Isaac Herzog, elected Israel’s 11th president on June 2, has deep ties to Canada.
Scion of a prominent family—his father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s president from 1983 to 1993—Isaac Herzog was elected with the support of 87 of the 120 members of Knesset.
Currently chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, he begins his tenure on July 9, replacing Reuven Rivlin, who has served in the post since 2014.
“I intend to be the president of everyone,” Herzog said after the votes were tallied. “We must defend Israel’s international status and its good reputation in the family of nations, fight anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, and preserve the pillars of our democracy.”
Herzog’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine and the State of Israel from 1936 until his death in 1959.
When he visited Canada in December 1954, Jews declared “Rabbi Herzog Day” throughout the country to honour the first visit of a chief rabbi from Israel.
Rabbi Herzog’s son, Irish-born Chaim, was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and went on to be the sixth President of Israel.
In June 1989, Herzog became the first Israeli president to visit Canada. He came for a six-day visit, and addressed a joint session of the House of Commons and Senate, in addition to meeting community and business leaders.
Most notably, Chaim Herzog’s brother, Yaakov Herzog, earned a doctorate in international law from McGill University in Montreal and served as Israel’s ambassador to Canada from 1960 to 1963.
As ambassador, Herzog, then just 39, made headlines in January 1961, when he engaged in a famous public debate with the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who had called the Jewish people a “fossil” and compared Israel’s actions in the 1948 War of Independence to those of the Nazis during the Second World War.
Held at McGill’s Hillel House, the debate was carried on radio in Canada. How did the two fare? As the Canadian Jewish Chronicle reported: “The young diplomat analyzed the several statements of the historian one by one, demolished some, got the professor to admit that in others, Jewish procedure was in accordance with the universal pattern, and on others the issue rested.” Toynbee apparently even conceded that a people – even the Jewish people – could become “defossilized.”
Further connections to Canada: Isaac’s Herzog’s cousin, Shira Herzog, who died in 2014 at the age of 61, was head of the Canada-Israel Committee, and was a prolific columnist who was seen as a moderate voice on Israel.
Herzog’s other uncle was Abba Eban, a legendary figure in Israel who served as Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister, Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and ambassador to the United States and the United Nations.
As the newspaper Haaretz put it, Herzog is as close to “royalty” as Israel’s political system could produce.
The CJN interviewed Herzog in 2019 when he visited Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver in his capacity as head of the Jewish Agency.
“I continue carrying the torch from generation to generation,” he said. “In this generation, I think the unity of the Jewish people, and making sure the Jewish identity will continue to the next generation, is a huge challenge for the people of Israel and for the Jewish people, and I’m proud to be leading this challenge.”
Born in Tel Aviv 60 years ago, he was a Member of Knesset from 2003 to 2018, serving as Minister of Welfare and Social Services, Minister of Construction and Housing, Minister of Tourism, and Minister of the Diaspora.
A lawyer by training, Herzog, nicknamed “Bougie,” was elected leader of the Labor party, and Opposition Leader, in 2013, a post he held until 2018.
Since heading the Jewish Agency, about 80,000 new immigrants have immigrated to Israel, including during the year of COVID.
Herzog “is unusual in the macho, often cut-throat world of Israeli politics in that he is perceived as being more softly spoken, respectful, and even bland than many of his contemporaries,” noted The Guardian on his appointment. “Some observers have blamed this trait for his failure to achieve his first ambition of becoming prime minister.”