Israel's presidential candidates promote unity in Israel and abroad

#16 - Presidential Candidates: ​Isaac Herzog, Miriam Peretz ​and Amir Peretz

(L-R)  Isaac Herzog,  Miriam Peretz, and Amir Peretz (Photo credits: Marc Israel Sellem / Wikipedia) (photo credit: Courtesy)
(L-R) Isaac Herzog, Miriam Peretz, and Amir Peretz (Photo credits: Marc Israel Sellem / Wikipedia)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He’s been a cabinet secretary, member of Knesset, government minister, chairman of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition, but if you ask Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog which of his roles he likes best, the reply will be: “It’s like asking who do you prefer: your mother or your father?” Herzog, an attorney by profession, who before entering politics, was a partner in the Herzog, Fox & Neeman law firm founded by his father Chaim Herzog, who was Israel’s sixth president, says that he has loved every role to which he was elected or appointed, and has entered it with his whole heart and soul Nonetheless, one gets the impression that although he’s probably working harder and spending longer hours in his current role, this is the one that truly speaks to his heart, because it is in so many ways an amalgam of his heritage.
Herzog comes from a family with a long history of public and community service in numerous fields, including religion, the army, diplomacy, politics, environment, health and much more. His paternal grandfather was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. His paternal grandmother was the founder of World Emunah. His maternal great grandparents were among the founders of Motza in the Judean Hills and his mother was the founder of the Council for a Beautiful Israel.
His extended family in Israel and abroad includes many people of note.
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Given his personal and family background, Herzog, when taking on the responsibilities of the Jewish Agency, thought that he knew all about the Jewish people.
“It’s only when you join the Jewish Agency that you realize what you lack in knowledge,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
In his contacts with different Jewish communities both in person and via social media, he has come to understand that inasmuch as each community is different, they face common issues of preserving Jewish identity, developing and maintaining connections to Israel, aliya and theological problems as well. All these issues are constant features in the Jewish Agency’s agenda, the bottom line of which is “the unity of our people.” Asked about proposed legislation to change the Law of Return and to refuse to recognize as Jews people who were converted abroad, Herzog is cautiously optimistic that such laws will not pass.
“I believe that the government of Israel understands that it must unite the Jewish people and not create further rifts,” he said. He is particularly conscious of the fact that many people who are descended from Jews who were forced to convert or who were exiled and as a consequence assimilated out of Judaism, now want to claim their lost heritage. Not only do they want to rejoin the Jewish People, but many also want to live in Israel.
With Jewish unity uppermost in his mind, Herzog spends considerable time talking to religious and political leaders about Jewish unity, and has witnessed a meltdown of former rigidity. He cites as an example Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the head of Har Bracha Yeshiva, who through his articles, has publicly reached out to the Reform movement in an effort to promote mutual understanding and love of Israel among all Jews.
Having traveled extensively in the Jewish world prior to the closure of international airports, Herzog was asked which Jewish community he found to be most interesting or unique. Rather than give a direct reply, he opted to refer to a juxtaposition of history. A habit that he picked up from his father, is to visit synagogues in whatever city he happens to be. Again, taking his cue from his father, he likes to explore the synagogue library to see what books it has and who donated them.
Last November, while visiting Connecticut, Herzog had an urge to set foot inside America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island founded by descendants of Portuguese exiles some 260 years ago. One of the prize possessions of the synagogue is the written promise of religious freedom to the Jews of America given by George Washington in 1790. America’s first president had written “Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This was particularly moving to Herzog, as he recalled that in October the previous year, there had been an attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during which 11 people had been killed.
Rising antisemitism in the world, coupled with COVID-19 and technological advances, have prompted more people, especially young people, to think seriously about aliyah. The Jewish Agency has received an avalanche of inquiries from all over the world, and given limitations related to COVID-19, the number of immigrants in recent months has been quite significant, with a 30% increase of arrivals from English-speaking countries.
In line with its concerns for the preservation of Jewish unity and identity, the Jewish Agency has established a special fund for communities in distress. Herzog remains in direct contact with such communities to ensure that they have both moral and financial support.
The Jewish Agency also maintains contact with the Jewish communities in the Middle East and was in direct contact with the Jews of Dubai and Abu Dhabi prior to the announcement of a peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Herzog is convinced that the number of immigrants over the next five years will be in the realm of 250,000, a factor that he believes will contribute substantially to Israel’s economy.
HERZOG’S NAME has been bandied about as a potential candidate in Israel’s upcoming presidential elections. For the time being, he is reluctant to talk about it, explaining that anything could happen in the coming months to change the present situation.
Despite a compromise having been reached between Likud and Blue and White to prevent a fourth election in a two-year period, there is still the possibility of yet another dissolution of the Knesset in coming months. If there are new Knesset elections, the overall makeup of the next Knesset will not be identical to the present one. Moreover, there is no telling at this stage who else will be in the race. At this time last year, Yuli Edelstein, who was then Speaker of the Knesset, was a frontline runner for the presidency. But then in March of this year, he defied the Supreme Court and resigned from his position. Now as Health Minister, with no solution in sight to the coronavirus crisis, Edelstein has become an unlikely candidate, but this does not necessarily mean that he’s permanently out of the running.
Herzog’s hesitation about deciding whether to make a run for the presidency was borne out by the recent announcement by former Labor MK and cabinet minister Prof. Shimon Shetreet that he is a contender for the presidency.
An internationally respected professor of law, Shetreet, 74 is also an expert in Jewish Law and as a boy of 13, won the National Bible Contest. Like Amir Peretz and Miriam Peretz, he was born in Morocco. If all three remain in the race, this will be the first time that the majority of candidates will be Moroccan-born. In the previous contest in which Reuven Rivlin ran against former cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit (no relation), the latter was also Moroccan-born. If Herzog joins the race, three of the contenders will be Labor Party stalwarts.
Two other potential candidates are current Labor chairman and Minister for Economy Amir Peretz, and Israel Prize laureate Miriam Peretz, an educator, who after losing two sons who were killed while on active duty in the army, became a public figure. Though both are Moroccan-born, the two are not related.
AMIR PERETZ has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be president, and has even developed a more statesmanlike demeanor and mode of dress. During his 32 years in the Knesset, Peretz, who previously served as chairman of the Federation of Labor and before that as head of the Sderot Municipal Council, was usually seen in an open-neck shirt. His manner of speech was rough and loud, almost to the point of shouting. These days, he wears a suit and tie and his tone has softened by several decibels.
The main hurdle that he has to overcome is that there are only two other members of Labor in the Knesset, so he has to work hard to win over MKs from other parties, though he would probably get the nod from the three Meretz MKs. The presidential elections are conducted in and by the Knesset. No one other than an MK can vote in the presidential elections.
Miriam Peretz is at an even greater disadvantage. Though she is a riveting orator who speaks frequently about Jewish unity and love of Israel, she is not a current or former MK, and while the 120 members of the Knesset all know about her, not all of them know her personally. Moreover, neither Shas, nor United Torah Judaism MKs are likely to vote for her, and because she is religious, she would probably miss out on the Meretz vote as well. As an Israeli nationalist, with grandchildren residents in the West Bank, she’s also unlikely to get the vote of the Arab Joint List. If the vote were dependent on the Israeli public, Miriam Peretz would have a good chance, but taking into account the total number of MKs who would not vote for her, she might decide not to run.