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Who will replace Isaac Herzog at the Jewish Agency? - opinion


NEWLY ELECTED President Isaac Herzog visits the grave of his father, Chaim Herzog, at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem earlier this month. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

As Isaac Herzo.g is packing his bags to make the move to the President’s Residence, a new political race is heating up to replace him as the head of the Jewish Agency.

Yet, few are taking interest. The Jewish Agency is probably the most underappreciated office in Israel’s capital. While Israelis view it as archaic and Diaspora Jews primarily think of it in terms of aliyah resources, the Jewish Agency runs an almost half-a-billion dollar budget.

It’s more important role, though, is in strengthening the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, a task that is growing harder by the minute. At this critical time, we need a visionary bridge builder at the helm of the Jewish Agency.

The Diaspora support for Israel, which was once a given, can no longer be taken for granted. In the days of the Israel-Hamas hostilities, we at Am Echad sent out individual letters of support to all members of the government and the Knesset. Our small gesture was met with dozens of emotional responses from both Knesset members and their staff people (complete with obligatory expressive Israeli emojis). They really appreciated that their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora were thinking of them and of Israel during those difficult days.

If the recent military hostilities with Hamas have taught us anything it is that American Jewry is at a crossroads. On the one side of the spectrum, some on the progressive left have chosen to come out in favor of the Palestinians. There are 100 rabbinical students at Reform and Conservative seminaries who openly accused Israel of apartheid and racial violence. The statement was met with deafening silence by all (but one) heads of the rabbinic seminaries and by the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements. These leaders themselves, while acknowledging Israel’s suffering and right to self-defense, stuck to the “both parties” lines, which works well at the UN, but fails to acknowledge the special bond Jews all over the world share.

Furthermore, many progressive Jews, who experienced antisemitism (comedian Sarah Silverman comes to mind) were upset for being singled out over the actions of a “foreign government,” actively denying any unique connection between them and Israel.

On the other hand, not surprisingly, the staunchest support for Israel came from the communities aligned with traditional Judaism and especially the Orthodox. The recent Pew report has shown that while 91% of Orthodox American Jews see shared commonality with Israeli Jews, these numbers are progressively lower in liberal communities. Especially worrying is the fact that 50% of Jews under 30 see little connection with their Israeli counterparts. Both Yitzhak Herzog and the outgoing Minister of Diaspora Omer Yankelevich have recognized this trend and have worked hard to nurture the loyal base of Israel support in the Orthodox community.

The incoming Jewish Agency head will need a lot of wisdom and finesse to maintain the relationship. The social justice movement’s failure to condemn antisemitism and show allyship with progressive American Jews, hand in hand with their own growing alienation, beg the question of whether this relationship is salvageable. Certainly every effort needs to be made to preserve what’s left of it and if possible reverse the trend. Yet, the new Chairman’s ability to continue maintaining the bond with the traditionally pro-Israel communities is just as important. They cannot be taken for granted.

The liberal Jewish movements have been pushing one candidate, who while religiously observant, holds views outside of the traditional consensus. His supporters in the progressive circles see him as an ally to their political goals. However, it is safe to say his nomination would undermine relationships with the Orthodox community, the fastest growing segment of world Jewry. A better choice would be someone like the outgoing chairman Yitzhak Herzog, a traditional Jew who has the respect of (and for) all segments of the Jewish world.

This may become a challenge, considering the incoming government’s religion and state policies. Left-wing parties in the new coalition have pledged to undo the status quo and advance legislation that would make Israel less traditional and less overtly Jewish. Copy-pasting the same policy at the Jewish Agency will backfire. It will not bring back the progressives, yet will alienate the strong base of Israel support within the traditional communities in the world over.

It is therefore crucial that the nominating body put politics aside and choose a candidate with the power of vision, personal charisma, and diplomatic finesse to create relationships, not destroy them.

It’s a lot to ask in a political nomination, yet if there was ever a Rubicon in Israel-Diaspora relations it is today. We pray that the people charged with making the appointment will understand the gravity of the moment and make the best choice for the mutual future of the Jewish people everywhere.

The writer is cochairman of Am Echad, an organization dedicated to strengthening the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.


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