Chaim Herzog was honoured as a “warrior and statesmen” last night as a week of celebrations of his unique contribution to Israel and Britain drew to a close with a reception attended by the great and good of the community.
The former Israeli president’s four children, including Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog and five of his 11 grandchildren, were among those descending on Spencer House for the event marking 100 years since the birth of the statesman.
During the gathering – put together by UJIA with the support of a host of organisations – speakers hailed Dublin-born Herzog’s decision to enlist in the British army to fight Nazism, during which he when he was part of the operation to liberate Normandy and was present at the liberation of Belsen.
Lord Rothschild – who co-hosted the celebration with Sir Trevor and Susan Chinn – said: “The security and wellbeing of Jews everywhere meant more to him than anything else. He fought unstintingly for that throughout his life.”
He heralded the former president’s record in heading military intelligence in the IDF before going on to become a “uniquely unifying force” as head of state for a decade.
He also recalled Herzog’s speech to the United Nations in 1975 when he tore up the infamous Zionism is racism motion as “one of the most moving ever made”.
The man who featured highly on Jewish News’ recent Aliyah 100 list was “one of the most morally impressive human beings” who “represents everything we’re proud of about the state of Israel”, he told the audience including Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Sir Simon McDonald, the head of Britain’s diplomatic service.
Tony Blair later joined a reception.
Addressing the gathering, Brigadier General Michael Herzog, one of the former president’s sons who has played a key role in negotiations with the Palestinians, described his late father as a lifelong Zionist who believed the Jewish people needed to be proactive in fighting for their rights. “For his family this is an enduring legacy,” he said. While Israel is “an imperfect democracy”, the younger Herzog said: “Had he lived to see Israel’s 70th anniversary I believe he’d be proud.”
He reflected on the family’s “emotional” Zionist Federation-organised tour marking the centenary which took in the former statesman’s birthplace in Dublin, the Northern Ireland Assembly, talks with Irish President Michael Higgins and a photo-shoot at a park named in Chaim’s honour.
During visits to Buckingham Palace as president, Isaac Herzog recalled, The Queen would proudly tell him she was descended from King David. In response, he would tell Her Majesty: “Welcome to the family.”
Britain helped transform him from “a yeshiva boy to a fighter” and influenced his presidency in terms of his stance on equality and minorities, the former Leader of the Opposition said. Amid voices in this country who would undermine Israel, he expressed hope that “voices of reason” will foster Chaim’s legacy in furthering bilateral relations.
Mark Regev, Israel’s Ambassador, also recalled the famous UN speech and his insistence that denying Israel’s right to exist was a denial of a right afforded all other people. Words that still ring true today, he said, amid attacks on Israel around the world and in the UK.
It was a measure of the moral character of the man that he enlisted in the British army after qualifying as a barrister. “Israel is proud. Britain can be proud of his legacy too.”
Turning to his children, he said: “Your father would be deeply deeply proud of the contribution you’ve made to defending your country and to public life.”
The event was backed by the World Zionist Organisation – whose CEO Eli Cohen highlighted the Herzog family’s contribution to the Jewish people – as well as the Zionist Federation, Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and both the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel. It was compered by UJIA’s Michael Wegier and also addressed by the charity’s chair Louise Jacobs.