When Yehuda Avner passed away Tuesday, aged 86, Israel lost a noble citizen whose entire life was devoted 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 few years.
Yehuda served as advisor to five Israeli Prime Ministers and became senior advisor and speechwriter for Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Begin paid tribute to his superior translations and speeches by dubbing him “our Shakespeare”.
He served in senior roles in the Foreign Ministry including the Israeli 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 Israeli diplomats of that era, the majority of whom were regarded among the most talented envoys in the world.
What distinguished Avner was his absolute determination not to engage in partisan politics. He thus established a reputation as a role model for the consummate 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 with opposing political outlooks like Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin invited Avner to retain his advisory role despite his association with their defeated political foes, and trusted him to the extent that they treated him as confidante, 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 relating to the most momentous decision-making events in Israel’s history including Operation Entebbe and the signing of the Israel Egypt Peace Treaty.
Yehuda was born in Manchester, U.K. in 1928. He became a leader of the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva and made aliyah 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 half a century ago, when I corresponded with him from Melbourne, Australia, to seek 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, our relationship grew, as he was usually present when I met Prime Ministers and leading government officials. Our relationship grew when he served as ambassador to Australia when I was head of the Jewish community and I have fond reminiscences of how he and his wife Mimi would often fly from Canberra, the rustic capital, and 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 write for the Jerusalem Post recounting some of his experiences. Spurred by the tremendous impact from his columns, he decided to publish his memoirs under the title “The Prime Ministers”.
Based on copious notes and records from the countless meetings Avner attended, observing firsthand the momentous events of that period, the book provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of the inner circles of the leaders of the day as they grappled with the burning issues confronting them. The authenticity of the conversations and the prevailing atmosphere conveyed were endorsed by leading Israeli and foreign diplomats who had been participants.
It has become a bestseller and invaluable resource for anyone wishing to understand the background to the momentous events of that era. It was described by Prime Minister Netanyahu 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.
Whilst he dedicated his life for his country, “Gubby”, as he was known to his friends was also a wonderful human being. He was a renaissance man who loved books, art and music. Steeped in love for his people, he also derived enormous pride and satisfaction in his loving family, his devoted wife Mimi, his son and three daughters and their spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all of whom maintained his tradition of loving Torah, the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
May his memory serve as a role model for all of us and future generations to emulate.
Isi Leibler may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post