Situated in what he has repeatedly called a “merciless, unforgiving neighborhood,” Israel must maintain a strong posture, according to Yehuda Avner, former ambassador, author, and adviser to five Israeli prime ministers.
Speaking on Oct. 15 at Chabad of the Shore in Long Branch, Avner urged a standing-room-only gathering of almost 150 to never forget Israel’s ability to overcome adversity, dating back to the story of Abraham and continuing until today, as Iran pursues a uranium enrichment strategy.
The author of The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership appeared at a program sponsored by Chabad with support from Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.
Avner related his own history, beginning with his birth in Manchester, England, and his immigration to Israel in 1948, when he was just 17. One of his early assignments was to dig trenches for defense in Jerusalem. On the eve of a battle in which three of his comrades would die, Avner recalled sharing a bottle of wine with the group — but not before reciting Kiddush.
“A young Lubavitcher had secured the wine and led the prayer,” said Avner. “He was the first Lubavitcher I had ever met, and he was extraordinarily brave, having ventured into unprotected territory to learn that on that day, May 14, David Ben-Gurion had declared independence for the Jewish state.
“We didn’t even know the name of our new country, but we fought for it — and some died.”
Among the 6,000 who would die in the War of Independence was Avner’s sister-in-law, just 22 years old. In subsequent actions, his son was wounded as a soldier, and his daughter received severe burns in a terrorist bombing, he said.
He now has grandchildren serving in the IDF, and Avner, at 84, confessed to feeling very “weary of war and suffering. The question is ‘What do we do about this weariness?’ As I see it, Israel has just two choices — heroism or oblivion.”
Avner reminded his listeners that there is only one Jewish state in the world, and “should we lose it, we would head into a dark, uncharted territory that I am unwilling to contemplate.”
Avner — who helped guide governments led by Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres — also discussed his years-long relationship with the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the longtime spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Their conversations ranged over a wide swath of topics.
“On one particularly late night, I asked the Rebbe to explain the ultimate purpose of what he was trying to achieve,” Avner said. “His answer was ‘Jewish literacy.’ At the door, as I was leaving, he said that when we look at a candle, what we really are looking at is a hunk of wax with a string running down the middle. It only becomes a candle when you put a flame to it.”
Avner said he asked Schneerson, “‘Have you lighted my candle tonight?’ His answer was, ‘No, I’ve just given you the match.’”