Isaac Herzog: Modern Jewish challenges are safety, freedom, connection

For the past 90 years, The Jewish Agency has advocated for the security, freedom and connectivity of world Jewry.

JEWISH AGENCY CHAIRMAN Isaac Herzog stands with a delegation of representatives from his organization at March of the Living this year (photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
JEWISH AGENCY CHAIRMAN Isaac Herzog stands with a delegation of representatives from his organization at March of the Living this year
(photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
For a man whose family legacy is firmly entwined with Israel’s history – his father served as the country’s sixth president, and his paternal grandfather was its Ashkenazi chief rabbi – it almost seems like fate that Isaac Herzog was appointed to lead an organization that has supported Jewish freedom for the past 90 years.
But how does his family history and The Jewish Agency’s intersect, I ask him in his office in Jerusalem. What are his earliest memories of the organization?
“Nobody ever asked me that before,” he said, momentarily stunned. Rushing to his bookcase, he gingerly removed one of the hundreds of books gracing its shelves.
Presenting a copy of his father’s memoirs, he reverently read from it:
“‘While I was bantering with the secretaries there was a tremendous explosion and the world went black. After getting my bearings I opened my door and a thick cloud of dust entered the room. Gradually, ghost-like apparitions began to grope their way out of the rubble and blood was everywhere. Rushing into the corridor I saw Aura [Herzog] lying amidst the ruins ...Aura had a bad concussion; her eyesight was in danger. The delayed shock laid her out for almost two months.”
Herzog is visibly moved as he read his father’s recollection of the terrorists who bombed the Jewish Agency building on March 11, 1948, which left 13 people dead. As for Herzog’s mother, Aura, the scars on her face still serve as a reminder of the tragedy.
Although haunted by the memory, the very fact that Herzog is sitting in the very same spot that was once turned into rubble is a victory for the Jewish people as a whole.
“To sit in [David] Ben-Gurion’s room where he [initially] declared [his intention to establish] the State of Israel is enormous,” says Herzog. “I get a huge amount of inspiration in this room. It helps me face the new challenges.”
And those challenges are numerous.
After a year that saw not one, but two shootings targeting Jews on American soil; anti-Jewish rhetoric on the Right and Left; and a worrisome antisemitism problem in the UK’s Labour Party, Herzog has his work cut out for him.
On a professional level, Herzog also has big shoes to fill, after assuming the position once occupied by Natan Sharansky, who not only enjoys folklore hero status but is credited with instilling seismic changes within the organization that faced accusations of irrelevance by its critics.
However, Herzog has a few changes of his own up his sleeve to ensure The Jewish Agency remains viable and effective throughout the 21st century. As such, he sees The Jewish Agency during his tenure as supporting three important pillars of Jewish life:
1. Ensuring the safety of the Jewish people worldwide
2. Connecting Jews around the world not only to themselves, but to Israel
3. Enhancing the Jewish Agency’s quasi-governmental role in shaping Jewish life within Israel
The Jerusalem Post spoke to three senior members of the organization who discussed how they each are doing their part to advance these separate but related missions.
SECURITY: A timeless role of rescuing Jews in crisis
Ever since a French jihadist opened fire at the Ozar HaTorah School in Toulouse in 2012, The Jewish Agency dedicated a special fund to ensuring the security of Jews in the Diaspora. That $11 million initiative is dedicated to assisting hundreds of vulnerable Jewish communities in some 40 countries to help them obtain basic security needs. From erecting fences to installing security cameras, the sad reality is that Jews abroad must be more vigilant than ever, and The Jewish Agency is dedicated to helping them do just that, explained Josh Schwarcz, the organization’s director of external relations.
“Protection is important and necessary so Jews can lead a full Jewish life when attending one of their institutions,” Schwarcz said.
So what country keeps Schwarcz up at night?
The rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Western Europe and the uptick in hate crimes targeting Jews in the US is an alarming phenomenon, he lamented.
