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03 September 2014

Blue Plaques and Chaim Herzog



Back in the nineteenth century, London pioneered a practice of putting blue plaques on the walls of buildings where significant people had been born, lived, worked or died. Other parts of the United Kingdom followed suit, as did - subsequently - various other cities and countries around the world. In different parts of the UK, the plaques are put up and maintained by different authorities, but what they almost all have in common is that they are erected in response to proposals originally made by members of the public. They celebrate an eclectic bunch of people; from those you might expect from the arts and sciences - Darwin, Dickens, Newton - to modern popular culture - Lennon, Marley, Hendrix, Moon - to politicians, domestic and international -  Churchill, Gandhi, Roosevelt. There are lots of them, particularly in London but also in all sorts of other cities, towns and villages. It’s interesting, as you walk around, to be reminded of the history of some of these figures. 

What is important to understand, though, is that there is no political dimension to this, neither is there a requirement for the person celebrated to have been acceptable to the establishment. Thus Karl Marx has his, as does - from the other side of the political spectrum, as it were - the Duke of Wellington (in fact, the latter has several across the country). Handel and Jimi Hendrix are commemorated side-by-side in Brook Street, on the adjoining houses where they lived, several centuries apart. 

Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast in 1918. He didn’t live there long, moving with his family to Dublin and then eventually emigrating with them to Israel in the mid-1930s. He was a member of the Haganah, which probably wouldn’t have endeared him to the British Mandate authorities of the time. However, he studied law in London and then joined the British army, where he became a major in a tank regiment, involved in the fighting across Europe after D-Day. In other words, he put his life on the line in defence of western freedom, even if he also had other political thoughts. After the second world war, he became an Israeli soldier, lawyer, politician and - finally - President of Israel.

That’s quite  distinguished career, and in 1998, a plaque commemorating his life was put up on the wall of the house in Belfast where he was born. That’s really what the plaques are for - there’s no political bias, it’s just a piece of historic interest commemorating that somebody of significance once had a connection with the place. (And whatever we may think of politicians, reaching the highest office is an achievement of significance.)

So why have I written about this? Well, in August of this year that plaque was removed, at the request of the property owners (a community housing forum) because there had been a number of attacks on the building and attempts to remove it by force. It’s difficult not to sympathise with them; Northern Ireland has had its fill of sectarianism over the years, and the idea of importing yet more from the Middle East would be horrendous. But those responsible for the attacks should hang their heads in shame. Chaim Herzog was a substantial figure, and it’s perfectly reasonable for the city of his birth to commemorate him. As I said above, he fought to protect our freedom; the sooner the plaque goes back up, the better. Otherwise, when we look in the mirror at our society, we shan’t see a very pretty picture. Attacking the memory of a decent man as a ‘political’ gesture is pathetic.


This article should have been published as a summer holiday piece, last week, but internet connection problems prevented that. I thought I’d publish it anyway, and then it’s back to metals and economics next week. 

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