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Chaim Herzog

Chaim Herzog

Sixth president of the state of Israel, Chaim Herzog (1918-1997) was appointed by the Knesset in 1983 and reelected to a second five-year term in 1988.

At a troubled time for Israel, President Chaim Herzog came to represent one of the country's few effective unifying forces in the early 1990s, earning respect in most quarters of a divisive society through his high visibility, personal dignity, and political tact. Exercising limited, largely ceremonial powers of office, he missed no occasion to remind countrymen of those historical, religious, and cultural roots that, reinforced by present common security concerns, ultimately bind together the Jewish state and the peoples of Israel.

Reviewing Chaim Herzog's biography suggests how his background, education, and entire professional experience—lawyer, career military officer, author, ambassador to the United Nations, member of the Israeli parliament— may have prepared him for the sensitive role he was to play in Israeli nation-building during his presidency.

From Ireland to Israel

Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast on September 17, 1918, but immigrated to Palestine at the age of 17 when his father, then chief rabbi of Ireland, was appointed in 1935 spiritual leader of the Jewish homeland. As a result, Chaim received a diversified education: three years of talmudic training at the Hebron Yeshiva, then on to Wesley College (Dublin), the Government of Palestine Law School (Jerusalem), London University, and Cambridge University, eventually earning a law degree from London University (LL.B, 1941).

The advent of World War II fundamentally altered his career plans. Enlisting in the British Army (1939-1945), Herzog attended officer candidate school at the Royal Military College (Sandhurst), was wounded in tank combat, and eventually directed British intelligence operations in northern Germany. Following discharge in 1945 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, he proceeded to join Haganah, the Jewish underground movement in Palestine, taking part in the fighting in the Jerusalem sector during Israel's 1948 war of independence. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion then appointed him director of military intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 1948 to 1950.

Herzog's next posting was military attaché in North America: first in Washington, D.C. (1950-1953), and then in Ottawa, Canada (1953-1954). Returning to Israel, he was given field command in the years 1954-1959 and then completed a second stint as chief of IDF intelligence before retiring from active military service as a major general in 1962.

While building up his private legal practice Herzog also concentrated on various business enterprises, serving as managing director of G.U.S. Industries in Tel-Aviv from 1962 to 1972. Once again, however, war intervened; this time the 1967 Middle East crisis. During the stressful period preceding Israel's stunning victory in the June Six Day War, Reserve General Chaim Herzog gained wide public recognition and acclaim for his insightful radio commentary on the daily geopolitical currents and later battlefield developments in and around Israel which helped to boost the nation's morale. Immediately following the conflict he briefly accepted appointment as first military governor of the administered West Bank territory.

Public and Private Life

This pattern of transition from public to private life and back again repeated itself in 1973 when the sudden and traumatic Yom Kippur War launched against Israel by Syria and Egypt once more called Chaim Herzog to the role of military analyst. Once the crisis was weathered he spent the next three years writing an acclaimed book on the 1973 war, lecturing abroad, and heading his successful Tel-Aviv law firm. But then followed three challenging years in New York as head of the Israeli mission to the United Nations at a time when his country was threatened with international isolation and the increased popularity of the rival Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Nevertheless, Herzog rose to the occasion, defending Israel with both eloquence and conviction. His finest moment came on November 10, 1975, when Ambassador Herzog, in a defiant gesture of contempt from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, tore in two the recently-adopted resolution defining Zionism as "a form of racism," denouncing it as an infamous act against the Jewish people.

Returning to Israel in 1978, Herzog combined legal practice with domestic political and party activity on behalf of the Ma'arach Labour alignment and was rewarded by a seat in the Knesset following the 1981 elections. When the presidency became vacant in March 1983, he was chosen in a Knesset secret ballot to the position, in spite of the fact that the rival Likud coalition enjoyed a majority in the house. Many observers attributed the surprise outcome to interparty political maneuvering, but others saw the explanation in Herzog's national stature and obvious qualifications.

President Herzog

Once inaugurated, President Herzog worked hard at reaffirming his commitment to preserve the symbolic, apolitical, nonpartisan nature of the position. As the only president to serve two terms, he boldly spoke out on issues of burning and national concern, denouncing excessive violence in the territories; opposing ethnic, religious, or ideological extremism; campaigning for road safety and environmental protectionism; calling for greater governmental and bureaucratic efficiency; and promoting the absorption of Ethiopian and Russian Jewry. While calling for greater national unity, he also undertook the assignment of goodwill ambassador, unflinchingly objecting to unfair criticism of Israel abroad while paying state visits to the United States, the Far East, and a number of European countries. After the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and China on January 24, 1992, he was invited to Beijing in December, becoming the first Israeli president to visit China. President Herzog came to represent the conscience and voice of Israel both at home and within the international community.

Since leaving Beit Hanassi in 1993, Herzog has been invited to sit on national and international boards of both commercial and noncommerical organizations and institutions. He took an active part in the activities of the Council for Promoting Israel-China relations after it was established in Tel Aviv in 1996.

Chaim Herzog died of pnuemonia in April 1997.

Further Reading

Although no biography has been written on Chaim Herzog, he is himself the author of several books about Israel which intersperse autobiographical material and personal viewpoints with the larger struggle by Israel for security in both peace and war. These books include Israel's Finest Hour (1967); Days of Awe (1973); The War of Atonement (1975); a compilation of his UN speeches, Who Stands Accused? (1978); Battles of the Bible (1978); and The Arab-Israeli Wars (1982). □

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