That said, this arm of the Jewish Agency operates primarily in Europe and South America.
“We want to focus on countries with Jewish communities that have fewer resources,” he explained.
In addition to that funding, The Jewish Agency is also working in tandem with diplomatic channels to combat antisemitism on the ground, and to lobby for more foreign governments to adopt the European Parliament’s definition of antisemitism.
To date, 18 countries have adopted that definition – originally coined by The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – which states that antisemitism is: “A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Finally, The Jewish Agency is dedicated to ensuring that any Jew in distress has the option of immigrating to Israel, where he or she will be welcomed as coming home.
“We’re striving to uphold the Agency’s timeless role of rescuing the Jewish people anytime there is a Jew in crisis,” he declared. Due to the sensitivity surrounding the security of Jews under siege in these volatile places, Schwarcz declined to elaborate further on what is arguably the most urgent need for Diaspora Jewry today.
However, public record proves that for the past 90 years, this “aliyah of rescue” has brought home Jews from every corner of the globe – from those Jews fleeing Arab lands during the Farhud to today’s Jews in Venezuela coping with the country’s untenable economic situation, the Agency liaises with representatives on the ground who help usher them to safety.
“The Jewish Agency brought more than three million immigrants to Israel,” he said proudly. “We’ll be there today and will be there in the future.”
CONNECTIVITY: Changing the rules of the game
After five and a half years in Brazil, Jewish Agency Strategic Advisor Revital Poleg is finally home. She recalls her time in the massive South American country was a thrilling one, where Jewish life continues to thrive.
“My memories are still fresh,” she said. “In Brazil, you really feel like you’re making a difference in communities, and in turn, that they’re also influencing you. We were able to establish a fruitful dialogue there that’s sorely needed not only in Brazil, but around the world.”
Fostering dialogue among communities is exactly what the Jewish Agency sets out to do when it unleashes its 2,000 young Israelis who dedicate a summer, a year or more to serving the Jewish people through the organization. Under Sharansky’s tenure, the Jewish Agency revamped their shaliach system, which now recruits much younger emissaries who are encouraged to serve multiple times.
For example, a person can become an emissary before the army, again after the army by enrolling as an Agency emissary to one of the many summer camps across North America, then can serve on college campuses when they reach university age, and ultimately, can continue to serve the Jewish world when they come back to Israel.
As a result, a shaliach is not only sent to represent Israel, but to be a conduit for mutual understanding on a cultural level, Poleg argued.
“When you become a shaliach, you need to understand the country beyond your service and mission,” she said. “So for Brazil, they need to understand what Brazil is as a country. Once you understand the culture, you can better integrate into society.”
As Israel’s first diplomat in South America and whose mother is from Chile, Poleg felt right at home in Brazil, where she was “introduced to a beautiful Zionist community,” describing a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.
But while Brazilian Jews have a soft spot for Israel, many Israelis are unaware of this passionate community. This is unfortunate, she argues, as there is a healthy population of young Jews actively involved in youth movements across the country.
That said, Poleg laments that intermarriage, assimilation and reaching out to the unaffiliated continues to pose a challenge.
However, during her tenure, aliyah from Brazil increased by 400% – from 200 people to 800. Brazil now has the fifth-highest aliyah rate in the world.
Why such a spike in numbers?
“Originally, the trigger was the socio-political situation in 2013, but slowly community leaders began to emphasize the positives of aliyah on a more consistent basis,” Poleg said.
Of those who made aliyah, some 70% were 18-45 years old.
“That’s the aliyah we’re looking for,” Poleg added.
To ignite this spike in community involvement and interest in aliyah, the Jewish Agency worked closely with the Brazilian Israelite Confederation.
“This partnership enabled me to do new projects in small, remote communities across the country, mostly in northern Brazil,” Poleg explained.
