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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Israel’s Leaders: An Inside View

A review essay by Matthew Schwartz

The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. By Yehuda Avner. The Toby Press; New Milford, Conn., 2010

Yehuda Avner’s delightful articles in the Jerusalem Post over the years have left many readers hoping that he would someday write a book based on his experience as diplomat, adviser and speechwriter for several Israeli prime ministers: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin and Menahem Begin. The Prime Ministers is now with us and well fulfills our expectations. It is in the form of a memoir of episodes which illustrate the responses of the prime ministers and many others to the challenges of the early decades of Israel’s history. It makes for a fascinating intimate narrative, warm and insightful, shedding light on other world leaders as well — Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher and much more. Avner’s own favorite was Menahem Begin, who appears early in the story and whose passing, more or less, marks the end of the story.

Avner’s account is unusual among such memoirs in its lack of egocentric bitterness. His tone is respectful. Yet he does not hesitate to describe quietly the flaws and errors of certain major figures. He is a marvelous raconteur, especially of humorous incidents which involve a line or two of Yiddish. Many of these word pictures are unforgettable. The book begins with Avner’s boyhood in Manchester, England, and his first awareness of the Irgun. The main narrative begins in 1928 with a striking story. The Arabs of Jerusalem went wild when some Jews set up a small screen as a mechitza at the Western Wall. The Arabs murdered a Hasid in Jerusalem, and a number of violent riots broke out including the massacre of Yeshiva students in Hebron. The British forbade the Jews to pray at the Wall and to blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. People who tried were roughly handled. When Menahem Begin came to Palestine in 1942 and learned of the problem, he posted warnings that anyone who harassed the Jews’ prayers would be punished by the Irgun. That year, a young man blew the shofar, and the British police marched quietly back to their barracks. The Jews danced triumphantly home to their dwellings in the old Jewish Quarter.

Avner’s anecdotes form an essential component of the narrative. On one occasion, Begin’s Irgun threatened to capture and hang Englishmen if the British hung Irgun prisoners. When the British refused to desist, Irgun fighters captured a British businessman named Collins. Collins claimed that he was Jewish, but his captors did not believe him until as they readied the noose for his neck, he began to recite somewhat incoherently Adon Olam.

Another wonderful anecdote tells how, with a Yiddish quip, Avner managed to get the better of a harshly anti-Semitic high school teacher shortly before his graduation in Manchester in 1947. The story foreshadows in a quiet way his respect for people, like Begin, who were openly proud to be Jewish.

Avner liked all four prime ministers whom he served, especially Begin, who felt a strong sense of Jewish history and identity. Begin would never raise his hand in anger against another Jew. His restraint in the Altalena incident in 1948 averted a possible civil war between Ben Gurion’s forces and his own. Avner was deeply impressed by a speech Begin delivered shortly after the 1948 war.

Among the many beautiful vignettes is one describing a Shabbat afternoon open house hosted by the Begins, the week that they moved into the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. All sorts of people came to partake of orange juice and cookies and to talk to the new prime minister. Begin’s personal empathy with each one was remarkable the man who lost his wife and children in the Holocaust but had carried their picture all through the concentration camp, a poor Sephardi storekeeper, an artist from Romania just arrived in Israel after years in a Communist prison. The gathering ended as the people saw three stars in the evening sky, the men recited the evening prayer, the prime minister recited havdala and people went home happy. For the secret service, however, the gathering was a logistics nightmare, and they would not allow the Begins to do it again. Another striking passage describes Saturday nights when a remarkably brilliant group would gather together at the PM’s residence to study the Pentateuchal reading of the week. On this occasion, the guests included Professors Ephraim Urbach, Nehama Leibowitz, Yaacov Katz and several other distinguished Bible scholars, archaeologists and historians. The discussion centered around the passage in the Book of Numbers describing the Jews as “a people that dwells alone.” One could wish to be a fly on their wall.

Begin brought his strong sense of Jewish feeling to the negotiating table in dealing with American leaders. He and Sadat grew to have great respect and even liking for each other, while recognizing their differences. Begin wrote to Jehan Sadat after her husband’s assassination, and she wrote to Begin when his Aliza passed away a year later. Both letters are precious human documents.

Levi Eshkol was a competent, dedicated prime minister, who guided Israel through some scary moments before and during the 1967 War. Shortly before the war, he offered to resign in favor of Ben Gurion. Imagine this quiet man several months later holding on to his bowler hat, while being driven around Lyndon B. Johnson’s Texas ranch in an open jeep with LBJ himself speeding up and down the hills. There are wonderful stories about Golda Meir her visit to the Great Synagogue in Moscow, her interview by Oriana Fallaci. Yitzchak Rabin was a quiet, competent man.

There are unforgettable portraits of others. Sir Isaiah Berlin, brilliant English philosopher and diplomat, descendant of famous rabbis was withal, rather a self-hating Jew. Bruno Kreisky, Jewish prime minister of Austria, adamantly rejected Golda Meir’s personal plea to ease the way of Jewish refuseniks, who needed to stop in Austria en route from the USSR to Israel. Some years later, Avner met a Jerusalem street beggar who came to Prime Minister Begin’s office for a handout. He was surprised to learn that the beggar was Kreisky’s brother.

Avner was deeply impressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, with whom he met several times in connection to diplomatic visits to the U.S. They spoke in Hebrew; the Rebbe’s classic, Avner’s modern. “What lured me most as we talked were the Rebbe’s eyes. They exuded wisdom, awareness, kindness, and good fellowship. They were the eyes of one who could see mystery in the obvious, poetry in the mundane and large issues in small things.” They met for three hours as Avner reported on Menahem Begin’s meeting with President Carter. The Rebbe then dictated a letter praising Begin for his strong stand on behalf of Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish people. “As he dissected my account, his air of authority seemed to deepen. It came of something beyond knowledge. It was in his state of being, something he possessed in his soul which I can not possibly begin to explain.”

Avner is less enamored with Jimmy Carter, whom he describes talking to Begin “with disdain in his voice and fury in his eyes.” On another occasion, Carter’s face was “a mask of politeness, but it was easy to see by his clenched teeth that anger lurked beneath.” Zbigniew Brzezinski was “a cold wind blowing in from the Arctic.” Begin somewhat mollified Brzezinski by presenting him with a dossier of his father’s activities in helping Polish Jews during World War II.

Henry Kissinger was uncomfortable with his Jewishness. A psychiatrist who had grown up with Kissinger both in Germany and New York explained to Avner that Kissinger’s identity issue held him back from wholly supporting Israel even during the existential threat of the Yom Kippur War.

Meals in the diplomatic setting were often a challenge for Avner and other Israeli officials, including Menahem Begin and Yaacov Herzog, who kept kosher. This resulted in kosher dinners being served in the White House and in Buckingham Palace. Levi Eshkol’s visit to LBJ’s ranch produced a difficult moment. The main course was freshly shot pheasant so that Avner and Yaacov Herzog had to quietly request plain salads. Lady Bird Johnson, a warm and charming hostess, apologized profusely for the misunderstanding. She had been informed that pheasant was acceptable. Ladybird then noted that “your prime minister has no trouble eating the bird.” Herzog responded, “May I share a confidence, Mrs. Johnson? The prime minister has one secret vice. He cannot resist fine gourmet. So you may take his lapse as a compliment to your chef.” “Oh, I shall, I shall,” said a charmed Mrs. Johnson.


Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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