A staunch Zionist and dedicated volunteer, born in Berlin on October 9, 1921, Esther Herlitz inherited many of her admirable traits from her beloved “Yekke” parents. Her father, Georg Herlitz (1885–1968), was born in Oppeln, a small town in Upper Silesia, into a totally assimilated Jewish family and received a typical Prussian education. However, since his parents could not afford to send him to university, he registered—with the help of the local rabbi—at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, a center for the scientific study of Judaism and a rabbinical seminary. Here the liberal Jewish administration awarded him a stipend and here, also, both his studies and the Zionist movement introduced him to a new world. Returning home, he led the first Passover seder ever held in the history of the family and when he resumed studies, this time at the University of Berlin, he became an ardent Zionist activist. On completing his studies in 1919, he refused to become a rabbi and instead founded the Central Zionist Archive. When the Zionist Federation, which was interested in influencing the local Jewish community, asked him to infiltrate the city’s large 3,500-member Reform synagogue, Herlitz and his friends took on the role of wardens and replaced the rabbi with one who was a Zionist. His wife, Irma (née Herzka, 1888–1970), who came from a traditional home in Moravia and whose father was a melamed (teacher) of little children, hated what she perceived as the empty ceremonial of the Reform Jews, but Esther herself came to love it.
Although she and her younger sister Miriam (1925–1975) attended a non-Jewish humanist gymnasium, they also from a very early age studied Hebrew with a kindergarten teacher whom her father and a few of his friends brought from Erez Israel. From her childhood on, Esther knew that the family were on their way to Palestine and she joined the Habonim-Kadimah youth movement. In 1933, when she was twelve years old, the social-democrat headmistress of her school was dismissed and she and two other girls in her class—one also Jewish, the other the daughter of an Englishman—were ostracized. Transferred to the Jewish-Zionist High School, she remained there for only six months before the family moved to Palestine, arriving on the first ship to dock in the new port in Haifa. Georg Herlitz succeeded in taking with him the entire Zionist Archive. In Jerusalem, he continued his work as the director of the World Zionist Archive.
Esther Herlitz first attended the Gymnasia Ivrit in Rehavia, where she encountered hostility towards the new arrivals from Germany. Moving to the newly-founded Hebrew University High School in Bet ha-Kerem, she was in the first class to study there and benefited from the superb teaching of scholars who later ranked among Israel’s outstanding academics, such as Ernst Akiva Simon and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. She joined both the Mahanot Olim youth movement and the Haganah and, after leaving school in 1938, studied at the Hebrew Teachers College (today David Yellin Teachers Seminary). Upon receiving her diploma, she taught history, Bible and English at the school in Karkur and in her spare time worked as a secretary for the local branch of WIZO, but in July 1943, at the end of the school year, she enlisted in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) with the whole-hearted approval of the Haganah.
During her four and a half years of service in the British army, Herlitz progressed from being an instructor of newly-inducted recruits at the Sarafand Training Camp (now Zrifin) to serving as an officer in Egypt. At the same time, she continued her Haganah activities, since members of the Jewish community’s underground military organization in Palestine realized that such service provided excellent training opportunities for the anticipated Jewish struggle in the country. Since she was unmarried and childless, she was the last of the Palestinian Jewish volunteers permitted to leave Egypt at the end of World War II and returned home only at the beginning of 1946, after which she served for one year as the officer in charge of caring for ex-servicemen and women whose studies had been interrupted.
In 1947 she was among the twenty-five candidates (of a total of several hundred applicants) who were accepted into the new school for diplomats established by the Jewish Agency. (There were four additional women in the group.) Their studies came to an abrupt end a year later, when the War of Independence broke out. Meanwhile, on March 11, 1948, her father’s birthday, she was in the Jewish Agency (where the archive was located) when an Arab driver employed by the American consulate parked an explosive-laden car with its diplomatic license plates in the courtyard of the building. Both Esther and her father escaped from the building, where she had suffered a slight head injury caused by glass splinters.
At the beginning of March 1948, Esther Herlitz, together with other Jewish servicemen and women, was “conscripted” and began serving in the Etzioni Jerusalem brigade of the Haganah. Here she was asked to help establish the women’s corps in the besieged city and, with the rank of major, served as deputy commander of the unit composed of some one hundred and fifty women.
