When Yehuda Avner first joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1959, he was the only observant Jew. “When I began I was the only religious fellow in the whole Foreign Service. It wasn’t easy,” recalls Avner, 82, whose diplomatic career ended up lasting an incredible 38 years.
Avner came to Israel in 1947 as a pioneer from Manchester, UK, at the age of 18. After becoming a founding member of Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee, he caught a break that landed him in the Foreign Ministry’s Political Information Department, a post which propelled him to successive positions as secretary, English speechwriter, and adviser to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres; Ambassador to London, Australia, and Ireland; and Consul to the Israeli Embassies in New York and Washington, DC.
His story, which touched intimately on the lives not only of Israel’s founding fathers, but also on the likes of Abba Eban, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana (to name a few), forms the backbone of his new book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership (Toby Press).
The 700-page account tells a thus-far untold version of this critical period in Israeli history, compiled from Avner’s meticulously-kept notebooks, photographs, diaries, minutes, speeches, memorandums, letters, newspaper clippings, classified government material, and his extremely strong and vivid memory.
Avner was Israel’s lone religiously observant diplomat.
Avner, who lives and writes from his home in Jerusalem – a city which after all these years he still says he finds “intoxicating” – recalls how difficult it was for him in the beginning, to be Israel’s lone religiously observant diplomat. “There were times when I had real problems,” he says.
One particularly sticky instance stands out in his mind. In 1985, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked Avner to draft a statement on Shabbat. There was a crisis following Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy and the U.S. had threatened to reassess its regional policies and its relations with Israel. “I refused to do it, and Rabin was full of contempt,” recalls Avner.
Afterwards, he went to one of the leading rabbinic sages of the time to seek counsel on his decision. Since successful diplomacy has the potential to prevent war, potentially saving lives was a factor involved in weighing the decision. The rabbi asked him whether Avner was certain that he had all the pertinent information to make the judgment that he did. Perhaps only the Prime Minister had the full picture. "One will never know whether I behaved correctly or not, and eventually Rabin forgave me.”
Plenty of never-before-released, personally-gathered stories make the book a compelling source of both historical and academic interest. Avner tells one never-before-published story about late-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the mezuzot at the Prime Minister’s residence.
Soon after he started working for Begin, in 1977, Avner got a call from a yeshiva student requesting to check the mezuzot at the Prime Minister’s house. “I had been so conditioned by working with all these other secular Prime Ministers, I told him I would take down his phone number, just to get him off my back,” says Avner. “As Begin was leaving that day I mentioned it to him in passing, and he told me it was extremely important and to get the student to the house as soon as possible.
“Begin himself checked every mezuzah with him. It was important to him.”
“Begin himself checked every mezuzah with him,” recalls Avner. “I kept looking for the cameras and the crowds, but no. Begin did it for only one reason – it was important to him. He meant it.”
It was for his sincerity and his traditionalism that of all the heads of State he worked for, Avner says he most admired Begin. “Until Begin came along, all the Prime Ministers I worked for were secular Zionists,” explains Avner. “Begin was a tremendous traditionalist and in public he would never do anything that was not within the bounds of Jewish tradition. As a Jew who strives to keep the mitzvot, this was very exciting and refreshing for me.”
The thing he admired most about Begin was the fact that he was able to bridge his identity as a Jew, religiously, with his identity as a Jewish nationalist, a duality that Avner says is at the crux of Jewish and Israeli identity issues, to this day.
Jewish identity says Avner, is unique in the family of nations, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt, where the Jews entered history as a people, and continuing to the giving of the Torah at Sinai, where the Jews entered history as a faith.
“Ever since, we have walked through history with this duality,” he says. “We are the only ethnic group in the world, in terms of modern statehood, in which we are at one in the same time a people and a religion.”
This dual identity is as disturbing to Jews as it is to non-Jews, and accounts for much of Israel’s internal socio-cultural tensions, namely those between the state’s religious and secular populations. “It is an uneasy coexistence,” says Avner. “While some would like to see the two components of Jewish identity torn apart, others say no way.”
It also accounts for Israel’s isolation in the international community. Avner points to the fact that Israel doesn’t belong to a geographic entity in the UN, neither to a power bloc NATO, nor to an economic space like the EU.
Again, he takes a lesson from Begin. Each Saturday evening, Begin would hold a study session on the weekly Torah portion. Avner recalls one particular week, where the discussion centered around a passage in which the non-Jewish prophet Balaam is bribed by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Israelites, who had been wandering 38 years in the desert and were still two years away from entering the promised land.
Bilam foretells the future destiny of the Jewish people, predicting “... this is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers, 23:9).
“Reading the verse out loud, Prime Minister Begin gave a mild chuckle and said, ‘One does not have to be a mystic for the imagination to be stirred by such an improbable vision of a nation forever ‘dwelling alone’. Is it not a startlingly accurate prophecy of our Jewish people’s experience in all of history?’” Avner reads aloud from the middle of The Prime Ministers. “‘So there you have it,’ concluded Begin snapping the book shut. ‘Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist. What a conundrum!’”
Everything of this civilization is in a museum. We [the Jews], we are alive. We are still here.”
We may be alone in the world, as Begin concluded, but says Avner, we are here. The idea conjures another of Avner’s vivid memories. Once, while on a post-peace treaty tour of a museum in Cairo with Begin, one of the men in the Prime Minister’s entourage commented that the plethora of artifacts representing the vibrant Egyptian civilization, with its incredible arts and culture, made him feel small. “Begin overheard him and said, yes, but everything of this civilization is in a museum. We [the Jews], we are alive. We are still here.”
Avner sees himself and his writing as a link in the chain of that history. “I am hoping [with this book] every generation will simply learn about these early years. That is something very important to me,” he says. “The most important words in all the Bible is ‘teach thy children’. Our job on earth is to teach them, from generation to generation. This is part of the secret of our survival.”