Coexistence Between ‘Ishmael And Israel’


For sale: A rabbinic voice from the past calling for peace in the Middle East.

This week, Kestenbaum & Company is auctioning a 1954 handwritten letter from Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, then Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, to Professor Abraham Isaac Katsh, written to congratulate the scholar on the publication of his “excellent” book, “Judaism in Islam.” Rabbi Herzog expresses the hope that the close connection between Judaism and Islam “may help to promote the cause, the sacred cause of peace between Ishmael and Israel!”

“This is an important letter calling for the natural bonds of religion to be the source for solving the strife between Israel and its Arab neighbors,” Abigail H. Meyer, head of the Ceremonial Objects and Fine Art department at Kestenbaum, told The Jewish Week. The auction house’s press materials emphasize this “surprisingly positive position” in “today’s era of extreme sectarianism in the Middle East.”

The estimated price is $4000 to $6000.

The handwriting is a quick script, the kind that few practice or learn these days, with lines sloping downward. Rabbi Herzog signs off, “V. Sincerely Yours.” The two-sided letter, dated August 2, 1954, on his official letterhead, is in English; the only Hebrew is the date at the top.

Potential buyers have been able to view the letter — enclosed in a clear plastic sleeve — all week at Kestenbaum’s Manhattan offices. As of this writing, three different parties have reserved phone lines to bid on the item at the Thursday auction.

Rabbi Herzog was chief rabbi of Ireland before being named to succeed Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and then Israel. He began his tenure in pre-state Israel in 1937, at the height of the Arab Revolt, and was outspoken in his condemnation of the Irgun’s counter-terrorism. He believed Jewish statehood should offer equal rights to Christians and Muslims. Born in Lomza, Poland, he was educated mostly by his father, Rabbi Joel Leib Herzog, and went on to the Sorbonne and then the University of London, earning a doctorate of philosophy along with degrees in law, classics, the humanities, sociology, literature and Oriental languages. He served as chief rabbi until his death in 1959.

His addressee was the son of the chief rabbi of Petach Tikvah and served as head of the Lomza Yeshiva, a school in the tradition of the yeshiva in the town where Herzog was born. Katsh taught the first course at an American university in modern Hebrew, at New York University, and directed NYU’s Hebrew culture and education department before becoming president of Dropsie College in Philadelphia.

The letter is unrecorded, which means that it has neither been published nor discussed in secondary literature. This is the first time the letter has been up for sale — it comes from the Katsh estate.

Rabbi Herzog left a legacy of leadership: One of his sons became president of Israel, another son, who served as an ambassador, died young. His grandson, a member of Knesset, now leads the Labor Party.