OBITUARY: Shira Herzog was Mideast analyst and advocate

Shira Herzog

Shira Herzog, who straddled the worlds of professional philanthropy and political analysis, died Aug. 24 in Toronto after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. She was 61.

Virtually a household name in Canadian Jewish circles, especially to those who read her columns on Middle East analysis in The CJN and the Globe and Mail, Herzog offered erudite, mostly progressive views that challenged prevailing sentiment.

She believed the policies of the current Likud government were open to public scrutiny, and rejected the notion that Diaspora Jews must march in lockstep opinion with Israel. She called it “loving criticism.”

“Hypersolidarity [with Israel] can close down a conversation, because it can become a no-win, futile ideological debate,” she wrote in The CJN earlier this year.

Feisty, passionate and deeply committed to a democratic and progressive Israel, she questioned the view that the Jewish state could be an occupying force while maintaining its democratic values. “It’s a Zionist voice that respects the minorities, that wants all citizens to be treated equally, that does not want to be the occupier,” she wrote in a Globe column last year. “It does not want an Israel at the expense of democratic values.”

A former director of research and later executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC), which has been folded into the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Herzog was a regular contributor to The CJN from 1994 to 2003 and again beginning this year. Since 2002, she has written some 140 columns on the Middle East and Jewish affairs for the Globe.

“I was taken by how enthusiastic, engaged and hard-working she was,” said the Globe’s comments editor, Natasha Hassan. “She really was a fine writer. I thought she was always very measured in her analysis. She helped translate for our readers some of the confounding dynamics of the Middle East.

“She wasn’t the kind of writer who was dogmatic,” Hassan said. “She built her arguments very well, and even if you disagreed, she helped me understand better.” And given that Herzog lived part-time in Israel, “her insights had great authenticity and authority.”

For a brief period, she hosted a television news magazine show, Israel Today, on Vision TV. Guests quickly became familiar with a laser-like gaze that alternated with a luminous smile.

At the CIC, Herzog led Canada’s premier Israel lobby group, presenting persuasive arguments to members of Parliament, the media and others in influence. Hers was a “unique approach,” noted her death notice, “characterized by her unusual situation as a well-connected Israeli and firmly positioned Canadian.”

In 1987, she moved to philanthropy as vice-president of the Calgary-based Kahanoff Foundation, one of Canada’s largest private foundations, later becoming its president and CEO. Established in 1979 by Sydney Kahanoff, a Calgary oil and gas executive and philanthropist, the private charitable foundation initiated and funded a wide variety of community programs in western Canada and Israel, where projects fostering rapprochement between Jews and Palestinians were stressed. It maintained offices in Calgary, Toronto and Tel Aviv but wound up operations last year.

Dividing her time between Canada and Israel, Herzog was chair of Philanthropic Foundations of Canada; and served with the American-based Council on Foundations; the Institute for Research on Public Policy, headquartered in Montreal; and the Tel Aviv-based Israel Democracy Institute, which promotes democratic values and political institutions in the country.

She was active with the United Way of Greater Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital. She had been a senior fellow at Massey College and was a strong supporter of the New Israel Fund of Canada.

“Her writings about the Middle East displayed both her depth of knowledge and her political sophistication – no easy moral simplicities for her,” eulogized her friend Chaviva Hosek, a former Ontario cabinet minister, at Herzog’s packed funeral Aug. 26.

“The more time we spent together the closer we became,” said Hosek. “She was so gloriously smart… I always came away with more thought, more nuance in my understanding of what we had discussed. She was incredibly politically astute, so we could talk about politics almost in shorthand.”

Toronto community leader Rose Wolfe, who attended Herzog’s Jerusalem wedding with her late husband Ray Wolfe, was a close friend. “It was a strange friendship because she was much younger, and yet we always stayed in touch,” Wolfe said.

“I really, really loved that girl. I admired her so much. She had this illness for six years, and she was always very upbeat. Never, ever showed a sign of weakness. She was organized to the last minute, clear as a bell.”

Herzog had pedigree. Her Dublin-born father, Yaacov Herzog, was the son of Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. The younger Herzog was also an ordained rabbi and earned a doctorate in international law from McGill University. He became an adviser to the nascent state of Israel’s foreign affairs ministry and went on to advise four Israeli prime ministers.

Her mother, Pnina, represented Israel at the World Health Organization.

From 1957 to 1960, Yaacov Herzog was a minister at the Israeli embassy in Washington D. C. and from 1960 to 1963, served as Israeli’s ambassador to Canada.

While envoy to Canada, he engaged in a famous public debate at McGill with the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who called Jews a “fossil” and compared Israel’s actions in the 1948 War of Independence to those of the Nazis. 

“By the end of the engagement, it was clear the young ambassador had bested the elder historian,” stated a retrospective look at the debate in the online journal Tablet. “The leading Canadian dailies commended Herzog’s performance, and congratulatory telegrams poured in to the Israeli embassy in Ottawa.”

Herzog was said to have helped improve Israel’s relations with the Vatican after the Six-Day War and held secret talks with King Hussein of Jordan.

His brother, Chaim – Shira Herzog’s uncle – served as chief of Israel’s military intelligence and was president of Israel from 1983 to 1993. Meanwhile, Chaim’s son, Yitzhak (Isaac) Herzog – Shira’s cousin – is head of Israel’s Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition.

Herzog was born in Israel in 1953 and spent three of her childhood years in Canada. After completing her military service back home, she graduated with a BA in history and English from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Returning to Canada in 1974, she completed a master’s degree in English at York University.

In a statement to The CJN, Rafael Barak, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, said: “I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my dear friend and great Zionist, Shira Herzog. Moving to Ottawa at an early age when her father, Yaacov, was appointed ambassador to Canada, Shira embodied the bond of friendship that connects Israelis and Canadians. She always remained a proud Israeli and she inherited her father’s eloquence as a strong defender of the Jewish state. On behalf of the State of Israel, I offer my sincere condolences to her family.”

The New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), which had planned to honour Herzog in a tribute dinner Sept. 10, praised her as “a wise and passionate voice and a great friend of the State of Israel. Her passing is a profound loss for all of her family and friends, for the Canadian Jewish community, and for all lovers of progressive Israel.”

The dinner will now be a memorial, “an opportunity for Shira’s friends and admirers to celebrate her life and to really recognize the impact Shira had and likely will have on progressive Canadian supports of Israel,” said NIFC executive director Orit Sarfaty.

Yitzhak Herzog will be the keynote speaker.

Shimon Fogel, CEO of CIJA, said Herzog was “was greatly respected within the pro-Israel community and contributed substantially to the CIC’s success in generating support for Israel here in Canada.”

He said Herzog’s pieces for the Globe balanced “progressive views with calls to recognize the existential challenges confronting the Jewish state.”

In one Globe column last year, Herzog noted the wildly divergent opinions on the Middle East in Israel itself, “and as Canadian Jews we want to join that debate. It’s out of commitment to Israel that some Canadians want to support those fighting for human rights.”

Progressive Jewish voices are being heard – “a measure of the maturing of the community.”

Herzog is survived by a son, Kobi David Bessin, daughter-in-law Shelby Greenberg, grandchildren Olivia and Ethan Bessin in Toronto, and a brother and sister living in Israel.