Welcome to our on-line exhibition highlighting the history of the Herzog family in Belfast.
Did you know that in 1918 Belfast boasted a future chief rabbi, president and foreign minister of Israel?
We tell their story here. Please scroll down for photos, videos and links to further information.
A project of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel.
In 1916 Rabbi Isaac Herzog was appointed spiritual leader of the Belfast Jewish community. Born in Lomza, Poland, he came from a distinguished family of rabbis and scholars. Belfast was Isaac’s first appointment as a rabbi.
Rabbi Herzog came to Belfast as a bachelor. The Belfast Jewish community soon got to work and helped him find a wife! In 1917, Sarah Hillman arrived in Belfast and proved to be a strong personality in her own right. You can learn about Sarah’s time in Belfast as a young Jewish woman by clicking here:
Sarah Herzog – a Jewish woman in North Belfast.
In September 1918 the Herzog’s first child was born – Chaim, which means Life in Hebrew. The Herzog family lived on Cliftonpark Avenue in North Belfast. Just a short walk to the synagogue in Annesley Street, off Carlisle Circus.
Herzog family home.
The Belfast Jewish community at the time numbered about 800 people. Most were refugees from poverty and persecution in Czarist Russia. They settled in the north of the city and many of them were tailors, glaziers and cabinet makers. Cliftonpark Avenue – where the Herzogs lived – became the hub of the community. For a short history of the Belfast Jewish community click here: Belfast Jewish Community
The synagogue in Belfast today.
At the time of Chaim Herzog’s birth in Belfast there was another young child living in the city. His name was Aubrey Solomon. He became more famous as Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Aubrey was brought to Belfast as a toddler during the First World War and lived off the Antrim Road. You can read more about Abba Eban and his remarkable connection to Chaim Herzog by reading this Belfast Telegraph article:
Belfast’s Legacy to the Israelis.
In 1919 the Herzog family left Belfast when Isaac Herzog was appointed rabbi of the Dublin Jewish community. Isaac became chief rabbi of the Irish Free State, a fluent Irish speaker and a friend of Eamon De Valera.
Our photo shows Rabbi Isaac Herzog (centre) arriving in Belfast shortly after his appointment as Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel (in 1936). This was perhaps the most senior religious position in the Jewish world. The Belfast community was incredibly proud that its former rabbi had achieved such a high rank (photo from Belfast Telegraph). You can read this tribute to Chief Rabbi Herzog published shortly after his death (1959):
All Israel Mourns Death of Chief Rabbi Herzog; Buried in Sanhedria.
Rabbi Herzog (centre) arriving in Belfast.
Both Chaim Herzog and Abba Eban joined the British army after studying in Cambridge. Chaim became an intelligence officer and served in Lisburn Northern Ireland before taking part in the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny. Abba served as liaison officer at Allied HQ in Jerusalem.
In 1947 Chaim married Aura Ambache. His former neighbour in Belfast, Abba Eban, was married to Aura’s sister, Suzy, so the two men became brothers-in-law. Aura pioneered protecting the environment in Israel and she and Chaim had four children.
Chaim Herzog and Abba Eban threw their lot in with the Zionist cause and participated in the establishment of the State of Israel. Chaim was a member of the Hagana underground movement and organised the Intelligence Corps of the Israeli Defence Force. Abba Eban was a member of Israel’s provisional government and was later to serve as the country’s deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
The former neighbours in Belfast, Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog, went on to become senior Israeli diplomats, journalists, broadcasters and politicians. During the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, Chaim was renowned for his broadcasts which gave reassurance to the Israeli people at times of great danger. Both Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog served the state of Israel as ambassadors to the United Nations. Here you can watch a video of an impassioned Chaim Herzog addressing the UN in 1975:
Here is a famous quote from Abba Eban – the boy from Kinnaird Street – during his term as ambassador of Israel at the United Nations.
In 1983 Chaim Herzog was elected Israel’s sixth president. He is one of two Belfast citizens to be elected head of state (the other being Mary McAleese, president of the Irish Republic). Chaim never forgot his birth place – here you can watch president Herzog being interviewed by Northern Ireland actor, Harry Towb, on his memories of growing up in Ireland.
Chaim Herzog served as Israel’s President for a decade. He visited over thirty countries, addressed fifteen parliaments, made the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Germany, and he took particular pride in his state visit to Ireland in 1985. During his term in office there were six changes of Government and four changes of Prime Minister and behind the scenes President Herzog was often called upon to arbitrate between different parties. He emphasised he was the president of all Israelis and reached out in friendship to the Muslim and Christian minorities.
Chaim Herzog died in Tel Aviv on 17 April 1997, aged 78. The world press acknowledged the Belfast-born President as a statesman who sought peace between Israel and its neighbours. He was widely praised for his commitment, integrity and courage and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres described him as “perhaps the most statesmanlike person Israel ever knew.”
In the centenary year of Chaim Herzog’s birth, Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, in partnership with other educational and cultural organisations, is ensuring Belfast’s connections to the Herzog family is celebrated as a significant aspect of the city’s Jewish and international heritage.
Chaim’s son Isaac (named after his grandfather, the rabbi) is the leader of the opposition in Israel’s parliament. Our photograph shows Isaac receiving a Belfast coat of arms from Terry McCorran, then co-chair of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel.
Despite the remarkable career of Chaim Herzog, rising to be head of state, there is sadly no public commemoration to him – or to his family – in his native city. In 2014, the plaque marking his birthplace on Cliftonpark Avenue was taken down following attacks on the former family home, which both the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland deplored as a hate crime. However, attempts by the Belfast Jewish community to restore the plaque or have a memorial displayed publicly elsewhere have so far proven unsuccessful. You can see a TV report about this here: Chaim Herzog: Call for plaque to be displayed at Belfast City Hall.
We are determined that the unique history of the Jewish community in Belfast should be cherished and properly commemorated in the city – including the story of the community’s pre-eminent family, the Herzogs.
Please like our Facebook page and invite your friends to visit this online exhibition! Look out for our educational programmes, lectures and events to highlight the Herzog centenary! Thank you for taking a look at our exhibition.