Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Shira Herzog was research director and executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) for a decade, and was vice-president responsible for Israeli programs and later the president at the Kahanoff Foundation.

If Israel were a modern-day monarchy, Shira Herzog would have been a duchess, Michael Marrus, an eminent professor of Jewish history at the University of Toronto, said last week. Ms. Herzog, who died Aug. 24 at home in Toronto at the age of 61, following a six-year battle with cancer, parlayed brains, an irrepressible drive and a fine pedigree to shine a powerful light on progressive, democratic policies in the Jewish state to which she remained forever dedicated.

While Ms. Herzog hailed from what might be called Israel's royal family – her grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Israel, her uncle the country's sixth president and her father a distinguished diplomat and senior adviser to prime ministers – she spent most of her adult life based in Canada from where she pursued the dream of a better Israel.

"Fate and choice have forged my Israeli and Canadian dual identity," she wrote in 2007. She was fortunate, she said, to be "born into a family that made its mark on the state" of Israel, even though she chose to live in Canada, a country she first experienced as the child of an ambassador in Ottawa.

Story continues below advertisement

"I move back and forth seamlessly between the two countries and societies in what are, for me, three interlocking circles – Israel, Canada and North America's Jewish communities," she wrote.

As such, Ms. Herzog was forever on the go.

As research director and executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) for a decade, beginning in 1977, she spent time most weeks in Ottawa meeting with parliamentarians, officials and journalists, or on forays to Jewish groups across the country, always trying to bolster support for Israel and to report back to the Jewish communities she served.

In the 27 years that followed, at the Kahanoff Foundation, her job of seeking out and fostering social-development opportunities in Israel meant spending an average of about five months a year there, spread out over several visits.

"Other kids went to Florida or to a cottage," her son and only child, Kobi Bessin, recalls. "We went to Israel. That was my beach."

The peripatetic lifestyle came naturally to Ms. Herzog. She was born Jan. 17, 1953, in Jerusalem to Pnina (née Shachor) and Yaacov Herzog, two influential figures in the early days of the state of Israel. Her mother, a pharmacist, represented Israel at the World Health Organization for several years. Her father spent terms in Washington and Ottawa and, in Israel, served four prime ministers – frequently conducting secret negotiations outside the country, often on the spur of the moment.

On one occasion, in 1963, the dapper diplomat, under the watchful eye of Israel's Mossad agents, first visited the clinic of a London physician, Dr. Emmanuel Herbert. He was ushered into an examination room, where Jordan's King Hussein, another "patient," sat waiting. It was the start of extensive secret talks between the two countries – still technically at war – that would eventually lead to peace between them.

Story continues below advertisement

Sometimes the talks were in London, but Ms. Herzog described how her father also "went fishing" a surprising number of times throughout the 1960s, when he should have gone to the office.

On those occasions, dressed in leisure clothes and a peaked cap, he set out for the southern port city of Eilat, where he took a small boat out into the Gulf of Aqaba. Out of view of the shore, he pulled alongside a yacht owned by King Hussein, and went on board for yet more discussions.

Indeed, her father was absent so often that Shira, as a child, is said to have once sworn she would "marry a man who could take his children to buy shoes."

She didn't. She married Berl Bessin, a Jewish-Canadian businessman with interests in Israel and the Far East, who travelled as much as she did and wasn't the one to buy their son his shoes. (Actually, Ms. Herzog "preferred to buy the shoes herself," says son Kobi Bessin, 34, now a Toronto lawyer.)

Friends say it was because of Mr. Bessin, whom Ms. Herzog married in Israel in 1973, that she returned to Canada from Israel in 1974. There, she completed a master's degree in English at York University before starting work at the CIC. The couple divorced in 1991. "It was the best thing for both of them," their son said. Each was a strong, independent and controlling personality.

Ms. Herzog was relentless in pursuit of a better Israel.

Story continues below advertisement

"She felt she was carrying a torch from one generation [of Herzogs] to another," said her cousin, Isaac Herzog, son of former president Chaim Herzog and now leader of Israel's opposition Labour Party.

"If this table could talk …" said Kobi Bessin, reflecting on how many great Jewish and Israeli figures had sat around it discussing plans for a Jewish state, rescue operations for European Jews and arguments for war and peace with Arab neighbours. The long claw-and-ball-foot mahogany dining set had come with his great-grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, when he moved his family from Ireland to Mandatory Palestine in 1937 to become chief rabbi of the nascent Jewish community. It was passed to his son, Yaacov Herzog, the diplomat, and then to Yaacov Herzog's daughter, Shira.

