Jacques Torczyner, pioneer of modern Zionism, dies at 98

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Urbane, multilingual, well traveled, Jacques Torczyner came across as a citizen of the world. He was. Yet his life’s work focused on one place, Israel, and one cause, Zionism.

With Torczyner’s death March 7 in Saratoga, the world lost one of the last pioneers of modern Zionism. He was 98.

The Belgian native spent many evenings in his youth at the feet of Zionist visionaries. He later fled Hitler for the safety of America, where he rallied Jews to the cause of a Jewish state. He spent the rest of his life stirring others to align with Israel.

Jacques Torczyner

“Jacques was a monumental figure in the world Zionist movement,” said Torczyner’s friend, radio personality and author John Rothmann. “He was part of Israel’s history from 1948, he witnessed all the great movements, knew all the Zionist leaders and was committed to bringing Israel to future generations.”

Said Robert Torczyner of his father, “He had extremely good political insight and was a very persuasive person. He was very instrumental in the creation of the State of Israel, from the standpoint of gathering support needed for the Zionist movement leading up to 1948.”

Torczyner grew up in Antwerp in a strongly Zionist household. His father was president of the Belgian Zionist Federation, and

their home was a mandatory stop for Jewish leaders from Palestine, among them Nachum Goldman and Chaim Weizmann.

Soon after Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940, Torczyner and his wife, Berthe, as well as members of their extended families, fled to France, then Spain and, eventually, to Cuba. Once they obtained visas, the couple settled in Manhattan, living in a cozy West Side apartment for 55 years.

Though he maintained the family’s diamond business, Torczyner focused on Israel. He became active with the Zionist Organiza-tion of America and in July 1945 attended a pivotal New York meeting called by David Ben-Gurion to organize American support for the Jewish armed forces in Palestine.

Torczyner was never far from the center of global Zionist activism. After the founding of Israel, he worked with the Jewish Agency. He served five consecutive terms as president of the ZOA, and was an intimate of every Israeli prime minister from Ben-Gurion on.

But he was at his best when holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

“He spoke at many meetings,” recalled his son. “He would go on for an hour with only an index card with bullet points on it. He was an incredibly engaging and motivating speaker. In English, French, Dutch or German.”

From 1974 to 1977, Torczyner served as chairman of the American section of the World Jewish Congress. From 1972 to 1998 he was an executive with the World Zionist Organization, in charge of its foreign relations department.

Average number of annual visits to Israel: 10.

He also served as a member of the American UNESCO committee and an adviser to UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor Zaragoza. Back home, he plunged into Republican politics, be-friending party leaders and presidents from Nixon to the Bushes.

“He would bring American leaders to Israel,” said his son. “He wanted leaders here to see Israel with their own eyes, and see that it was really a jewel.”

It wasn’t all work. Torczyner was a family man, as well. His son recalls his father attempting to teach his baseball-mad boys soccer, with minimal success. But when not traveling, their father was a true homebody.

“We always had dinner at 7,” Robert Torczyner said, “and every Sunday we had wonderful traditional foods from Belgium: tongue, liverwurst, salami and all the things we’re not allowed to eat now. He ate those things all his life.”

Torczyner never fully retired, but in 1999, at age 85, he moved to Northern California to be closer to family. He and his wife lived in the Contra Costa County senior community of Rossmoor, where he joined MEICOR, the Middle East Information Council of Rossmoor, a public forum that presented pro-Israel perspectives.

Into their 90s, the Torczyners would get on BART and come to San Francisco for meetings or concerts. Not a day went by when his email inbox wasn’t flooded with messages, and not a day went by when Torczyner failed to read the Jerusalem Post or Le Monde online.

He also took great philanthropic interest in a Bay Area–based pro-Israel advocacy nonprofit, BlueStar, and its teen program, Write On for Israel.

“Whenever I visited him, he would press for details about what happened in the news,” said BlueStar executive director Jonathan Carey. “He was sharp as a tack, had strong opinions and was not afraid to voice them. He cared a lot, but he was also extremely realistic.”

In 2012, he and Berthe moved into an assisted-living facility in Saratoga. Torczyner was active until the end.

“He was respected by everyone,” Rothmann said. “He witnessed the birth of Israel, the victory of 1967. This is the passing of history. He lived it, he made it, and he deserves to be remembered.”

Jacques Torczyner is survived by his wife of 74 years, Berthe Torczyner of Saratoga, son Robert Torczyner of Saratoga, and two grandchildren.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.