EXCLUSIVE: Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. warns that Jews should never take their safety for granted
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel’s new ambassador to the U.S. warned of rising antisemitism and the costs of widespread ignorance about the Holocaust.
‘When we say ‘never again,’ it is not only that we don’t want such a horrendous phenomenon to recur. But it is the acknowledgment that something similar to that may recur,” Michael Herzog said Thursday in his first interview with an American news outlet since he became ambassador in November.
Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, also discussed his family’s commitment to protecting Jews during and after the Holocaust and in strengthening Israel. His father, Chaim Herzog, served as president of Israel from 1983 and 1993. His grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, pleaded with President Franklin Roosevelt to protect the Jews from the Nazis.
His father’s story
Herzog said his father was a law student when he decided to volunteer for the British army in the early 1940s, and was part of the first Allied division that entered Nazi-Germany and liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945.
Chaim Herzog, in a letter to his father, who was at the time the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel – then called Palestine – wrote that he had joined the British army “as a Jew who takes pride in his people.”
“I still remember him telling me the story of the shock that he encountered when he entered the concentration camp and saw the survivors, the piles of bodies and the unbearable stench,” Michael Herzog recalled. “It was a formative experience in his life.”
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When Herzog first encountered the survivors and told them, ‘I’m a Jewish officer from Jerusalem,’ they didn’t believe him at first because he was wearing a British military uniform. But then he started talking to them in Yiddish and they burst out in tears. “I still remember him describing this moment to me, to the family,” Michael Herzog said. “It was a very emotional moment for him.” On the first Friday night after the liberation, Herzog made kiddush for the Jewish survivors.
Four decades later, in 1987, Herzog returned to the concentration camp, this time as president of the State of Israel.
“In his mind, what he saw in the war and the experience he had was a conclusion that ‘Never Again’ is not just a slogan but a belief that Jews need their own state and have to be strong enough so that nobody can do that to them again,” Michael Herzog said. His father is known for tearing up when the United Nations General Assembly took up a resolution in 1975 that declared that Zionism is racism when he served as Israel’s U.N.ambassador.
His grandfather’s story
Rabbi Herzog, Chaim Herzog’s father and Michael Herzog’s grandfather, worked diplomatically to protect Jews during and after World War II. In 1941 he traveled to the U.S. – despite worries that German submarines might sink the ship – to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt and warn him of the Nazis plans for Europe’s Jews. He pleaded for help, and seemed hopeful that the U.S. would be a strong ally. Herzog praised Roosevelt’s “great personality and his outstanding human qualities” upon his return to Palestine.
In 1946, Herzog embarked on a tour across Europe to find young Jewish children who were hidden from the Nazis in monasteries and churches. The mission was called Masa Ha’Hatzalah, the tour of salvation, and brought to Israel some 700 children on a train known as the “Herzog Train.” In some cases, in order to identify the children as Jewish, Herzog and his team sang Sh’ma Yisrael, the Jewish prayer, traditionally recited by children with their parents before going to bed. A song released in 2005 by Hasidic singer Ya’akov Shwekey, Shema Yisrael recounts this story.
“I think it was one of the really great things that my late grandfather did, apart from his halachic greatness,” Herzog said.
The grandson on antisemitism
Michael Herzog, 69, served in the IDF and senior positions in the defense ministry, and has played a key role in Israel’s peace talks with neighboring countries. He said he grew up in a family where it was expected that he would devote himself to the Jewish people.
“My father always taught us to never take for granted the State of Israel, as strong as we are or may be, and know that anything could happen to the Jews following the Holocaust,” he said. “When people say ‘no, it’s impossible – it cannot happen again,’ I’m very careful, I take that with a grain of salt.”
Herzog’s younger brother, Isaac, is now the president of Israel and previously a candidate for prime minister and head of the Jewish Agency. Their uncle was Abba Eban, the scholar and orator, and Israel’s first permanent representative to the U.N.
Herzog said he would not be answering questions about politics or policy in his interview with the Forward, because of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
He focused on rising antisemitism in the U.S. and Europe. “It has more than one source,” he said. “It comes from the extreme right, from the extreme left and part of from Islamist hatred, and all of them have to be addressed.”
He advocated more education on the Holocaust, and better enforcement of laws against denial and hate crimes. But he also called on leaders to make combating antisemitism a priority.
“It’s very important that the message of zero tolerance has to come from the top down,” he said. “They all have to make that statement that we cannot sit idly by when we see that very troubling phenomenon – the reality where Jews want to go to synagogue to pray, to their houses of worship and need protection.”
Herzog said it’s his job too, to speak out forcefully on antisemitism.
“I represent the Jewish state, which is the epitome of the victory of the Jewish people over the Nazis and what they represent,” he said. “And I carry that message wherever I go.”
His charge is official, he said, but one he internalized from the teachings of his father: “Be proud in being a Jew, in our heritage, in our history, in our values, and our traditions.”