Zvi Heifetz interview
Written by Barry Hyman Friday, 13 May 2005
Barry Hyman interviews Zvi Heifetz, Israeli Ambassador.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your background as a child.
A: I was born in Siberia, but was there for only nine months. My family were exiled there by the Soviets from Latvia, from 1940 to 1956. The Soviets took Riga before the Germans reached it and my grandfather was too rich for their liking and too supportive of Jewish settlement in Palestine. He was charged, found guilty and executed. After Stalin died we were allowed to return to Riga, where I lived until we made aliyah. My mother was born in Berlin and her family came to Riga before the Second World War. She, my father, sister and grandmother lived in a tiny apartment.
Q: How conscious of Judaism were you?
A: My mother had been to Hebrew school in Berlin so we were Jewishly aware, celebrating the festivals, going to synagogue even though it was surrounded by the KGB. We left for Israel in 1971.
Q: Was making aliyah difficult for you?
A: My grandfather had been planning to go before the War. He had been to Palestine on business in 1935 to move his business there, but was too late. So the wish to go was in the family long before the War.
Q: Where did you go?
A: We were sent on ulpan near Afula, then moved to Petah Tikvah. After High School I served in the Army for seven years in Intelligence and am a Major in the Reserves.
Q: Intelligence — the Army’s idea or yours?
A: Both. I passed certain tests, became an officer and an instructor in cadet school, then went into Intelligence. Later I graduated with a Law Degree, passed exams for the Israeli Bar and established my own practice in Tel Aviv. In 1989 I was one of the first to be asked to go to the USSR as relations began to be established. I spent some months there, then returned to my Law Firm but was also legal advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office on Soviet matters.
Q: You then moved on?
A: I tried my luck in business. I was Vice-Chairman of Israel’s Second largest publishing group — Ma’ariv — and was also Chairman of Tower Records. My kids got each new CD but I was dealing mostly with the bank, not pop stars.
Q: How did the transition from businessman to Diplomat happen?
A: In Israel there is the practice of ‘personal nomination’ by Ministers. The majority of Ambassadors are professionals from the Foreign Office, but subject to Cabinet approval, a Minister may nominate a candidate. I was proposed as Ambassador to the UK — a great honour to which I agreed at once. I had to make substantial changes to my life, resigning from all other positions, quitting my business and becoming a public servant.
Q: Was that difficult?
A: No, very easy. I had several career changes but this, while totally unexpected, was an interesting challenge. I don’t use this as a cliché — I felt that if I could serve my country I could not hesitate.
Q: Did you know much about Britain?
A: Yes. I had business connections here. My basic legal education was based on English Law, so I was often quoting the House of Lords. The transition was eased by the warmth of the Jewish Community, who embraced me. We had to jump in at the deep end.
Q: Our community are very demanding on Israeli Ambassadors.
A: But it’s a privilege. Certainly time consuming, but nobody forced me! I knew what I was coming to, a supportive community. Sometimes in Israel, even just five hours away, you don’t realize that there is a community giving of its time, energy and resources and it is really encouraging to discover this.
Q: What knowledge do you have of Progressive Judaism?
A: I have friends in many different Jewish Movements at home. Here the Reform Movement under Rabbi Bayfield is very important for us, not least because of its contacts with non-Jewish organizations and NGOs [Non Governmental Organizations.] The Reform Movement is in the forefront of this. Sir Sigmund Sternberg is a unique example of dedication and determination in this task. I admire his activities and especially his energy. I’ve been to his synagogue with him.
Q: How are your family settling in here?
A: Five of our seven children are here with me and my wife Sigalia - a ninth generation Israeli. They are the real heroes of this story. For my wife and me it was easy — we are fully engaged meeting people, but they had to move at a critical age from their schools and friends.
Q: Do you miss anything about Latvia?
A: No. I was in Israel from when I was a child. Of course I remember certain things. I have been back to Riga and it’s part of my history. There is no family there, but I was appointed Honorary Consul of Latvia to Israel by the Latvian President, but had to resign that post on my current appointment. They are now part of the EU and I wish them well.
Q: Would you care to name a favourite author, song or film?
A: No! They are mostly Israeli, but as a Diplomat perhaps I should say that I like all of them n
BARRY HYMAN , who left Marks & Spencer at the right time, is a former RSGB PR Officer, veteran Newsletter editor and compulsive writer of letters to the press.
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