As such, Poleg reached out to some 15 far-flung communities that are “fighting daily to remain Jewish. I saw it as my mission to be present there. I didn’t want to ask them to come to us, I wanted us to come to them.”
An example of projects implemented included weekend leadership seminars in dozens of these communities.
For those living in large and active Jewish communities with many resources, such a seminar may not seem like much, but to these communities, addressing their specific needs gives them the power to continue their quest for Jewish connectivity.
“We changed the rules of the game,” she said proudly.
WORKING WITH Israel’s government:  A Western Wall for all?
Perhaps the most delicate field in which the Jewish Agency must navigate is how it relates to its governmental obligations.
“The Jewish Agency has a special status,” explained Yigal Palmor, head of the International Relations Unit and foreign policy adviser to the chairman of The Jewish Agency.
While the legalities of that status are quite complex, it simply translates into the organization’s ability to encourage aliyah and help olim in Israel on behalf of the government. From background checks on potential olim to providing them with professional training and Hebrew classes, The Jewish Agency works closely with the absorption and interior ministries when it comes to the multi-faceted aliya process.
“The Kotel (Western Wall) has been at the core of Jewish life for centuries and there should be a place at the Wall for every Jew. I had the honor of initiating a solution back in 1993,” Herzog explained.
However two years ago, when Sharansky played an integral role in drafting a compromise between non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and the Israeli government to introduce an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, this critical aspect of the organization came to the forefront.
 “The agreement made a few years ago carried on in the same spirit, respecting existing traditions, while enabling expression of all Jewish streams and practices,” Herzog said of that new deal. “Unfortunately, politics prevented the plan’s implementation, and when I entered the office of chairman, the situation was at an impasse. I’ve been dedicating much effort ever since to lower tensions and reach a new consensus that will not exclude any Jew from the Kotel. I see it as a priority. The Kotel must not be a source of rift.”
When that plan fell apart after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yielded to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox, Sharansky – and The Jewish Agency – were the first to condemn the move.
“Sharansky never cared much for his own personal prestige, but rather, he wanted to protect the Jewish Agency’s status as the most important bridge between Israel and the Diaspora,” Palmor revealed. “When it fell apart, he felt betrayed to a great extent.”
When Herzog assumed office, then, he inherited this clash between Diaspora Jews and the Israeli government and the dispute not only on the Kotel issue, but the rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion and marriage as well.
“These issues are precisely the kind of things you don’t deal with during an electoral year,” Herzog said. “But since that’s our reality for the past year and a half, not much has been done.”
However, with the wounds still very fresh, Herzog is not afraid to have brought everyone to the table once again.
“Is there an alternative plan cooking?” Palmor asked. “I don’t know. I think [Herzog] wants to be discreet about it because he doesn’t want to advocate for specific ideas, [and] only be a target for criticism. The idea is to negotiate behind the scenes.”
At the time of this writing, it is still unclear whether the leaders of Israel’s evenly split electorate will manage to cobble together a viable coalition government, or whether Israelis will be heading to their third election in a year. Regardless of which government ultimately controls the reins of State, the Jewish Agency is committed to cooperation.
But there are big internal changes ahead within the organization, most of which will be revealed this month during the annual Board of Governors meeting, where Herzog will present a 10-year plan aimed at restructuring.
With a new CEO and chairman at the helm, a new digital age rewriting the rules of the game, and global antisemitism rearing its ugly head yet again, the organization understands that if it wants to survive another 90 years, it must embrace these challenges head on.
Herzog seems confident that the young people of The Jewish Agency will help steer the organization in the right direction so it can continue to flourish for another 90 years.
“There are incredible people who are working here – younger, relatively young – who are full of energy and engulfed in a sense of purpose,” he said. “We have to take into account that we don’t have the privilege of taking any risk of quarreling among ourselves. What an amazing era this is: Jewish life flourishes, and all we hear about is quarreling. There is much more love of Israel if we bring together a dialogue. I’m an optimist.”