December 26, 2006
In memory of Woolf Perry, who understood that although born in different lands with different cultures, as Jews we only have one home
My father, Woolf Perry passed away recently in his beloved State of Israel . My father, although not widely known, was an important personality in the early years of the State.
During the early years of Israel, money was always needed and my father who headed Keren Hayesod was always the man David Ben Gurion, Levy Eshkol, Moshe Sharrett and others would turn to to raise the necessary funds.
I grew up with stories of David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Zalman Shazar as my father’s personal friends, not the Zionist historical figures most knew. What made my father special was that he was part of a dying breed of what I term ‘Emotional Zionists’. Those versed in Zionist history are well aware of what a ‘Practical Zionist’ and a ‘Political Zionist’ were, but I would like to add this third category.
Born and bred in London
My father was born and bred in London, to one of the established and assimilated Sephardic families; his family upbringing was neither religious, nor Zionist. When the Second World War broke out, my father felt it was his patriotic duty to volunteer for the British Royal Air Force where he soon rose to the rank of officer.
During the war my father was based in Egypt where he took a weekend off to relax and recuperate. He decided to visit Mandatory Palestine and the Jewish Yishuv. As my father told us many times, he took the train from Cairo to Herzilyia Bet (now Herzilyia Pituach) and just got off the train to spend the weekend by the sea.
Israel captured his heart
Something inexplicable happened to my father during those few short days, as from that moment on he became an avid Zionist. My father was an extremely eloquent man, he gave speeches all over the world on behalf of Israel and even substituted for many barely English-speaking Israeli ambassadors when they had to give a big speech, but he could never fully describe what happened to him at that time.
Here was a British Officer in the RAF who was a patriotic Englishman falling in love with a patch of disputed land in the back-water of the colonial empire. For the rest of my father’s days, even when he lived in England, Israel was to be his only home.
My father, on his release from the British army, became active in Zionist politics and rose rapidly through the ranks of the British, then European and finally world Zionist bodies and organizations.
Youngest Jewish Agency executive
In the 1950’s my father was appointed the youngest ever member of the Jewish Agency Executive, which at the time was akin to a second government, and took up the post of World Chairman of Keren Hayesod.
Only now after his passing, with the help of Jewish Agency officials, have we been able to unearth the true extent of my father’s work. These were the years when the Jews of North Africa and Asia were coming to Israel in the middle of the state’s ‘Austerity Plan’. My father frequently travelled to every corner of the Jewish world raising money to give these immigrants and Israel a better start. Although inconceivable today, Israel once had excellent relations with Iran and my father was part of the many secret negotiations that took place in Tehran to receive recognition of Israel by the Shah.
Advisor for prime ministers and presidents
He was advisor and spokesperson for prime ministers and presidents, way before that position had even properly been invented. Articles from the Jewish communities where my father travelled to always described him as a great orator, very charming and very unlike the usual Israeli emissaries they became used to receiving.
However, many communities did not like my father’s maximalist Zionist message. He would waltz into town and immediately tell the local Jewish community that Israel should be the number one address for their charitable donations, way above any local charities. To many this was a very unpalatable idea and he created quite an uproar in many parts of the Jewish Diaspora.
As youngsters growing up in London, my siblings and I could never quite understand this attachment to Israel. We bemoaned having to spend another holiday in Israel, buying Israeli products that perhaps were not as tasty and a whole lot more expensive than their British counterparts and his public berating any Rabbi who refused to say the Prayer for the State of Israel.
A different Israel
I have since made Aliyah and have a great passion for Israel, while in no way matching my father’s. His passion for Israel did rub off on me in the end and when I ‘returned home’ I know it was one of my father’s proudest moments. My father himself moved back home a couple of years ago to an Israel he wasn’t as familiar with. He could never quite believe my stories recounting prostitution or drug problems, “Not in my Israel”, he would contest. And he was right, these things didn’t happen in ‘his Israel’, the Israel he fell in love with at first sight. Emotion sometimes clouds our judgement to the reality of a situation.
My father always outwardly looked the quintessential Englishman, never leaving the house without a tie and a blazer. However, inside him beat a truly Zionist heart that made this British officer understand that we may have been born in different lands and cultures, but as Jews we only have one home.