A Tribute to Shira Herzog

Aug 26, 2014 | Judaism

Yesterday evening I left my island retreat in Northern Ontario and took the bus back to Toronto to attend a funeral this morning. Shira Herzog died this past weekend. This is the tribute Nancy and I sent to Benjamin’s on the web site devoted to Shira.

Shira Herzog2

Besides being a friend for over thirty years and reading the blessings in Hebrew at our wedding, Shira worked together with us as co-host of the television program Israel Today for twelve years. She was the consummate professional – always well prepared, concise, and incisive in her questioning yet personable with her guests. As everyone remarks about everything she undertook, she was extremely articulate, intelligent and analytic while always remaining perfectly poised. She was an incomparable star in both the Jewish and public universe.

This is the bio Hesh Troper wrote on Shira for the Jewish Virtual Library:


HERZOG, SHIRA (1957– ), journalist, Middle East analyst, administrator. Shira Herzog was born into a prominent Jerusalem family. Her father, Dublin-born Ya’acov Herzog, was a rabbi and leading Israeli diplomat. Her uncle, Chaim *Herzog, served as chief of Israel’s military intelligence and later president of Israel.

After she completed her military service, Shira Herzog went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and graduated with a B.A. in history and English literature in 1974. Daughter of a diplomat, as a young child she had lived in Ottawa while her father was for three years Israel’s ambassador to Canada, and in 1974 she returned to Canada, where she completed an M.A. in English at York University in Toronto. Deeply committed to a democratic and progressive Israel, in 1976 she joined the Canada Israel Committee, first as director of special projects, then as director of research, and finally as national executive director. In 1988 she became vice president of the Calgary-based Kahanoff Foundation, one of Canada’s largest private foundations. The Kahanoff Foundation, which also maintains offices in Toronto and Tel Aviv, initiates and funds innovative community programs in western Canada and Israel.

Highly regarded for her insightful analysis of Middle East affairs, from 1994 to 2003 Herzog was a regular contributor to the Canadian Jewish News and from 2002 wrote a column on the Middle East and Jewish affairs for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most influential newspaper. She also co-hosted Israel Today, a Canadian-produced television program devoted to Israel and Jewish issues.

Based in Toronto, Herzog served on the boards of the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada, the American-based Council of Foundations, the Institute for Research on Public Policy headquartered in Montreal, and the Tel Aviv-based Israel Democracy Institute, which seeks to promote the development of democratic values and political institutions in Israel.

Laurie Monsebraaten, a former neighbour, had a message on my answering service asking me to contact her when I arrived home for Shria’s funeral last night. She wanted my comments on Shira for a tribute she was writing for The Toronto Star, but by the time I phoned, the column had already gone to press. Here is what Laurie wrote:

Shira Herzog believed you could be a passionate Zionist and also critical of Israeli government policies.

Her family background — her diplomat father was an Israeli ambassador to Canada and her uncle, Chaim Herzog, was a former Israeli president — made Jews in Canada and Israel take notice.

“She was a pioneer in many ways. When she spoke out, she gave others legitimacy to speak out as well,” Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said Monday.

“She took a lot of heat,” he noted. “But at the same time, there was nobody who could fault her, because everybody knew she was this strong Zionist with incredible credentials.”

Herzog died Aug. 24 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. She was 61. [sic!]

Herzog first came to Canada as a child when her father Yaacov Herzog was ambassador in Ottawa. She returned as a young woman and became a leader in Canada-Israel relations.

She was executive director of the Canada Israel Committee for 10 years in Toronto and then joined the Kahanoff Foundation, a private Calgary-based charity where she was vice-president and president. She also served as chair of Philanthropic Foundations Canada and well as various community boards, including United Way Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital. At the same time she was a regular commentator for the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Jewish News and Vision TV’s Israel Today.

Herzog’s family background and intimate knowledge of Israeli politics made her the go-to resource on Israel for Canadian Jews, said close friend Arlene Perly-Rae.

“Her total depth of understanding of the country helped us all understand it better,” Perly-Rae said. “She was a one-of-a-kind, wonderful, brilliant women and mother . . . She was sick for such a long time, but it still seems very sudden. We are all going to miss her so very much.”

Herzog supported a wide variety of philanthropic projects in Canada and Israel, especially in the fine arts area, said David Koschitzky, national chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a successor organization of the Canada Israel Committee and the Canadian Jewish Congress.

“Her major theme was fostering rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said. “One of her strengths was that she was able to balance her progressive views with calls to recognize the existential challenges confronting the Jewish state.”

tribute dinner for Herzog, in aid of the New Israel Fund of Canada in Israel was being planned for Sept. 10.

“Now, unfortunately, it will be a memorial,” said longtime friend Karen Goldenberg, co-chair of the tribute. “We are just heartbroken.”

In notes Herzog prepared for the event, she praised the “civil society activists” in Canada and Israel “who spin the wheels of the quality of life in our communities.”

“What experience would our immigrants have without the help and commitment of veteran volunteers? How would low-income women support their families without fighting together for after-school care? How would Israeli democracy be sustained and reinforced without those who spontaneously go out and speak against the dark undercurrents that erupt in times of crisis?” she wrote.

Herzog leaves her son Kobi David Bessin, daughter-in-law Shelby Greenberg and grandchildren Olivia Davida and Ethan Brady Bessin in Toronto as well as a brother and sister living in Israel.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel.

