Fate and choice
(Editor’s note: The CJN columnist Shira Herzog passed away Aug. 24. The following is excerpted from an essay originally featured in 2008 in Living Legacies – A Collection of Inspirational Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women published by PK Press.)
Fate and choice have forged my Israeli and Canadian dual identity. Fate first brought me to Canada as a child in 1960, when my late father, Yaacov Herzog, served as Israel’s ambassador to Canada. Choice brought me back 15 years later, as a young adult. Both Canada and Israel are home, in the sense that “home is where the heart is.” I move back and forth seamlessly between the two countries and societies in what are, for me, three interlocking circles — Israel, Canada and North America’s Jewish communities.
My roots are deeply embedded in Israel’s soil. I was fortunate to be born into a family that made its mark on the state, and I grew up steeped in a profound sense of Jewish history and the miracle of Israel’s modern rebirth. My grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog, came to Palestine in 1937 as chief rabbi of the Jewish community under the British Mandate and when the State of Israel was declared in 1948, was appointed its first chief rabbi. My uncle, Chaim Herzog, founded Israel’s military intelligence corps and later served as its ambassador to the UN and sixth president.
My father, Yaacov Herzog, worked with four prime ministers as a close adviser, launched Israel’s first secret talks with Jordan’s King Hussein and distinguished himself as ambassador to Canada. In 1961, he debated noted British historian Arnold Toynbee at McGill University, in what has become a seminal defence of the Jewish people’s right to a sovereign national home. My mother, Pnina Herzog, represented Israel for years at the World Health Organization.
I’ve taken different things from Israel and Canada. For example, as a Jewish Israeli, my sense of identity was never in doubt. At first, I was perplexed by Canadians’ pervasive preoccupation with – and insecurity about – national identity. With time, I realized that this was the flip side of one of Canada’s greatest strengths – its diversity. Being as open as we are to different origins, religions and cultures, there is a less-defined national identity. But this apparent weakness is offset by so much that is positive. In Canada, I’ve learned to appreciate the value of accepting “the other”; of finding ways to accommodate differences; and of protecting the physical and ideological space granted to every individual to pursue his or her potential – regardless of ethnic affiliation.
Canada also exposed me to the strengths of Jewish community life. In travels right across the country to small and large communities, I’ve been inspired by their dedication to protecting and enriching the well-being and Jewish experience of young and old alike – especially those in need of a helping hand.
Canadian Jews are blessed with a well-organized, uniquely generous community that’s vocal and articulate in defence of its domestic interests and Israel. Still, it’s important to ensure that this doesn’t come at the expense of open debate within the community about all issues on the domestic and Israeli agenda. Even if open internal debate occasionally emboldens marginal voices outside the community, whose views on Israel and Jews are offensive, I believe that protection of a vibrant Jewish “public square” is critical to our future. We take pride in Israel’s democracy; we can’t deny ourselves the same opportunities for dissent.
I’ve never shied away from questions and critical views regarding Israel’s policies. Indeed, I’ve publicly taken issue with such policies myself. But I have zero tolerance for delegitimization of Israel’s very existence and defamation of Jews as such. It’s important to make this distinction, even though it’s sometimes blurred by friends and foes alike.
I’ve been guided by our sages’ saying, “Come, and let us reason together.” Experience has shown me that for the most part, when we engage our fellow Canadians in respectful, open conversation on issues that are close to the hearts of Canadian Jews, they respond. We may agree to disagree, but in the process of dialogue, both sides gain.
While remaining true to our Jewish values, heritage and history, we can’t assume that just using political and financial influence to communicate their importance will ensure a positive future within the broader community. Canada will become ever-more diverse, and the Jewish community’s too small to assume support for defence of its own concerns. Robust engagement in the texture of Canadian life and sincere outreach to other communities is not only a civic responsibility; it protects our ability to speak out about the very issues we care most about.
As for the connective tissue that binds Diaspora communities to Israel – it, too, can’t be taken for granted. The worn phrase, “we are one,” hasn’t really stood the test of time. Six decades after the establishment of the state, the majority of Israelis and Jews abroad can’t assume mutual understanding or common ground. They speak different languages, literally and figuratively. Jews are shaped by the political and social environments of the countries in which they reside; Israelis by theirs. The common threads of experience that bound early, post-World War II generations have dissipated with time. A focus on historic persecution and today’s external threats can’t substitute for a shared vision of the future. This is the challenge for Israel and overseas Jewish communities in the 21st century.
And so, fate and choice have enabled me to move back and forth among all of these agendas; to appreciate their nuances with an insider’s intimacy; and to enjoy the outsider’s perspective and distance. Israel’s veteran poet, Chaim Guri, wrote wryly, “What’s seen from here looks different when seen from there.” If, as I am, one is fortunate enough to be able to be both here and there, perhaps this can help to build bridges. Inspired by a family heritage of learning, diplomacy and respectful, informed dialogue, I’ve tried to do this in a modest way.