She was as determined to succeed as those Herzogs who had come before.

"I spent a rich, challenging decade at the Canada-Israel Committee, in the forefront of Israel advocacy on behalf of the Jewish community," Ms. Herzog wrote. "On matters related to the [Canadian] government's Middle East policy, this meant creating a sometimes tenuous bridge between Canadian opinion leaders on the one hand and the profound emotions of Canada's Jewish community on the other hand."

This is when this writer met Ms. Herzog. Journalists found her remarkably intelligent, informed and willing to point out liabilities in Israeli policy as well as assets.

Unlike those advocates for Israel who believe that faultless praise for the country can never be overdone, Ms. Herzog's words carried with them much greater credibility.

Story continues below advertisement

As Israeli Consul-General D.J. Schneeweiss acknowledged, "Shira built partnerships better than any diplomat."

At the Kahanoff Foundation, first as vice-president responsible for Israeli programs and later as the foundation's president, Ms. Herzog continued building partnerships, this time with Israeli social entrepreneurs, helping them develop self-sustaining programs that focus on the education and well-being of Israeli minorities.

"She was not a philanthropist," said Isaac Herzog. "She was a revolutionary."

"I've taken different things from Israel and Canada," Ms. Herzog wrote, noting particularly Canada's strength in diversity. "In Canada, I've learned to appreciate the value of accepting 'the other'; of finding ways to accommodate differences; and of protecting the physical and ideological space granted to every individual to pursue his or her potential – regardless of ethnic affiliation." This she applied in her Kahanoff projects.

Ms. Herzog's most valuable assets were also inherited from her father: an analytical mind and remarkable eloquence. "There was never a wasted word in anything she said," her son noted. "It was almost Talmudic."

No surprise there. Her father, besides being a legally trained diplomat, also was a rabbi, who had learned at the knee of one his country's greatest rabbis, his own father. What is somewhat surprising, her son adds, is that if you read one of his grandfather Yaacov Herzog's essays, "it sounds just like mom."

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Herzog's father, while serving as ambassador to Canada, showed his scholarship and articulacy to great advantage in what would be his most famous public success – a 1961 debate at McGill University with the renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee, who had questioned modern Israel's legitimacy.

By all accounts Mr. Herzog triumphed – his biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, said that Mr. Toynbee's wife, Veronica Boulter, scolded her husband at the end of the encounter, saying "I told you not to take part in this debate."

Armed with analytical skills passed down to her from her father, Ms. Herzog set out on the third chapter of her career: columnist, first for the Canadian Jewish News, then, for the past 12 years, for The Globe and Mail. Her reasoned, argumentative approach won her many admirers and more than a few detractors, some of whom questioned her loyalty to the state.

"I've never shied away from questions and critical views regarding Israel's policies," she wrote. "Indeed, I've publicly taken issue with such policies myself. But I have zero tolerance for delegitimization of Israel's very existence and defamation of Jews as such. It's important to make this distinction, even though it's sometimes blurred by friends and foes alike."

Each of Ms. Herzog's carefully crafted columns showed the high standards she upheld in everything she did.

"She was a perfectionist," her son and many of her friends said, whether in Pilates, where she insisted on reaching instructor level, in editing young Kobi's essays or looking for solutions to Israel's problems.

Story continues below advertisement

Even in the Shira Herzog tribute held last week to benefit the New Israel Fund of Canada, she picked the speakers, the songs that would be performed and even left a recorded message in case she couldn't make it to the event – there was no emotionalism in this voice from the grave; it was all business.

As Ms. Herzog's tombstone will say, quoting Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9, Verse 10: "Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might."

In summing up the dual Israel-Canada nature of her life's work, Ms. Herzog quoted Israeli poet, Chaim Guri, who wrote wryly, "What's seen from here looks different when seen from there."

"If, as I am," she wrote, "one is fortunate enough to be able to be both here and there, perhaps this can help to build bridges. Inspired by a family heritage of learning, diplomacy and respectful, informed dialogue, I've tried to do this in a modest way."

Shira Herzog leaves her son, Kobi Bessin; daughter-in-law, Shelby Greenberg; and grandchildren, Olivia and Ethan, in Toronto. She also leaves her sister, Eliezra; and brother, Yitzhak, in Israel.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies