Sixth President of Israel
(17 September 1918 – 17 April 1997)
(11 Tishrei 5679 – 10 Nissan 5757)
Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast, a part of the United Kingdom of Britain and later the capital of Northern Ireland. He was the eldest son to Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog and his wife, Sarah (née Hillman). Rabbi Herzog, a Torah scholar and among the spiritual giants of the Jewish world at the time, served as Chief Rabbi of Belfast, Chief Rabbi of Ireland and later, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel.
Chaim Herzog was born into a bloody civil war in Ireland, creating his first childhood memory: a man was shot in front of him. He spent most of his childhood and youth in Dublin after his father was appointed Chief Rabbi of Ireland. His religious-orthodox upbringing did not prevent him from being an outstanding athlete and even winning the Maccabi Ireland championship in one of the light weights.
He immigrated to Palestine in 1935 and attended the Merkaz HaRav and Hebron Yeshivas in Jerusalem. Shortly after immigrating to Israel, he joined the Haganah where he served in Jerusalem, mainly the Old City, during the Great Revolt (1936–1939 Arab Revolt).
WWII Service in the British Army
He set out to study law in London and Cambridge Universities in England. He was awarded a Bachelor of Law (LL.B.) degree in 1941 and was qualified to practice law. In December 1942, he enlisted in the British Army where he qualified as an officer and served as a combat intelligence officer. Herzog took part in the Normandy Invasion and battles to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany as an intelligence officer in the armored formations. He was a member of the first ally formation to enter Nazi Germany. He was lightly injured near Bremen and he took part in the liberation the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. When telling the survivors that he was a Jewish officer from Palestine, they broke out in tears.
As an intelligence officer, he was involved in locating and investigating SS Commander Heinrich Himmler, and he participated in the event of German surrender in Northern Germany. As the war ended, he was assigned with organizing the intelligence in the British occupied zone and served as military governor in Northern Germany. While in service, he was given the nickname “Vivian” (the English equivalent of Chaim), which he carried for the rest of his life. He left the British Army as a major, filling a position of a lieutenant colonel.
Between the British Army and IDF
Herzog returned to Palestine in 1947, married Aura Herzog (née Ambache) and was appointed Head of Security in the Jewish Agency. While serving in this position, he was appointed as liaison with the UN team (UNSCOP – UN Special Committee on Palestine) and was responsible for following the team that came to Palestine to investigate and submit its recommendations to the UN toward solving the Palestine problem. The UNSCOP report submitted shortly before the British left the country set the foundations for the UN Partition Resolution in November 1947.
Upon establishment of the IDF, Chaim Herzog enlisted as a Lieutenant Colonel. He served as the Operations and Intelligence officer of the 7th armored brigade in May-July 1948 and participated in the Battles of Latrun and operations to open the routes to Jerusalem (“Burma Road”). In July 1948, he was appointed Deputy Head of Intelligence, subsequently heading the General Command Intelligence Unit. Filling these posts, he laid the foundations for professional national military intelligence and molded the structure and modes of operation applied by the Israeli intelligence.
He served as the IDF military attaché in the U.S. between April 1950 and the summer of 1954. From late 1954 to mid-1957, he served as commander of the Jerusalem Brigade (16th Brigade) and Jerusalem district. In May 1957, he was appointed Head of the Southern Command Headquarters and, upon Haim Laskov being appointed Commander in Chief, he took the office of Acting Head of the Southern Command for nearly one year. In May 1959, he was once again appointed as Head of Military Intelligence, this time in the General Headquarters, filling this position until January 1962, when he retired from the IDF as a Major General.
Upon retiring from the IDF, Herzog served as CEO of the GUS RASCO industrial conglomerate, filling this position for a decade.
In 1965, he was among the founders of the Rafi, a political party that split from the labor party. Upon rejoining the labor party, he ran for Knesset in 1969, but was not elected.
During the waiting period prior to the Six-Day war, starting on 28 May 1967, Herzog presented daily commentary on “Kol Israel”, encouraging the spirit of the public in Israel. His broadcasts resonated in the front and home front, awarding him the nickname of “National Soother”. On 1 June, he said: “If I had the choice of sitting in an Egyptian aircraft intending to bomb Tel Aviv or sitting at home in Tel Aviv then, for purely selfish reasons, I would prefer, for my health, to stay in Tel Aviv”. Segments of his commentary during the Six-Day War were perpetuated on a record that became a bestseller and in a boog (available on this website in “Audio Excerpts”).
When the battles subsided, Herzog was appointed the first Military Governor of the West Bank, which included East Jerusalem at the time. This post was issued as an emergency appointment in which he undertook, as a reservist, to establish a military government unit in the Central Command, which would handle all civilian issues in zones in which the IDF operates or which it occupies in times of war. He served in this post for a short time before resuming his civilian activities.
As Military Governor, he participated in the interministerial committee established by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, intended to advise him on Israel’s policy in the territories. The committee recommended that the Jordan River be considered Israel’s eastern security, that a political initiative be launched for attaining Peace with Jordan and, if the endeavor fails, that a local autonomous system be established in the West Bank, subject to Israel’s supervision.
