Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: There has never been better time to remember contribution the Herzog family made to Belfast

Blue plaque should be restored to the former Israeli president's home as a matter of urgency, says Alban Maginness

Last week saw the visit to Belfast of Isaac Herzog, the recently retired leader of the Israeli Labour Party in the Knesset. It was a low-key visit to the city, in which his father, President Chaim Herzog, was born and briefly lived as a child in Cliftonpark Avenue, just off the Cliftonville Road. The house is still standing and used to have a blue plaque honouring Chaim Herzog and his distinguished family.

In 1919, Isaac's grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, left Belfast, where he was Rabbi, and moved to Dublin and became the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1921 until 1936.

Rabbi Isaac Herzog was a fascinating religious and political figure. He was a prolific writer and religious scholar and studied in London and at the Sorbonne in Paris.

During his tenure in office as Chief Rabbi of Ireland, he actively supported the struggle for Irish independence from Britain and was nicknamed the "Sinn Fein Rabbi".

He was so taken with the Irish struggle that he learned to speak Irish himself and became a good friend of Eamon De Valera.

Without doubt, the Irish struggle for independence strengthened him to work for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In 1936, Isaac Herzog became Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jews in British-ruled Palestine. He later became Chief Rabbi in the new state of Israel.

Isaac's son, Chaim, fought as a young man in the Jewish underground army for the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948. Prior to that, he fought for the British Army in the Second World War and witnessed the liberation of Belsen concentration camp.

A number of years later, after a successful legal career, he entered Israeli politics and eventually served as ambassador to the United Nations and President of Israel for two terms of office.

He was urbane and moderate in his views and was anxious to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and bring about a peaceful settlement to the conflict in the Middle East.

Isaac Herzog's visit to Belfast was rich with association, both political and religious. He met with the highly respected local Jewish community, which, although it is small, nonetheless retains a vibrant presence in the life of the city.

At that meeting, in the synagogue, he warmly addressed the community and emphasised the historic links between Belfast and his family.

His confident and good-humoured manner was an indication of his skill as a leading political figure in the maelstrom of Israeli politics.

Having left politics, Isaac has taken up the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, a worldwide organisation looking after Jews across the globe.

He has assumed this new and influential position despite the direct opposition of Israel's hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The pity is that Herzog's valuable contribution to politics has ended at a time when politics in Israel continues to take an unmistakable swing to the hard-Right under Netanyahu.

At a time when we need moderation in politics throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, Netanyahu deliberately pursues policies that clearly frustrate the realisation of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

The settlement of this hostility between two Semitic peoples sharing a small expanse of disputed land would undoubtedly help to bring political stability to all of the Middle East.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been central to instability in the Middle East and the failure to settle this issue has dogged that region for seven long decades.

There is a familiarity about this historic problem that reminds us of our own divisions.

Some of this is parodied here by the absurd display of competing Israeli and Palestinian flags in our streets, but we should rise above being partisan in this complex struggle and assist both sides to achieve peace.

That, however, does not mean that we shouldn't be critical of either side, who have acted appallingly at times.

Here in Northern Ireland, post the Good Friday Agreement, we have successfully concluded a peace process that has been difficult, painstaking and imperfect.

But, as Isaac Herzog himself admitted: "We could only yearn to get to a Good Friday Agreement."

Our peace is something of great value to the world and, in particular, to the suffering people of Palestine and Israel.

Therefore, we should happily share our collective political experience in peace-building with both sides in this historic conflict.

It is disappointing to note that the blue plaque on the Herzog house in Cliftonpark Avenue has not yet been restored, having been damaged and then taken down during disturbances at the time of the Gaza conflict in 2014.

Surely, it is now an appropriate time for the Herzog family to be recognised for their contribution in the past by restoring the blue plaque?

Let us hope that happens in the very near future.

Belfast Telegraph

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