Herzog to JPost: I’m ready to fight for the Jewish Diaspora

Isaac Herzog, the new head of the Jewish Agency, vows to use the Jewish state law to help world Jewry.

MK Isaac Herzog
The Jewish Nation-State Law that passed at 2:47 a.m. Thursday morning upset Jewish leaders around the world, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved in to a demand from United Torah Judaism to change its Diaspora clause.
While the clause initially said Israel would “act to maintain the connection between the state and the Jewish people, wherever they are,” it was changed to say that Israel would do that “in the Diaspora.” UTJ requested the change, because it did not want Israel advancing Diaspora Jews’ interests inside Israel, especially at the Western Wall.
New Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog is drawing no such lines. In his first full-length interview with an English media outlet since accepting the post, he promises to fight for Diaspora Jewry, both in Israel and around the world.
To that end, Herzog has an unexpected secret weapon, which he revealed to The Jerusalem Post in the interview at the opposition leader’s office in the Knesset that he will soon be leaving: the Jewish Nation-State Law.
Yes, that same law that Diaspora Jewish leaders are upset about can serve their cause more than they realize, he says, and he intends to make that happen. Herzog just returned from a visit to Australia that was planned long before he knew he would chair the agency.
Just as indigenous Australians used boomerangs as weapons, Herzog vows to make the Jewish Nation-State Law boomerang against those in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties who wanted it to stymie the agenda of Diaspora Jews.
He believes he can do that from the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, a post once held by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
In the far-reaching interview, Herzog, who officially takes over the agency chairmanship from Natan Sharansky on August 1, discusses how he will handle challenges like egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, European antisemitism, and his relationship with the man who didn’t want him to get the job, Netanyahu.
You are leaving behind the Zionist Union, which has been going through tough times. By accepting the Jewish Agency job, did you escape from the ‘Titanic’?
The opportunity came forward regardless of the situation of the Zionist Union. I considered lucidly whether I should serve the Jewish people, and I decided to take it. I am an optimist. Polls don’t always show how things will go on Election Day. Politics is like a wheel, and what is down can go back up. For me, leaving the political system isn’t necessarily smart. But I accepted the job because there are challenges facing the Jewish people, and I want to leave my mark.
Did you take the job as a stepping-stone to run in 2021 for the job that will open then, which your father held, president of Israel?
Reuvi [Reuven Rivlin] is a wonderful president, who still has three years to go. When I take a position, I take it with my whole heart and soul. I never think about where to move on. I want to succeed in the Jewish Agency. It’s a very important role. I found a superb group of men and women there who are devoted to helping the Diaspora, encouraging aliya, fighting BDS, and very many challenges. I have been very impressed by them. More must be done to expose what is being accomplished, so people will be aware of what we offer.
Your term as opposition leader is ending with the Nation-State bill. How will the bill impact Diaspora Jewry?
The bill is not only insufficient, it tilts the balance. It could have an adverse impact on Israel as a Jewish state. When you read it, it appears to be a declarative bill with no operative steps, but the haredim are worried the Supreme Court will interpret it in favor of progressive Jews, no matter what it says.
The Diaspora clause is wide, with three sub-clauses. Two of them are as uncontroversial as motherhood and apple pie (about protecting Jews in danger and the heritage of Diaspora communities). As for the controversial clause, it is a given that the government acts in Israel, no matter what. We know there was a hidden agenda, and the clause was changed for political reasons. But I tried desperately to explain to people that they are reading it wrong.
Saying the government will act on behalf of the Jews in the Diaspora serves a purpose: We can tell the government to help, foster, protect, and have a dialogue with, the Diaspora. The Jewish leaders are not wrong to be upset, and Sharansky was right to write a letter complaining. The overall picture is better but not sufficient, so we are voting and fighting against it. After the bill’s passage, the real test will be in the doing, not in the rhetoric.
I will use it to demand further resources, allocations and attention for the Diaspora. I can flip it for the good of the Jewish people. It will boomerang against all those who thought it would limit the dialogue between Diaspora Jews and Israel.
But I was very saddened by the vote, and in the small hours of the night I spoke with Netanyahu as leader of the opposition and said only time will tell if Israel will be hurt or not by this bill, because what we have tried throughout Israel’s existence is to keep full equality between all its citizens, and this bill may be wrongly interpreted. I hope it won’t happen and that the system will be strong enough to keep full equality among all citizens of Israel.
One of your biggest challenges is accomplishing a solution for the Western Wall. If Sharansky, who helped bring down the Iron Curtain, could not fix the situation with the Wall, how can you, or anyone?
