In Memoriam: Yehuda Avner: Our Shakespeare

, March 2, 2016

As we commemorate a year since Yehuda Avner passed away at the age of 86, we honor a noble Israeli who devoted his entire life to serving the Jewish state and the Jewish people. He was my dearest friend with whom I was in almost daily contact over the past decade.

Yehuda Avner served as adviser to five Israeli Prime Ministers and became senior adviser and speechwriter for Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Begin paid tribute to his superior translations and speeches by dubbing him “our Shakespeare.”

Avner served in senior roles in the Foreign Ministry, including the Israel Embassy in Washington, and was subsequently appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Australia. His record as a diplomat and statesman epitomizes the outstanding quality of the Israeli diplomats of that era, the majority of whom were regarded among the most talented envoys in the world.

Avner distinguished himself because he was determined not to engage in partisan politics. He thus established a reputation as a model civil servant. Reading through his memoirs, one admires his modesty and resolve not to permit his ego or personal interests to override his civic responsibilities. Traditionally, as soon as a new government is elected, the first to pack their bags are personal advisers. Yet as soon as they assumed the reins of government, disparate leaders of opposing political outlooks such as Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin requested that Avner remain in his advisory role, despite his association with their defeated political foes. They trusted him to the extent that they treated him as confidant, willing to share their most intimate thoughts with him. Indeed, shortly before his assassination, Rabin fondly recalled his admiration for Avner throughout their long association and told me that he had invited him to resume a role as one of his advisers. Alas, this was not to be.

As a top political aide to successive prime ministers, Yehuda was an observer and participant in discussions and negotiations with presidents and prime ministers. He witnessed the most momentous decision-making events in Israel’s history, including the Entebbe Operation in 1976 and the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in 1979.

Born Yehuda Haffner in Manchester, England in 1928, he became a leader of the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1947 and subsequently fought in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. He was one of the founders of Kibbutz Lavi which he left to join the Foreign Ministry in 1958.

My first encounter with Avner occurred about fifty years ago, when I corresponded with him from Melbourne, Australia, seeking his advice as one of the trailblazers of religious Zionism in the UK. During my subsequent frequent visits to Israel on behalf of the Jewish community, we continued to meet each other, as he was usually present when I met prime ministers and leading government officials. Our personal friendship grew closer when he served as Ambassador to Australia when I was head of the Jewish community. I have fond memories of how Yehuda and his wife Mimi would often fly from Canberra, the rustic Australian capital, to spend Shabbat at our home in the more thriving Jewish community of cosmopolitan Melbourne.

Our relationship blossomed further when I made aliyah.

I was enormously impressed with the meticulous manner in which Yehuda retained memos and summaries of meetings and documents relating to his experiences and encouraged him to recount some of his experiences for the Jerusalem Post. Encouraged by the outstanding responses to his columns, he decided to publish his memoirs under the title, The Prime Ministers. Based on copious notes and records from the countless meetings that he attended and the firsthand impressions of events, the book provides penetrating insight into the thinking of the inner circles of the leaders of the day as they grappled with burning issues. The veracity of the conversations and the prevailing atmosphere conveyed have been confirmed by Israeli and foreign diplomats who participated in these events and decisions.

The Prime Ministers became a bestseller and invaluable resource for the background to the momentous events of his era. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “a fascinating account of someone who was an eyewitness to many historic moments in the history of the Jewish state… Providing insight into the actions of our nation’s leaders and offering important lessons for the future.” In 2014, the film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center produced a two-part documentary based on his book in which he is the principal narrator. It provides a remarkable overview of the trials and tribulations facing Israeli leaders of the time and illustrates the extent that Yehuda Avner, the loyal apolitical civil servant and adviser, assumed an important role.

While he dedicated his life to his country, “Gubby”, as he was known to his friends, was also a wonderful person. He was a renaissance man who loved books, art and music. Steeped in love for his people, he also derived enormous pride and satisfaction from his loving family, his devoted wife Mimi, his son and three daughters and their spouses, grand-children and great grand-children all of whom maintained his tradition of loving Torah, the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

With his connections, Avner could have retired early. However, he continued to serve his country and thereby ensured that his contribution and legacy would be remembered in the annals of the Jewish people. May his memory serve as a model for all of us and for future generations.

About Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler now resident in Jerusalem is a veteran Jewish leader, He was a former head of the Australian Jewish community, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress Governing Board and global leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. He is a widely read political commentator and his columns appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.