zena Harman, London-born Israeli Diplomat, Dies at 98

Born in 1914, Harman headed up numerous international welfare and human rights organizations and also served in Israel's Knesset.

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In 1965, Zena Harman was called to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization she chaired, UNICEF - the United Nations International Children’s Fund.

At first, newspapers warned that the Arab members of UNICEF would try to stop her from participating in the ceremony. But as always, one of her friends said later, “She managed to take care of the problem quietly and without much ado.”

Harman was the first Israeli to head an international U.N. agency. But UNICEF was just one on a long list of Israeli and international welfare, human rights and women’s rights organizations she headed over the years. In 1968, the newspaper Davar called the list of tasks she had fulfilled in the preceding few years “dizzying.”

Harman, who was born in London, studied economics and international relations at the London School of Economics. During her time there she met two enthusiastically Zionist students, Abba Eban from Cambridge and Avraham Harman, her future husband, from Oxford. Eban and Harman each led a Zionist student group at their respective universities. Zena Harman headed the non-Zionist student group. “After she met my father, in a public debate on Zionism, and after the Nazi rise to power, she changed her mind,” her son, Prof. David Harman, said this week.

The outbreak of World War II found her still in London. Avraham Harman, who had meanwhile gone to live in Palestine, was sent from there to South Africa as a Zionist emissary for the World Zionist Organization. When he proposed, she left London to be with him, in January 1940. The couple subsequently moved to Palestine.

From that time, for the ensuing half-century, their careers meshed. Zena Harman, who accompanied her husband on his diplomatic postings abroad, fulfilled many and varied tasks in different organizations.

At first, in Jerusalem, where her husband worked alongside then Jewish Agency head Moshe Sharett, she headed the children’s department of the municipal nursing service. Later, she became personal assistant to Hadassah Women’s Organization founder Henrietta Szold in youth aliyah, helping to save thousands of Jews in Europe. After the establishment of the state, when her husband became Israel’s consul general in New York, she was appointed a member of Israel’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations, and represented Israel as head of UNICEF’s board.

From 1959 to 1968, during Avraham Harman’s term as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in addition to roles in many Zionist organizations, Zena Harman was a full-time “ambassador’s wife.”

“That alone filled 18 hours a day, seven days a week. And you have to smile all the time,” she said later.

When the Harmans returned to Israel, Zena Harman became director of the center for demographics established in the Prime Minister’s Office. Her chief concern was family planning. “An optimal number of children should be planned for a family in the present and the future,” she said. “For the future, this problem is no less important than the problem of security,” she also said.

Zena Harman called on the government to encourage large families and see to it that families with many children could ensure all of them a good life. One of her ideas was to conduct a public relations campaign “using all modern PR methods, to deepen awareness of the family and the joy of a larger family.”

Following Avraham Harman’s appointment as president of the Hebrew University, Zena Harman accepted Golda Meir’s proposal that she run for Knesset on the ticket of Ma’arach, the predecessor of the Labor Party. Harman hoped to be able to channel the international experience she had amassed into her new position as a lawmaker. However, after one term, between 1969 and 1973, she realized that Israeli parliamentary work did not suit her, and she continued her active public life beyond the Knesset.

In the mid-1970s, Harman launched the third segment of her career. For a further 25 years, into the late 1990s, she worked for the United Nations refugee agency in Israel, handling asylum requests received in Israel.

Twenty years after her husband’s death, Zena Harman passed away last week at her Jerusalem home, just a few months shy of her 99th birthday. She is survived by her three children; her daughter, former Knesset member Prof. Naomi Chazan, her son, educator Prof. David Harman and her daughter Dr. Ilana Baham, a physician and department head at Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Center – as well as eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“She was a wonderful mother. She knew how to properly balance motherhood and a career and to be the wife of a prominent man,” her son said. "She was a quiet and very modest woman. She never used the word ‘I.’ She was a public servant in the full sense of the word."

David Harman added that his mother refused to write her memoirs, saying, “My personal history is not interesting. What we did is what is important.”

Zena Harman.Credit: Courtesy

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