In 1972, Herzog was among the founders of the Herzog, Fox & Neeman Law Firm, which would later become among the largest firms in Israel.
Concurrently, he was engaged in many public initiatives. Inter alia, he established and headed the Israeli chapter of Variety, aiding and promoting the welfare of disabled children and served President of the World Ort Union. He also served as Chairperson of Keter Publications where he oversaw completion of the “Encyclopedia Judaica” project. In these years, he was awarded the degree of Knight of the British Empire (KBE) for his efforts to promote Israel-Britain relations.
In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Herzog stood out with his daily commentary on radio and television. After the war, he dedicated time to investigate it and wrote a book, “The War of Atonement”, which became a bestseller and is considered among the cornerstones in the study of war.
Israel Ambassador to the UN
Herzog served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) in New York between 1975-1978, establishing a reputation as a gifted speaker and proud representative of the State of Israel. The high point of his term occurred on 10 November 1975, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 by which Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination. Herzog gave an impressive and resonating speech in response. He concluded his speech, saying: “For us, the Jewish people, this is no more than a piece of paper, and we shall treat it as such” and then went on to tear the resolution to shreds. Herzog took inspiration for this dramatic act from his father, Rabbi Herzog, who, in 1939 publicly tore the British “White Paper”, which imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and their acquisition of lands.
Years later, a team of British historians, led by famed historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, labeled this speech among the 50 speeches that changed history.
Resolution 3379 was repealed by the UN in 1991, with Chaim Herzog playing a major role in its cancellation as President of Israel.
In 1976, an argument was raised at a UN Security Council deliberation by which there is no connection between the Jewish people and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. In response, Ambassador Herzog presented the “Deed of Purchase” by which Abraham acquired the cave from Ephron the Hittite, as it appears in the story of “Life of Sarah”. Thus, Abraham’s acquisition of the Cave of the Patriarchs was anchored in an official UN document.
He also presented the Security Council with the motives and justifications for the Entebbe Operation in July 1976, thwarting the criticism of many hostile countries seeking to pass a resolution to condemn it. In addition, Herzog conducted the first contacts between an Israeli and Egyptian diplomat, Egyptian Ambassador Ahmed Meguid. These contacts were concurrent to the breakthrough toward an Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement an Sadat’s visit to Israel in November 1977.
President of Israel
Chaim Herzog was elected to the Knesset in 1981 on behalf of the Labor Party and, in 1983, attained a majority vote for serving as the sixth president of Israel, swearing into office on 5 May 1983. He served in this position for ten years, until 1993 (reelected in May 1988 without objections).
As President, Chaim Herzog worked tirelessly to enhance Israel’s moral and national values as a Jewish and democratic state. His tenure was characterized by intense involvement in various endeavors in Israel, expressing a public, honest and open opinion on issues such as the method of elections and government in Israel, social gaps, racism and the attitude toward minorities and weakened groups in society, and labor disputes. In addition, he invested extensive effort in strengthening the ties between Israel and Jews in the diaspora. He maintained direct and methodical contact with citizens – at the Presidential Residence and frequent visits nationwide – and took action to solve thousands of welfare related issues.
President Herzog did a great deal to bridge social disparities. In 1984, considering the results of the elections to the 11th Knesset, he applied his clout on party leaders toward establishing a national unity government. This endeavor by a president is considered first of its kind and was crowned a great success when a government was finally erected, headed by Shimon Peres, who was consensually replaced by Yitzhak Shamir (the “Rotation Arrangement”) after two years.
Herzog continued his extensive political activities as President and was considered an excellent representative for Israel among world leaders and Jews of the diaspora. Inter alia, he conducted the first official visits by an Israeli President to Germany, Canada and USA, and even spoke at a ceremonial meeting of both U.S. Houses of Representatives convened in his honor. After years of political struggles, Herzog witnessed the 1991 revocation of the 1975 UN resolution, comparing Zionism to racism.
In 1992, in a synagogue in Madrid, Herzog and Spain’s King Juan Carlos, signed a symbolic order for cancelling the expulsion of Spanish Jews, in a ceremony marking 500 years to the Jewish Exile. Toward the end of his tenure, official relations were established between Israel and many countries, including China, Russia and post-Soviet states, such as Ukraine. Herzog was the first Israeli head of state to meet with the leaders of these countries.
During his tenure, Herzog pardoned the GSS Director and other senior officials who were involved in the “Kav 300 Affair” in return for their retirement from the organization. This pardon raised a public uproar and was later approved by the Supreme Court. His decision is considered to have protected the General Security Service, enabling it to embark on an internal recovery process within the organization. Another controversial decision was his decision to commute the sentences imposed on members of the “Jewish Underground”, Jews who committed extreme acts against Arabs and were convicted of terrorism. After expressing full remorse and declaring that they would renounce their activities, Chaim Herzog decided to commute their prison sentence.
Chaim Herzog completed his tenure as Israel’s President in May 1993.
He passed away on 17th April, 1997 (10th Nissan 575). He is buried in the Great Leaders of Nation’s plot on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.
He was survived by his wife, Aura, and their children, Joel, Michael, Isaac and Ronit.