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Uri Bar-Ner - In the line of duty in diplomacy for the State of Israel

By Jordana Benami - Jan 14, 2021

By JORDANA BENAMI

Former ambassador Uri Bar-Ner reflects on his long career in the ‘holy task’ of diplomacy for the State of Israel

On the first night aboard the SS Zion sailing from New York to Haifa in September 1963, Uri Bar-Ner from Haifa met Lynne Meyerson from Long Beach, California. The two voyagers – Uri returning home after graduate school, Lynne coming to explore Israel after university – have traveled through life together ever since.

“We got married a year later, on the condition that we live in Israel,” says Bar-Ner. “This was because most of my family was killed in the Holocaust and I felt I must continue what they started.” Lynne accepted his condition and became a full partner in Uri’s career as an Israeli statesman and diplomat. She made a condition, too.“ When we got married, I told Uri the most important thing is to make sure our children are totally bilingual and bi-cultural. And that’s exactly what happened.” In the early 1960s, Bar-Ner was active in shaping MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. In 1968, he took his first assignment overseas, as Israel’s consul in Bombay – 24 years before Israel and India had official diplomatic relations.

He later accepted diplomatic postings in Copenhagen, Washington, DC, New York, Chicago and Ankara.Ironically, therefore, his service to his beloved country involved many years abroad.

“Whenever I was outside of Israel, it was only in the line of duty for the State of Israel. It was a holy task,” says Bar-Ner.“ I was supposed to come back and teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after earning my master’s degree at Emory University in Atlanta. But I decided it was more important to put diplomacy into action.” Now 84, he and Lynne live in Modi’in, near their children and grandchildren.

URI AND Lynne Bar-Ner, taken last year at their grandson’s bar mitzvah. (Bar-Ner family)

On November 8, Bar-Ner received the Herbert Tenzer Lifetime Achievement Award from the America-Israel Friendship League at the virtual Partners for Democracy Awards Celebration co-hosted by his longtime friend Ruby Shamir, executive director of AIFL Israel, with AIFL US executive director Wayne Firestone. Bar-Ner has been active in AIFL from the time Tenzer founded the organization 49 years ago in the belief that “it is important to have people-to-people relations, not just government relations.”

“The AIFL leadership in both Israel and the US wanted to salute a lifetime of service to Israel and the Jewish people from ambassador Bar-Ner,” said AIFL Israel chairman Danny Gillerman and AIFL US president Jonathan Barsade.“

From his early leadership as a US youth camp shaliach [emissary from Israel, in 1960-63 in Hendersonville, North Carolina] to his roles as a professional diplomat, ambassador Bar-Ner has built friends and allies for Israel. We are grateful for his unique contributions to AIFL to cap his productive career.” Bar-Ner started life as Uri Berger in 1935, the year his parents arrived in Haifa from Poland.“ The rest of their families, except four cousins whom my father brought to Israel with him from Belgium, were killed in a death camp that I visited in 1995 in a diplomatic capacity – and only then realized the magnitude of the calamity,” Bar-Ner relates. “The Poles opened the archives and I saw the list of about 100 relatives who were killed.” The Haifa in which Bar-Ner grew up was marked by peaceful relations between its 50-50 mix of Jewish and Arab residents. But after the April 1948 Battle of Haifa, less than a month before the War of Independence began, many Arab residents fled.“

It’s important for every Israeli to understand that the Palestinian Arabs were not chased out by the Hagana. They left because the Grand Mufti Haj Amin el Husseini told them to leave. He said they’d kill all the Jews and then they’d return and get our homes,” Bar-Ner relates. At Reali School in Haifa, he excelled in academics and in broad jumping. “Thirty years later, I met a friend from those days who said it was wonderful to see me face to face, because he’d only ever seen my back,” Bar-Ner says with a smile. After graduating, he served in a Nahal Infantry Unit. During that unsettling time, in 1956, a friend of his fell in battle at Mitla Pass during the Sinai Campaign. He says his life was forever affected by that tragedy and by the death of his 23-year-old cousin at the hands of the British in 1946.Bar-Ner himself was shot at by Syrian snipers from the Golan Heights while working in the vineyards on Mount Sussita above Kibbutz Ein Gev during his army service. Fortunately, the bullets missed.

