After my first visit to Israel in 1973 on a group trip sponsored by the American Jewish Committee for “disaffected Jewish academics” (I was eminently qualified), I was sufficiently fascinated with the Jewish state to apply for a Fulbright Professorship at Tel Aviv University. As a year-long appointment, it made me uneasy lest my sudden and unexpected fascination with Israel prove to be fleeting. But its allure was too powerful to ignore. Since I would only teach one day weekly, I decided to commute from Jerusalem, where I had felt anything but disaffected during my brief visit there.
Landing with my family at Ben-Gurion International Airport, I was warmly welcomed by my new colleague Haggai. He generously offered to drive us to an apartment conveniently located near the university. I explained that our family would be living in Jerusalem, and Haggai graciously accepted our preference. Throughout the academic year, he attended all of my seminars. Afterward, we would have lunch together, with long conversations about Israel. He became my best teacher.
Haggai’s biography taught me about Israeli history—and his own significant contribution to it. Born in kibbutz Ein Harod in northern Palestine, he served in the Palmach—the elite fighting force of the Haganah—during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Then, joining fellow Palmach soldiers, he lived in Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev Desert south of Beersheva. His joy at the opportunity to help build a new Jewish community in the new Jewish state was evident. Haggai left after 10 years to attend the Hebrew University before relocating to Columbia University, where he studied American history and earned his Ph.D. Returning to Israel, he was appointed to the Tel Aviv University faculty.
Haggai lived with his family in Kfar Saba, a small city northeast of Tel Aviv that traced its history to the Second Temple era. It is located just across the nearby hilltop border separating Israel from the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. Whenever Haggai and I walked and talked together along the main street, its looming presence felt ominous. He was always reassuring.
During an Israel visit, my wife Susan and I were invited to join Haggai, his wife Adina and three other couples—all former kibbutznik companions—in a three-car caravan escorted by soldiers in military jeeps along the Gaza border. Haggai had told his commander friend that “a very important American scholar” would join us. (I forgave his flattering exaggeration.) Along the way, he recounted experiences, including life-threatening wartime injuries, during his military service. Haggai was a brave fighter for the fledgling Jewish state.
Our deepening friendship eventually spanned both of our countries. During a sabbatical leave, Haggai and his family lived nearby so that he could do research at the Harvard Law School. At the time, I was a visiting scholar there, so to my delight, we became colleagues once again. Our political paths followed a different trajectory, but our friendship remained strong. Once a passionate Socialist, Haggai had moderated his views to embrace liberalism. Once a committed liberal, I had moved to the political right—prompted, ironically, by my time in Israel.
We once talked for hours about my recent visit to Hebron and the history of its millennia-old Jewish community that I intended to write. My fascination with Hebron Jews puzzled Haggai. Ever since his kibbutz years, his political identity had been on the left. He agreed—indeed insisted—that Israeli retention of Machpelah, the burial site of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, was not negotiable. But it didn’t matter to him whether or not Jews lived in Hebron.
Haggai was puzzled why my attachment to Israel might diminish as it became more Westernized and secular. I asked him how he would feel about a hostile Palestinian state with its western border one-half a kilometer from Kfar Saba. For “a secure peace,” he said, it would be acceptable. Our friendship ran deep, and we agreed to disagree.
Past his 90th birthday, with declining health, Haggai began to slip away. His recent death saddened me deeply. He will remain embedded as my dearest Israeli friend—and hero. I treasure a copy of his law-review article inscribed “with deepest friendship and love.” I cannot imagine Israel without him.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”