In the summer of 1948, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who was her constant mentor, requested that she be released in order to work at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Tel Aviv. The request aroused considerable opposition on the part of her direct commander, David Shaltiel, and the commander of the Women’s Corps, Mina Ben-Zvi, and she was in fact not officially discharged from the IDF although she was employed at the ministry. At the age of twenty-seven, she was appointed head of the American desk, but paid her first visit to the United States only in September 1949, as a member of the Israel delegation to the United Nations. At this time she first met Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she developed an ongoing friendship.
In 1950 Herlitz was appointed First Secretary at the Israel embassy in Washington, D.C., where the ambassador was Abba Eban and other senior staff members included both Teddy Kollek and Haim Herzog. She maintains that from Eban she learned how to speak in public and how to project the image of Israel, as well as the importance of personal relations. From Kollek she learned how to “schnorr.” At the end of 1954 Herlitz was moved to New York, as the consul responsible for Jewish organizations and Israeli students. At the same time, she served as visiting consul in Boston.
Returning to Israel in March 1958, Herlitz took four years of unpaid leave from the ministry and, with the approval of Sharett, established and headed the International Department of Mapai (1958–1962). Shortly before the municipal elections in 1959 she was invited to run for office on the Mapai list and, when Labor won the election and Mordechai Namir became mayor of Tel Aviv, was asked to head the city’s Cultural Committee (1960–1964). Following her father’s advice, she focused on establishing public libraries, which ultimately included the imposing Beit Ariella. She also developed literacy classes, especially for immigrant and lower-income women, who constituted the majority of the illiterate.
Returning to work at the Foreign Ministry in 1962, when Golda Meir was minister, she was appointed head of the Guest Department, charged with caring for important visitors from abroad. She continued in this position for two years before becoming head of the Information Department, where she worked hard to project a positive image of Israel. She was the first woman to be elected as head of the ministry’s staff committee. In 1965 she resigned from the ministry in order to run for Knesset on the Mapai list, but—inexperienced in the necessary process of lobbying—she was unsuccessful. She thereupon returned to the ministry and in 1966 became the first woman after Golda Meir to be appointed an ambassador. Sent to Denmark, she served most successfully in that post until 1971, during a period that included the tense days before and throughout the Six-Day War in 1967.
In 1972, at the urging of Golda Meir, she established the Israel Voluntary Service, which she chaired until 1978. In 1974 she was one of six women members of the Labor Party who were elected to the Eighth Knesset and in 1977 to the Ninth. Immediately after the 1973 Yom Kippur War she became the first woman to serve on the (still) male-dominated Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense. During the years in which she served on the committee it was called upon to deal both with the highly critical Agranat Report on the conduct of the war and the response to the hijacking of an El Al plane to Entebbe. She also served on the Internal Affairs Committee and on the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
Herself an avowed feminist and never a “queen bee,” despite the fact that she was so often the first (or even sole) woman in a particular area of public life, Herlitz was one of the members of the Commission on the Status of Women established by Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin in 1975, which was headed by Ora Namir. Like all the members of the commission, who numbered just over one hundred, she found this an eye-opening experience, which alerted her fully to the inferior status of women of every age and class and was undoubtedly instrumental in leading her to play an active role in formulating and ensuring the passage in 1977 of a liberal abortion law. In December 1980 she established a “grey lobby” to care for the interests of the elderly.
Since leaving the Knesset Herlitz has been an inveterate volunteer. She served as director of the triennial Zimriya (World Assembly of Choirs), as director and chairperson of the country’s triennial International Harp Contest, as chairperson of Friends of Denmark in Israel, as a member of the boards of governors of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and the David Yellin College, at which she herself studied. These and other similar activities have earned her numerous honors and awards, including the Distinguished Citizen of Tel Aviv (1996), the Prime Minister’s Shield for Voluntarism, an honorary D.H.L. degree from Hebrew Union College (1999) and the Woman of Distinction Award of Hadassah (2003). On the eve of Independence Day 2003, she lit a torch on behalf of volunteers at the annual Mount Herzl ceremony.
In 1994, Herlitz published a lively autobiography in Hebrew, the subtitle of which, How Far Can a Woman Go?, is taken from a disparaging comment made to her by then director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Walter Eytan, when she first joined his staff. The final sentences of the book cite the words that were inscribed on her father’s gravestone, at his request: “He tried to serve his people.” There is no doubt that the same can be said of his daughter, whom he imbued with his own ardent Zionism and with a profound love of her country and her people, which found such ample expression in both her professional and her voluntary activities.