MK Isaac Herzog.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Jewish Agency was the forebearer of the State of Israel as we know it today. David Ben-Gurion first served as the head of the Jewish Agency, a position from which he catapulted the Jewish community under the British mandate into independence and statehood.
In the state’s early years, the agency facilitated the waves of aliya of Jews from Europe, North Africa and across the globe, working to ensure a smooth absorption. It continued to morph, moving in more recent years away from its immigration role to become more involved and instrumental in bolstering Jewish identity throughout the Diaspora.
It also plays an important role as the main gathering place for Jews no matter who they are, where they come from or how they practice their Judaism. The agency is a place unmarred by politics. Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, unaffiliated Jews and Orthodox Jews can all come together under the auspices of the agency. There, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties play almost no role and the prime minister’s political constraints are less felt.
That is why we believe Isaac Herzog, the current head of the Opposition and Labor Party MK, is perfectly suited to replace Natan Sharansky and become the new chairman of the Jewish Agency. Herzog was selected by the agency’s nominating committee on Thursday and is scheduled to assume the role on August 1.
Herzog is suited for the role for a variety of reasons. First, he is intimately familiar with the Diaspora and the challenges it faces. He spent some of his formative years in New York, attending a Jewish high school and Jewish summer camp. As cabinet secretary between 1999 and 2001, Herzog was instrumental in formulating a plan to allow egalitarian prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall). Like last year, as it was then, the plan was stymied due to haredi opposition.
Later, in 2007, Herzog served as Diaspora minister and in recent years, as head of opposition. He has participated in countless conferences, gatherings and roundtables all aimed at bridging the divide between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
Beyond the roles he has filled, Herzog also brings to the Jewish Agency his natural ability to get along with everyone. As seen by the waves of praise from across the political spectrum, Herzog is liked by all, even by his fiercest ideological opponents.
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And while many in the media portrayed his appointment as an act of vengeance by American Jewish leaders against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his decision to nix the Kotel deal, that is not the case. Herzog and Netanyahu have an excellent working relationship and while the prime minister wanted other candidates due to political interests, he too knows that Herzog is the right choice to lead the agency.
This doesn’t mean that Herzog’s job will be easy. He comes to the agency at a time of growing frustration with Israel among Diaspora Jews, be it the Kotel crisis, conversion legislation or the simple fact that Israel’s current politics and policies don’t speak to the majority of Jews in North America.
Herzog will need to work to stabilize the agency and help it continue to remain relevant throughout the Jewish world. Diaspora Jewry desperately needs a connection with the Jewish state, via formal and informal education, visits to Israel and engagement that helps strengthen a collective sense of peoplehood as well as national and religious identity.
One advantage that Herzog has is that he is not a Netanyahu crony. He is unlikely to use his new post to attack the prime minister but he also is a well-known political entity. He unequivocally supports a two-state solution, he believes in religious pluralism and is an experienced political operator who knows, better than most, how to navigate Israel’s halls of power. This will all come in handy when deals need to be brokered over issues like the Kotel, conversion and the agency’s budget.
Herzog’s main job, though, is clear to articulate: Unite the Jewish people. We wish him the best of luck.
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