Ambassador Yehuda Avner’s life story seems to encapsulate the 20th-century Jewish experience.
Avner, who died at his home in Jerusalem on Tuesday at the age of 86, made aliyah alone at 17 from Manchester, England, fought in the War of Independence, helped found Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee, became a diplomat (including consul general of New York and ambassador to Great Britain and Australia), and served five prime ministers as senior adviser, speech writer and confidante. He was particularly close with Yitzchak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
Long after his retirement he compiled many of the careful notes he took at private meetings between Israeli leaders and heads of state, including several U.S. presidents, and turned them into the core of his 2010 best-selling memoir, “The Prime Ministers,” which later was made into a two-part film documentary.
“I was a naughty boy because I never threw away my scribbles,” he once told me. Finding those notes in a drawer in his Jerusalem apartment led to three years of work in writing the book, a 700-page tome that never lags as it describes poignant moments in Jewish history as well as the lighter, personal side of world leaders.
Avner, a charming, thoughtful and kind man, marveled at his second career, launched in his early 80s, which included authoring a recently completed novel.
“Young people come up to me as if I was some kind of rebbe,” he confided during one of his popular book tours to the U.S. And indeed he was both sage and mentor, often holding court at a coffee shop in the Rechavia neighborhood apartment complex where he lived. That’s how I met him in 2004 after reading a number of vignettes on Israeli and world leaders he published in the Jerusalem Post. He always had time to shmooze, take interest in my work and offer advice about whatever crisis was consuming Israel at the time.
One timely theme of Avner’s, which runs through “The Prime Ministers,” is that crises in U.S.-Israel relations have occurred since the days of David Ben-Gurion. He quoted often the eternal wisdom of King Solomon’s words: “This, too, shall come to pass.”
“There are still existential issues that accompany every prime minister,” he told me in 2010, when Prime Minister Netanyahu was under pressure from President Obama to extend Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlement construction. (Netanyahu declined.) “There were times [over the years] when it was touch-and- go,” he recalled, noting that “many of the problems that the founders of the state confronted still remain, like borders and security.”
As the Iran negotiations dominate the news today, it’s fitting to quote the first of what Avner called his own 10 Commandments for the Jewish people:
“When an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him.”
His son-in-law, David Sable, a prominent New York businessman and member of The Jewish Week board of directors, called Avner “Begin’s Shakespeare,” an articulate champion of the Jewish people, and noted that his father-in-law dedicated his life to the State of Israel.
“He was a true servant of the Jewish people,” Sable wrote in a statement Tuesday. “In his role as adviser 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; listened, advised and wrote, giving voice to the prime ministers he served and voice to our cause and our people.”
Describing Avner as “the consummate ambassador,” Sable wrote that his father-in-law was “respected by friend and foe alike,” and that “his gift is his words, which will live on and continue to inspire generations around the world.”
May his memory be a blessing.