Yehuda Avner, a devoted public servant who lived Israel’s history

The ambassador and adviser to prime ministers, who died Tuesday at 86, penned memoir shedding light on key security and diplomacy decisions

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Yehuda Avner (photo credit: Courtesy of Moriah Films)
Yehuda Avner (photo credit: Courtesy of Moriah Films)

It wasn’t until Ambassador Yehuda Avner, who died Tuesday in Jerusalem at age 86, wrote his well-received 2010 memoir, “The Prime Ministers,” that he realized that for most of his life he had been living Israeli history.

An ambassador and close adviser to five prime ministers, he had enjoyed both a front-row seat and a behind-the-scenes view at some of the most key moments in the young state’s developing story.

“Only after I finished my book did I realize that I was living the first 50 years of Israeli history. I never set out to write a history. I set out to write a story to bring these people I worked for and with to life,” Avner told The Times of Israel in October 2013 upon the release of a documentary film based on the first half of his book. (A film on the second half is currently screening at film festivals and is scheduled to open in US theaters this summer.)

“I didn’t have such clarity of mind at the time,” Avner recalled of the times when the events he recounted were actually unfolding. “It was all rather stressful and I was immersed in the job I was there to do.”

Avner was secretary and speechwriter to prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and adviser to prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres. Later he represented Israel as a diplomat in New York and Washington, and eventually as Israeli ambassador to Great Britain and non-resident ambassador to the Republic of Ireland (1983-1988), and ambassador to Australia (1992-1995).

In a message sent out Tuesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called Avner “one of the senior members of Israeli diplomacy…[who] contributed a great deal to the establishment and strengthening of the status of Israeli diplomacy and served the state with loyalty and dedication.”

As the ambassador recounted in “The Prime Ministers,” he was present at and privy to some of the most decisive moments in Israeli military and diplomatic history, several of which come to life in the film version through a combination of Avner’s compelling narrative and rare archival footage unearthed by director Richard Trank.

Avner saved the confidential notes he took at all the high-level meetings he attended over the decades and made them the basis for his memoir. He admitted to The Times of Israel that he had probably broken the law by stashing away all those notes, but figured he’d be let off the hook given the circumstances.

Avner ended up sitting in those private meetings as a result of his having been seconded to the Prime Minister’s Office after joining Israel’s Foreign Service in 1958, following a stint as the national director of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Britain. A Modern Orthodox Jew, Avner (born Haffner) had immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1947 after completing high school in his native Manchester, England. He fought in the siege of Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence, and went on to help found Kibbutz Lavi, a religious kibbutz in Israel’s north before moving temporarily back to the UK.

In announcing Avner’s passing, his son-in-law David Sable referred to him as “Begin’s Shakespeare…an articulate champion of the Jewish people and the State.”

Yehuda Avner (left) at work with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1980. (Courtesy of Moriah Films)
Yehuda Avner (left) at work with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1980. (Courtesy of Moriah Films)

Obviously possessing a way with words, Avner, who retained his unmistakable Manchester accent despite his 68 years in Israel, downplayed his abilities to capture an audience’s attention.

“I’m actually a very soft-spoken guy,” Avner said modestly when he spoke with The Times of Israel about his appearance in the cinematic version of “The Prime Ministers.”

“But I come across in the film as very passionate,” he admitted. He gave all the credit to Trank, saying it was the director’s skillful interviewing technique that prompted animated responses from him, and made him appear quite the storyteller.

The admiration was mutual. “I was given a gift a little more than three years ago when Ambassador Yehuda Avner agreed to work with us for what turned out to be two years on the documentaries we made based on his book, ‘The Prime Ministers.’ He was a loving, generous man—a teacher and a true patriot of Israel,” Trank wrote in an email upon hearing of Avner’s death.

Regardless of Avner’s reservations about his image as an on-screen talking head, there is no doubt that by virtue of his words, he gave voice to some of the greatest leaders of the State of Israel, and by extension to the country as a whole.

‘Only after I finished my book did I realize that I was living the first 50 years of Israeli history’

“He was a true servant of the Jewish people…in his role as advisor to the generation of legendary leaders of Israel he was never political, never took personal gain, never shied from conflict…with his bag always packed.. he went,” wrote his son-in-law.

“The consummate ambassador, he represented Israel during tumultuous times and was respected by friend and foe alike as he brought his skills to the corridors of power and the backrooms of deals.”

Ambassador Yehuda Avner affixes a mezuza to the front door of The Times of Israel offices in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Ambassador Yehuda Avner affixes a mezuza to the front door of The Times of Israel offices in Jerusalem, February 2012. (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

Avner told The Times of Israel (of whose editorial board he was a member) that he was most excited to observe young people entering theaters to see “The Prime Ministers” (he even posted photos of some of them on his Facebook page). Some of these young people even recognized him on the street and came up to him, thanking him for teaching them the history of Israel’s first decades, something they had regarded as ancient history, and basically ignored, before seeing the film.

It was surely the younger generations that Avner had in mind when, at a 2013 event sponsored by the New York Jewish Week, he shared the “Ten Commandments” that he had learned from a long lifetime of public service to Israel and the Jewish people:

  1. When an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him.
  2. Stand tall in the knowledge that every tyrant in history who has ever sought our destruction has himself been destroyed.
  3. Protect Jewish dignity and honor at all cost. Life is holy, but there are times when one must risk life for the sake of life itself.
  4. Never raise a hand against a fellow Jew no matter the provocation.
  5. Give the enemy no quarter in demolishing his malicious propaganda.
  6. Whenever a threat against a fellow Jew looms, do all in your power to come to his aid, whatever the sacrifice.
  7. Never pause to wonder what others will think or say.
  8. Be forever loyal to the historic truth that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and Jerusalem its eternal capital.
  9. Love peace, but love freedom more.
  10. (Which is really Number 1): Build Jewish homes not by the accident of birth, but by the conviction of our eternal Torah.

Ambassador Yehuda Avner, husband of Mimi and father of four, was scheduled to be buried Tuesday afternoon at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery.

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