It would not be his only brush with death.“ Members of the PFLP tried to kill me twice in Turkey,” he says, referring to the terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, notorious for the Black September hijackings in 1970 and the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972.
“The Mossad saved me and whisked me back to Israel,” he says. Nevertheless, as Israel’s ambassador to Turkey from 1999 to 2002, Bar-Ner helped forge close defense relations between the two countries.“ I was involved on many occasions where we sold Phantom F4 planes and Merkava tanks to Turkey.”

THE BAR-NERS with dignitaries in Washington, 1973. (Bar-Ner Family)

LYNNE BAR-NER says she still suffers post-traumatic stress from dangers her family endured. When her husband was deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Israel in Copenhagen in the early ‘70s, the Bar-Ners had 24-hour guards, and their two little boys needed a police escort to preschool.

Shortly before they left Denmark for Washington in July 1973 – when their daughter was a newborn – Israeli military attaché to the US Joe Alon was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.“ From then on, we were not allowed to live in a private home,” Lynne Bar-Ner says. “We had to live in an apartment above the third floor in case terrorists tried to attack.” The sojourn in Washington was the family’s longest. Bar-Ner served from 1973-78 under ambassador Simcha Dinitz as director of information, culture and Jewish affairs and minister of the Embassy of Israel.“

I was in charge of communicating with Jewish communities all over the United States,” he says. “We hosted many celebrities and dignitaries in our home, among them violinist Itzhak Perlman.” Bar-Ner was especially close with New York Congressman Jack Kemp. “He used to call me ‘my Jewish rabbi.’” He also struck up a friendship with antiwar activist Tom Hayden. Hayden invited Bar-Ner to the set of the 1980 film 9 to 5 in which Hayden’s wife, Jane Fonda, was starring. Several months later, Hayden and Fonda took their two kids to Israel and arranged a visit to the Bar-Ner home in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood.“ Evidently, one of my kids had told all our neighbors that they were coming,” Lynne says. “So the neighbors were all sitting on the lawn between our townhouses when they arrived. We had a very nice visit for a couple of hours, and our older son ended up taking [Fonda’s daughter] Vanessa to the Israel Museum.”

Looking back on his long list of diplomatic accomplishments, Bar-Ner reflects, “My task was to represent the country and change negative attitudes toward Israel. I never looked for easy tasks. I helped to develop cultural relations between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and I developed good relations with the Jewish communities in the United States. I raised funds to bring many delegations of youth and cultural directors to Israel.” One of his proudest accomplishments is raising the money to establish Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva, which he still actively supports.“ I met Irving Schneider during our time in New York, and in 1990 he agreed to contribute $80 million toward founding the hospital. And I raised an additional $30 million to build it,” he says, noting that the project was headed by Prof. Haim Doron, then Clalit Health Services director-general; and Prof. Yehuda Danon, then director-general of Beilinson Medical Center.

After their final posting in Turkey, the Bar-Ners spent many happy years in Jerusalem before relocating to Modi’in.“ I would have loved to devote more time and efforts to strengthen the State of Israel in every possible way,” says Bar-Ner. “But I don’t miss traveling, and my wife misses it even less; it was very difficult for her,” he acknowledges. “If not for Lynne, I could not have achieved any of it. She was a first-class hostess and managed and maintained contacts with the people wherever we were.” Bar-Ner, who wrote a book in Hebrew simply titled My Life, says he has three messages for Israelis today.“ The first is to keep the country strong because this is the only way we can save the Jewish people. When we are strong, nobody can attack us. Secondly, we must be a center to the Jewish community worldwide. The third important thing is to maintain excellent relations with the United States for the safety and security of both countries.”