But the best way to understand Shira was to watch her in action in the many speeches she delivered, in the interviews she conducted on Israel Today, in her columns published in The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Jewish News, some of which you can still find on line. But it was in her interpersonal encounters that her voice and laughter come across most clearly. Though the laughter is not there, one can get a sense of her sense of fairness and balance, her immense knowledge and diplomatic skills from reading some of her inter-actions with readers. An online interview she gave on 24 September 2008 in response to an essay she wrote in the The Globe and Mail and which can be located in their archives and on her own web site gets some of the flavour of her skills. Let me quote freely from her responses:

On Israeli Democracy:

Bear in mind, as well, that the strength of Israel’s democracy is its independent judiciary and public pressure that ultimately, does not forgive.

When she wrote about Tzipi Livni, she could have been writing about herself:

Ms. Livni’s popularity stems from her “clean” image, the fact that she has spoken out against corruption and the seamy aspects of political deal-making, and also from her style — low-key, thoughtful, and not rhetorical.

And how timeless her remarks were on Hamas.

Many Israelis believe hat there cannot be negotiations with Hamas as long as it does not recognize Israel. There are others, however, who believe that Hamas is there to stay and that even short of negotiations and a formal agreement, which may well be impossible, on-the-ground arrangements, like the cease-fire, are important because they reduce violence against Israelis. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer for this. Hamas cannot be eliminated militarily, and its battle is as much with rival Palestinian factions as with Israel.

And on empowering the Palestinian Authority:

Any actions that empower Palestinians, offer economic progress and at the same time, do not impinge on Israel’s security — are very positive. There is always the risk of terrorist infiltration in any event, but severe restrictions on living conditions and mobility for the Palestinians also create fertile ground for anger and violence.

In contrast with those liberal and progressive voices who have now despaired about a two-state solution, and even though Shira was well aware of the setbacks that policy has faced, nevertheless her hope and confidence were based on solid analysis.

Among both Israelis and Palestinians, support for two states has been consistently high at least since the formal peace process was launched in the mid-1990′s. However, neither side has much confidence in the implementation of this — for a variety of reasons. Importantly, spoilers — those committed to violence on the Palestinian side and those committed rigidly and ideologically to the territories on the Israeli side — have made it difficult to move forward. Throughout the so-called peace process, Palestinians engaged in terrorism and Israel expanded settlements. There is new urgency today: Palestinians see their dream of a state retreating without progress, and Israel fears losing its Jewish majority if it does not relinquish control of the territories occupied in 1967. For this reason, talks have resumed. But I’d be cautious about predicting success this time — although they really are close on terms.

In response to sympathizers with Israel’s enemies and believers that Israel is bent on conquest and colonizing Arabs, she was always straightforward and blunt as well as polite and informative: With minor changes, Shira would offer similar views on Gaza today.

It’s a matter of record that since Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, backed by the UN and international agreement, Hezbollah re-armed itself extensively in violation of the understandings reached. Given sporadic attacks on the north and incidents involving the abduction of soldiers in the past, many in the Israeli security establishment believed that it was only a matter of time before another armed confrontation with Hezbollah would take place. When the two reservists were captured on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border, Mr. Olmert felt that a firm response was necessary. He was backed in this by a large majority of his cabinet and the population. However, there was considerable debate about continuing the war within the cabinet itself. This raises questions about the assumption that a lengthy war was premeditated.

To get the full flavour of the quality of her rebuttals to provocative negative assertions about Israel and its allegedly warlike behaviour rather than commitment to peace, below I reprint both the question posed to Shira and her answer.

Wondering Reader from Toronto Canada writes:

You assert that Israel’s leaders are judged by their ability to wage war and make peace. Would agree then that most Israeli leaders must be judged very badly since they have not won a war since 1967 and they have only managed to fully implement one peace deal (Jordan)? And I remind readers the Egyptian peace deal is not fully implemented as it called for Palestinian autonomy within 5 years of its signing.

Shira Herzog:

Dear Wondering Reader: Given Israel’s security challenges, its leaders have to demonstrate leadership in both war and peace. The Middle East would be a better place if fewer wars were fought, but the imperative of self-defense makes war necessary at times. For example, when in 1973, Israel was attacked by the Egyptian and Syrian armies simultaneously, it fought back successfully. Egypt-Israel peace has held for nearly 20 years — a tribute to leaders of both countries. The provisions, in that treaty, dealing with Palestinian autonomy were superseded by the establishment of the Palestinian Authority following the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. Middle East security challenges are different today. As the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown as well, dealing with non-state armies, like terrorist factions or insurgent groups, is far more difficult. Israel, too, has experienced this in its battle against Hezbollah and the challenge of dealing with Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorism.

Shira wrote with a voice 35,000 feet above the ground while her feet always remained rooted in fact and truth. She was a one person refutation that Israel or the Jewish diaspora organizations stifled voices of dissent as she continued her critiques of Israeli politics while strongly defending Israel as a democratic AND Jewish as well as Palestinian state.

When tributes offer the standard homily that “She will be sorely missed,” there are very few for whom this could be truer than Shira Herzog.

Stay in the know!

Get all the latest information from our Newsletter CIJA: Week in Review

Stay In The Know

Sign up for email updates and never miss out on Canadian. Jewish. Advocacy.