Obituary: Myer Silverstone

Born London, March 27, 1916. Died Jerusalem, January 15, 2009, aged 92.

By Mordechai Beck, March 19, 2009

British-born top civil servant Myer Silverstone made a major impact on Israel’s formative years as director-general of the Ministry of the Interior.

Descended from an illustrious rabbinical family — his Lithuanian-born grandfather was a well-known Liverpool rabbi in the 1890s — he attended the Grocers’ School (Hackney Downs), studied at Jews’ College and London University, and qualified as a solicitor in 1937. He was also a leading figure in Young Mizrachi and Torah Va’Avodah.

Drafted into the legal department of the Home Office, he spent the Second World War working in the field of juvenile delinquency.

He also attended the Bachad training farm at Bromsgrove, West Midlands, where he met and later married Rachel Leibling. After the war, he worked briefly as a solicitor in private practice.

With Israel’s independence in 1948, he secured an opening at the Ministry of Social Welfare in Tel Aviv, as a youth protection and probation officer.

He soon moved to the legal department of Tel Aviv municipality and, in 1952, began his rapid rise in the civil service as legal adviser to the Interior Ministry under the governments of David Ben-Gurion. He became director-general in 1960.

He defined himself as “a civil servant of the British school who believes that order and correct management come first. I would arrive with my driver early in the morning, each of us carrying a huge pile of files, which I would later take home and go through until midnight.”

Among the issues he dealt with were national and religious identity and citizenship — most notably the Father Daniel case (1962), going to the heart of the “Who is a Jew?” question — immigration, municipal organisation, and the framing and passing of a vast amount of new legislation.

Some of this took on added significance after the 1967 Six-Day War, with the reunification of Jerusalem and the control of areas captured by Israel.

Through his work he met heads of state in post-colonial Africa, an expanding area for Israeli diplomacy, as well as mayors of major European cities. He often represented Israel at conferences and institutions abroad.

His work ethic set new standards for government office. He worked quietly and unobtrusively, with authority, dignity and dry English humour. In 1970 he retired from the ministry and returned to private practice.

With his well-deserved reputation for probity and integrity, he was appointed to numerous boards, directorates and commissions for both local and national institutions.

He is survived by his wife, Rachel; son, Uri; daughter, Judith; five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Last updated: 4:40pm, September 23 2009