Belfast Telegraph

Why we should celebrate the centenary of Chaim Herzog's birth by restoring his blue plaque

Israel's sixth President was born in Belfast, but sadly has been allowed to fade from view, writes Nelson McCausland

Earlier this week there was an event in Belfast to highlight one of the many famous people born in our capital city. Chaim Herzog, who was President Israel from 1983 to 1993, was born in Cliftonpark Avenue in north Belfast on September 17, 1918

He was the son of Isaac and Sarah Herzog and his father was the rabbi of the Jewish congregation in Belfast from 1916 to 1919.

The following year Isaac and his family moved to Dublin and Isaac Herzog was chief rabbi of Ireland.

In the 1930s the Herzog family moved to Mandatory Palestine and there both father and son occupied high positions. Isaac was chief rabbi of the state of Israel and Chaim was the sixth President of the state.

Chaim is one of many people who were born in Ulster and then made their mark elsewhere in the world. William Ferguson Massey is another example.

Massey was born into an Ulster-Scots family in Limavady in 1856. At the age of 14 he followed his parents to New Zealand and then followed his father into farming. He was elected as an Independent MP in 1894 and was the first leader of the Reform Party when it was formed in 1909.

Massey became Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1912 and remained in office until his death in 1925, making him the country's second-longest serving premier. He led New Zealand through the difficult days of the First World War, attended meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet, and signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

We sometimes speak of "our wee country", and the population of Northern Ireland is roughly the same as that of the Leeds urban area, but men and women of Ulster birth have made an impact in many lands.

Ulster has produced pioneers, Prime Ministers, Presidents, social reformers, entrepreneurs, scientists, authors and artists, but we have not been very good at celebrating these sons and daughters of Ulster. There are many reasons for that, but one has undoubtedly been political prejudices.

Herzog died in 1997 and, the following year, the Ulster History Circle unveiled a commemorative blue plaque at his birthplace in Cliftonpark Avenue. However, in 2014, the building was daubed with anti-Israeli graffiti and an attempt was made to dislodge the plaque.

It was then removed in August 2014 at the request of the community group that occupies the building and placed in storage.

Is it possible that, in this year, the centenary of his birth, we may have the plaque for Herzog reinstated? Or will political prejudice and intolerance continue to prevail?

Of course, political prejudice is not restricted to Belfast.

There is a statue of W F Massey in Limavady, but in 2008 Sinn Fein councillors demanded that it be removed.

By way of justification, Paddy Butcher, leader of the Sinn Fein group on the council, highlighted the fact that "William Massey was a prominent Orangeman".

News of the Sinn Fein demand reached New Zealand and it was reported in local and national newspapers.

There was an apt response from Dr Michael Bassett, a historian in Auckland, who told the New Zealand Herald: "You'd have thought a little town in Northern Ireland would be rather proud that one of their people went off to New Zealand and became Prime Minister."

Indeed you would. And, thankfully, the statue remains - in spite of political prejudice and intolerance.

While such folk are generally commemorated and celebrated in the land of their adoption, they are often forgotten in the land of their birth.

Yet, if I can adapt the words of Dr Bassett: "You'd have thought a little country like Northern Ireland would have been rather proud of such folk."

Perhaps it is time that our cultural institutions, tourist organisations and others really took this onboard. These stories are part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland and deserve to be told and retold.

They are also a way of opening up international connections.

They should be part of the tourism product that Northern Ireland has to offer.

We would be foolish to forget them.

Belfast Telegraph

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