Yaacov Herzog: A Biography
By Michael Bar-Zohar
Gardners Books, 384 pages, $27.10
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If the Oedipal complex didn’t exist, we might have to invent it to explain the frustrated, stunted career of Yaacov Herzog. A shadow hovered over him from the day he was born — his father, Isaac Halevi Herzog, was the brilliant chief rabbi of Palestine (and later, Israel) from 1936 to 1948, and his older brother was the equally radiant and charming Chaim Herzog, who would become the sixth president of Israel. These were not easy acts to follow. But as Michael Ben-Zohar, author of a new biography about him, would have us believe, Herzog the younger was special. Bookish and with a wide-ranging intellect (he started translating the Mishnah into English at the age of 16 and as a teenager was pen pals with Clement Atlee), Herzog spent his life as a civil servant par excellence. He was David Ben-Gurion’s right hand during the 1956 Sinai Campaign, ran Levi Eshkol’s prime minister’s office during the Six Day War, and — his most significant claim to historical relevancy — held the first clandestine talks with King Hussein of Jordan, meeting in the back room of a doctor’s office in London, both before and after the Six Day War.
The shadow, however, never went away. It’s the most interesting aspect of a biography that looks at a man who, standing so close to the most powerful players at the most crucial moments, never really came into his own, never championed a strong opinion or took a definitive political stance. With only one bright, shining exception in Montreal in 1961, when he excused himself for two hours from his role as ambassador to Canada in order to publicly debate a notorious anti-Zionist, he never spoke for himself. For the first 27 years of his life, he was his father’s secretary and then immediately submitted himself without question to the state he loved, which he served until the day he died at the premature age of 50 in 1972.
Even in a book as hagiographic as this one, which at times reads like simply a collection of praising testimonials, Ben-Zohar (Ben-Gurion’s official biographer and soon to be Shimon Peres’s) can’t avoid the man’s essential limitation: His crippling, self-effacing nature. He must finally admit, sadly, about Herzog that “a person as wise and as gifted as he would surely have been able to formulate an original worldview and to present Israel with important ideas in the areas of his expertise. But he did not do so.”
What does emerge here is a portrait of a brilliant man with a particular gift — one surely undervalued amid the screaming and yelling that can sometimes characterize the political culture of modern Israel. Herzog knew how to look at an issue and examine it objectively, coolly, from every angle. He could condense various arguments to their key points and lay out for his superiors the many different, competing solutions to any problem. He applied talmudic thinking to the political realm — asking questions more than providing answers.
These were the skills that precipitated his rise within Israel’s Foreign Ministry once he left his father’s side and abandoned his ordained career path in the rabbinate (though he was ordained). The aforementioned Sinai Campaign was his big break. As the head of the American section of the ministry, he spent much of the war at Ben-Gurion’s bedside — the old man was often sick and in his pajamas — drafting letters to Eisenhower and to the secretary general of the United Nations. Ben-Gurion was determined to disentangle Israel from the Sinai in the most profitable way possible, not a simple task after a war widely looked on as a crude colonialist adventure. But Herzog went to work and did the job well and carefully. From then on, he was Ben-Gurion’s man, first sent to Washington to act as minister at the Israeli embassy and then, in 1960, appointed ambassador to Canada.
Given the amount of space that Ben-Zohar devotes to two hours of Herzog’s life in Canada — 40 pages and an accompanying audio CD — clearly he thinks these were the most important. Besides being a highly competent civil servant, Herzog was a true believer in Zionism: not the variety that sees the Jewish state as a reaction to the Holocaust, but rather a Zionism rooted in a deep belief in the historical Jewish right to the land. So when aging British historian Alfred Toynbee repeated his infamous slur of calling the Jews a “fossilized” civilization and then comparing what had happened to Palestinian Arabs in 1948 to what Jews suffered under the Nazis, Herzog, according to Ben-Zohar, felt an unprecedented level of “anger and indignation” and, spontaneously and without government approval, decided to challenge Toynbee to a debate.
In the heavily covered meeting that took place at McGill University, it could easily be said that Herzog devoured Toynbee, eventually eliciting, through expertly executed Socratic method, what seemed like an almost total recant of all Toynbee’s remarks and a promise to come see Israel for himself. Herzog emerged triumphant, scoring a victory for a pre-1967 Israel that still stood on shaky legs. And it was not just his eloquence and arguments that did the trick, but his person, as well.
Herzog represented this perfect kind of Israeli diplomat: fiercely nationalistic, yet a European gentleman (you can hear the lilt of his native Ireland in the debate CD); deeply pious and religious, but not afraid to engage with the secular world. Herzog was nonconfrontational. Abba Eban said he had an “inability to regard any Jew as an opponent.” (Sounds lovely, especially now, but if that isn’t the definition in Israel of political impotence, I don’t know what is.)
But when it came time for him to take his father’s place, to assume real authority, Herzog collapsed. In 1964, he was offered the job of chief rabbi of Britain, which would have meant leaving Israel and government work and fulfilling, as Ben-Zohar puts it, his “most natural destiny.” His father and grandfathers were all part of rabbinic dynasties; it would have placed him in a position of power. But after deciding to accept the offer, he had a complete physical and mental breakdown that incapacitated him for months. You don’t have to be Freud to see that, when push came to shove, Herzog just couldn’t replace the father.
Even worse, when he finally started making his way again in Israel, establishing himself in the prime minister’s office by developing a warm working relationship with Levi Eshkol — who shared many of his Old World quirks — Herzog was confronted with the great Israeli mother, blunt where he was subtle, straightforward where he was nuanced: Golda Meir. As one of Herzog’s colleagues put it, “Herzog admired Ben-Gurion, loved Eshkol and feared Golda.”
Ben-Zohar never comes out and says it, but the implication is clear: Golda killed Herzog. From the moment she took power in early 1969, his position in the prime minister’s office just kept being marginalized and marginalized until it was nearly nonexistent and he became little more than just a glorified secretary. But he never complained, never threatened to quit — even as he was kept out of meetings and his advice ignored. His duty, he told his bewildered friends, was to serve the state. Within two years, he had a stroke and died.
Not every public figure is worth a 350-page biography. These works, it seems, should be reserved for people who managed to either change the directional flow of history or stand defiantly in its stream as it crashed against them. Herzog did neither. He never emerged from underneath that shadow. This is no crime. In the end, this makes him much like us than like any of the great leaders of history — all too human.
Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement,to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
This story "The Shadow That Never Went Away" was written by Gal Beckerman.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman