The day started like any other day. I sat down to have my breakfast whilst watching the Cricket World Cup semi-final before going off to work – another normal day, enjoying an amazing game of cricket. I then turned to the Jerusalem Post – and everything was stopped when I read the sad news that Yehuda Avner had passed away during the night.
I have always had a love for Israeli history. Not just because I am Jewish and was born in Israel, but because it is truly fascinating. We all like to read history books which describe the events as they happened, all very detailed, but there is at times something lacking. Three years ago, though, I was handed a big blue book by my grandfather, and I have read and reread it many times. In my opinion, there is no better account of Israeli history than the one related by Yehuda in his book The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. If you care about Israel, and want to have a better understanding of its history, then this is the first book that you should read. It is a long book, but you never want the end to come, as the way that Yehuda narrates his first-hand experience alongside some of the greatest characters in Israeli history is truly gripping.
Through this book, I found a new sense of awe and admiration in the likes of Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and most particularly Menachem Begin. The respect that these giants of Israel had for Yehuda Avner is wonderful. They would turn to him for advice, ask him to write and rewrite their speeches and generally enjoy his company. Through his amazing role, Yehuda was able to witness some of the greatest events to ever occur in Israeli history. From the crucial decision of whether to carry out Operation Thunderbolt in 1976, to Menachem Begin arguing angrily with Margaret Thatcher and her Foreign Secretary over lunch, Yehuda was present for some of the seminal moments of Israeli history.
It is astounding to think that this man, who served as an adviser to five Prime Ministers of Israel and as an Ambassador to Great Britain and Australia, started off as a member of Bnei Akiva in Manchester. I have been actively involved in Bnei Akiva for many years, and yet Yehuda Avner is still a relatively new name for me. How can this be? Yehuda was a great servant of our beloved movement, he served as Mazkir for 3 years and was a pioneer for our Summer Machanot. On top of all that he fought in the War of Independence alongside Esther Callingold (whose sister he later married) and served in the Office of the Prime Minister for 25 years!
How can I have only known about him for such a short time? Why his name was never mentioned at any of the machanot I went to as a chanich? How come he never appeared in any of the chomer for machane or sviva? Why have we not been revelling in the greatest graduate of Bnei Akiva UK?
There is no more need for these questions to be answered now, there is no point dwelling on it. We have not done Yehuda Avner enough justice for all that he has done. Our duty now, more than ever, is to tell the story which he so beautifully narrates, and place him at the highest echelons of Bnei Akiva history.
What we, as Bogrim, have to do is to spread the name and character of Yehuda Avner. We should be proudly quoting him in our chomer, have big pictures of him alongside the likes of Arieh Handler and Yoni Jesner in the Batim, and always look up to his example and try to reach the heights that he did.
Yehuda made Aliyah as a teenager, fought in the War of Independence, founded Kibbutz Lavi and still found time to return and serve Bnei Akiva here in the UK. He was living the dream at a young age, and put it on hold for 3 years so that he could inspire people like us to join him and others in that selfsame dream.
Machane, sviva, Shabbatot Ha’Irgun, Shabbat Lashem, Torat HaBayit, Yediot. These are just a few ways for us to educate our chanichim about the heroes of Bnei Akiva. Yes, we have heroes, we have men and women who have lived and believed in our ideology and gone on to do great things with that belief, and we should be actively proud of this. Begin, Rabin, Eshkol, Meir; they all trusted a Boger of Bnei Akiva UK with some of the most important details in Israeli history. Yehuda lived in a frenetic period, with no time to breathe and let things sink in. Avner himself said in an interview: “Only after I finished my book did I realize that I was living the first 50 years of Israeli history. I never set out to write a history. I set out to write a story to bring these people I worked for and with to life.”
Yehuda Avner made me fall in love even more with Israel and its leaders. He made me see what a gentle man Levi Eshkol was, he showed me how much Menachem Begin loved his people, and he set an example for me and everyone else that the dream of Israel is alive because of people such as himself.
With Yehuda’s passing, we have to educate others about him and his story. We cannot accept chanichim walking out of machane without knowledge of who Yehuda Avner is. If we are serious about our Chinuch, and if we are truly passionate about Israel and our ideology, then Yehuda Avner and his story are a fundamental element.
Whenever I want to learn or educate about the history of Israel, I will forever be able to return to a big blue book, and inside the first page is a gentle signature by the greatest story teller that the Jewish State has known, ready to bring it all to life again.
I wish Yehuda’s family a חיים ארוכים and may his memory for ever be a blessing.
I, like so many others want to thank you Yehuda.