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Michael and Isaac Herzog talk about life growing up as members of Israel’s political aristocracy

The brothers talk to the JC as they tour Ireland and the UK to mark the centenary of their famous father’s birth

    Top (l-r) Ronit Herzog, Michael Herzog, Suzy Eban, Abba Eban, Isaac Herzog. Bottom (l-r) Aura Herzog, Chaim Herzog
    Top (l-r) Ronit Herzog, Michael Herzog, Suzy Eban, Abba Eban, Isaac Herzog. Bottom (l-r) Aura Herzog, Chaim Herzog

    From a very young age, both Isaac and Michael Herzog were aware that they were not part of a typical family; that they were, perhaps, the closest thing to an aristocracy that Israel possesses.

    Their grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. And their father, Chaim Herzog, served as a Major-General in the IDF and subsequently as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations before becoming Israel’s sixth president, a position he held for a decade.

    Isaac, better known as “Bougie”, is named after his grandfather, who died a year before he was born. “I remember a kindergarten teacher telling me off for misbehaving, and telling me ‘you cannot behave like that as the grandson of the Chief Rabbi.'

    “We were a family very exposed to the public; we were overwhelmed by it many times, and we have lived as a public family all our lives.”

    His brother Michael agrees.

    “As a small child, there is a burden, because you’re often told that there are certain things you can’t do, or can’t behave in a certain manner because we are in the public eye. So we had to restrain ourselves; we couldn’t behave like normal kids.

    “As a child, I saw it often as a burden. But, when I grew up, I think I saw it more and more as a privilege and I was very proud of the heritage of our family.”

    They both followed in their family’s tradition of public service. Isaac, as leader of Israel’s Labour Party and then the Zionist Union coalition, served as Opposition leader for five years before taking over as Chairman of the Jewish Agency a few months ago, succeeding Natan Sharansky. Michael, a retired Brigadier-General in the IDF, also served as Chief of Staff to Israel’s Minister of Defence.

    However, they make it clear that they were never told what path they had to follow in life.

    “Our father let us choose our path,” Michael says.

    “But when he saw the path we were choosing, we were opting for, he encouraged us. I can tell you from my own experience; after I started my military service, at one point I was debating whether or not to continue and go on for a career [in the army], and he told me the story about his experience, when he spoke to his father, the Chief Rabbi. His father told him, ‘Of course, I would have loved you to be a rabbi, but if you choose not to be, then there is nothing greater [‘nothing more honourable’, Isaac interjects] — than being an officer in the Jewish army’. So that was his way of encouraging me.”

    This week, the brothers have visited Ireland, Northern Ireland and England, as part of celebrations commemorating “Herzog 100”, marking a centenary since their father’s birth. “For us, this visit is an emotional experience, through ties we have to Belfast and to Ireland,” Michael said.

    “Our grandfather was the first chief rabbi of the community in Belfast. Our father was born there and then grew up in Dublin. We have the family stories and we are connected to our past.”

    Originally from Poland, Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog moved to the UK in 1898. Prior to being appointed Chief Rabbi of the then British Mandate Palestine in 1936, he served as the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland. A fluent Gaelic speaker, he became known as the “Sinn Fein Rabbi” due to his support for Irish Republicanism.

    The Herzog brothers at Stratford School in Dublin, near the city's Herzog Park
    The Herzog brothers at Stratford School in Dublin, near the city's Herzog Park

    Having moved to the British Mandate in the mid-1930s with his family, Chaim Herzog returned to Britain in 1939, enlisting in the British Army and becoming a military intelligence officer in the Black Watch battalion. He would return to Palestine in 1947, setting up the fledgling Israel Army’s military intelligence unit.

    Isaac describes himself as “very excited and very moved” by the visit, paying tribute to the “strong ties” and “family legacy in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

    “Together, as a family, we have never visited Belfast. We were planning to.”

    Michael concurs, revealing that, in a way, the visit is “closing a circle.

    “We planned a visit here in 1997, the whole family — but then our father passed away three weeks before the trip.”

    Growing up, the brothers did not just have their father and grandfather’s towering reputations to contend with — their uncles were highly significant figures in Israel as well. Jacob Herzog was a prominent Israeli diplomat, serving as the country’s ambassador to Canada before becoming director-general of the prime minister’s office under the administrations of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.

    And their uncle by marriage, having married their mother’s sister, was an even more famous Israeli politician, diplomat and statesman, Abba Eban.

    “We grew up understanding the idea of serving the cause of Israel, the Jewish people, humanity. It runs very deep in our innate feelings,” Isaac says.

    Michael agrees. “We knew very early on, as small kids, that we were part of something bigger than just our core family. At Shabbat dinner, with our family and visitors, we used to discuss the state of Israel and the Jewish people. We grew up with this knowledge.”

    That was not easy, Isaac reiterates.

    “It’s extremely difficult to grow up in the public eye. It puts a child in direct conflict, on a daily basis, between who he is and what he wants to be — I see it with my children as well. It’s not easy at all. What’s helped a lot, I would say, is like Michael mentioned, these Friday-night dinners, something where the family is together. Otherwise, you can have families, and we know many, who fall apart easily.”

    As Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog’s primary mission is to “inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage, and land, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.”

    In June, however, not long before his official assumption of the role, he was reported as having made comments about intermarriage which he reportedly described as a “real plague”, going on to say that, visiting the US, “I saw the children of my friends marrying or living with non-Jewish partners. And their parents are beating their breasts and asking questions and agonising.”

    Speaking to him now, he maintains that the way this was reported “was distorted from the regular meaning”, having been “illdefined by certain interest groups.

    “I was speaking in Hebrew and I said that you can deal with intermarriage in two ways; either give up on the remnants of the Jewish faith in the next generation, or open up the doors and bring them in, embrace their Jewish heritage and enable them to join our nation.

    “My aim was to speak about a much more accommodating conversion process. What I care about, in my current job, is the unity of the Jewish people and enabling anyone who feels part of our nation to join and feel part of our nation. And I said ‘a Jew is a Jew is a Jew for me, no matter what he or she puts on their head or doesn’t’.”

    While Isaac’s role is to concentrate on the strengthening of Jewish heritage and the connection with Israel, Michael, as a military and geopolitical expert, is well placed to comment on the threats to Israel’s security. Of course, the current situation in Gaza is, he says, “very dangerous.

    “There’s no desire in Israel for another war in Gaza — we’ve had three of them in a decade. Israel has other priorities, like Iran and Syria… but we are now in a kind of attrition — since late March, Hamas has been orchestrating the mass gatherings along the border, trying to breach the border fence… incendiary balloons, kites.

    “Hamas initiated this in order to break its own isolation, and try and extricate itself from crisis, having failed in governance in Gaza for over a decade.

    “They will not stop until they can show their people they will provide sufficient benefits.

    “But I think the main challenge is the relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza. Because of their political rivalry, the PA has been very unaccommodating in its efforts to provide humanitarian solutions.

    “For example, last week our government allowed a shipment of fuel to the power station in Gaza, which was paid for by Qatar — and the PA stopped it, ultimately, we had to bypass them.

    “As long as we cannot bring about this arrangement based on the two pillars of ceasefire and humanitarian solutions, we find ourselves ultimately having to fight another war in Gaza against our will. That’s tragic, really.

    “I think we should continue the efforts to stabilise the situation, provide humanitarian solutions — and even by denying the PA a veto.

    “It doesn’t mean that by doing so we recognise Hamas — they are a fact on the ground; there is nobody else there. And, if you want to reach a ceasefire, they are the address, I don’t see any other address. The PA is pouring fuel on the fire, pushing us to war in Gaza with Hamas, wishing us privately to destroy Hamas and condemning us publicly as war criminals. That’s our situation.”

    With regard to Syria, “Assad has survived the war and is regaining control of most of Syria, except some of the Kurdish regions, Idlib province in the north and some other enclaves.

    “He is responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of his own people in Syria, but the real threat for Israel in Syria is to be found in the Iranian plans.

    “Iran would like to turn Syria not only into an Iranian protectorate, but to an active front with Israel.”

    Regarding a peace plan between the Israelis and Palestinians, Michael says, “we are now waiting for the Trump administration to put their own plan on the table. We’ve been waiting. I’m not holding my breath.”

    Meanwhile, although Isaac has taken over as the head of the Jewish Agency, there is talk of him following in his father’s footsteps with a potential run for Israel’s presidency in a couple of years, when Reuven Rivlin’s term expires.

    He refuses to be drawn on the issue, saying that “everywhere I work, and every position I take, I always focus on that specific position… I’m firmly focused on the Jewish Agency.”

    Whatever happens, however, one gets the sense that, when it comes to the Herzog family, the story of their connection with the upper echelons of service to the Israeli state is very far from over.

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