Natan is a great Jewish leader and one of my role models. I demonstrated for him in New York as a student at Ramaz High School, which influenced me to work for the Jewish people. I cannot guarantee 100% success, but I will give 100% effort. I will do whatever I can. I can’t do it alone. Throughout Jewish history, no one could bring all the Jews together. But I hope, as the Book of Esther says about Mordechai, I can get the support of most of the Jews.
I am worried about the rifts and splits. Since I was elected by the agency’s board of governors, I’ve been thinking about what needs to be done. I have heard a multitude of voices – anger, frustration, love and affection – just like in a family. Policies in Israel insulted our brothers in the Diaspora. We need to explain to each other our points of view.
What did you think of the refusal of Likud ministers to approve renovations at the Kotel’s egalitarian prayer site?
I absolutely support anything that helps the egalitarian prayer site. I have a copyright on the site. In 1999, when I was cabinet secretary and there were riots led by Conservative movement leader Rabbi Andy Sacks, then-religious affairs minister Yitzhak Cohen called me for a solution, and I came up with creating an egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s Arch archaeological site. I got Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s blessing. I came to him with Cohen and then-Yeshiva University head Rabbi Norman Lamm to explain to him what it means to the Reform and Conservative movements. It was a lengthy process, but the solution was carved out.
When the Women of the Wall petitioned the Supreme Court, the nine judges came to see my solution. Justices Aharon Barak and Izhak Englard wanted to see that the worshipers could touch the Wall. Since then, the site has been upgraded by each and every government. Therefore, I welcome the efforts of the prime minister and his office to upgrade the site. Our final aim should be the compromise that Sharansky worked out two years ago and was then rescinded.
The lack of support for that in Netanyahu’s Likud has to do with its internal politics. A majority of the people in the party are not religious, but their practice is based on Orthodox practice. This is the source of misunderstandings.
There have been programs to bridge the gap, like Birthright and Masa. From this rift, we need to come out more unified and strong. In my final speech as opposition leader, I told the MKs to please listen and respect the Jewish Diaspora and take into account that words said here in the Knesset could harm them. I will work on that rift, and I hope to succeed.
The difference of opinion among Israelis and US Jews on US President Donald Trump has made it harder to bridge the gap. Can it be done while he is president?
As a center-left, liberal Israeli leader, I understand what it means to be in the opposition. Having said that, Israel has enormous interests at stake that depend on the relations between the US and its leaders. We have to go above and beyond that. Politics and circumstances change. We have to learn to rise above them.
Is there any soul-searching that must be done by the Diaspora if there is a 71% intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews in the US?
I am in a learning process. It would be wrong of me to discuss this. It could harm my effort to reach dialogue. But, of course, we want Jewish continuity.
You were criticized for calling intermarriage a plague. Do you have anything to say about the reaction to that statement?
Not at this time.
You were chosen for this job despite the opposition of Netanyahu, who did not want it going to his opposition leader. How will you get along with him?
I met with Netanyahu a few days after I got the job, when Prince William was in Israel. He briefed me, as he must brief the opposition leader on security issues, and I am due to receive another security briefing at the end of the month. After that, we sat alone and discussed in a correct and honest way the need for both of us to move forward. We are grown-ups, and we serve the cause of our people together. I extended my hand to him for further cooperation, and I am sure relations with the government of Israel will be enhanced, no matter who leads it.
What should be the Jewish Agency’s stance toward far-right European parties in Austria, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere, especially where the parties are in government, like in Austria?
As opposition leader I met with Chancellor [Sebastian] Kurz of Austria. We had a very open discussion, and he said there was a change in his allies’ discourse on these issues, they are definitely against antisemitism, etc. However, the outrageous call this week by an Austrian politician who is a member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria to restrict the sale of kosher meat to registered Jews speaks to the contrary.
Each case needs to be judged on its merits. The underlying rule is no acceptance in any way of antisemitic undertones, or antisemitic rhetoric, or antisemitic political belief, period. No ifs or buts. However, we need to judge the facts in each circumstance and see what is the truth.
I was the cabinet secretary who made the declaration on behalf of the Israeli government on cutting off ties and recalling our ambassador to Vienna following the election of [far-right leader] Jorg Haider [who was included in the Austrian government in 2000].
We now have the challenge of [Heinz-Christian] Strache [leader of the Freedom Party of Austria, which is a coalition member]. At least we can confront the chancellor and speak to him frankly about it and explain to him how deep runs the need to reject antisemitism for Jews.
Do you support the Foreign Ministry’s policy of not engaging with the Freedom Party of Austria?
Yes, I support it. And I think the current policy vis-à-vis the Austrian government headed by Chancellor Kurz, who is a great friend of Israel, is correct. We live in a world of complicated politics, and this should be the underlying rule of how we address every other situation. It also depends if there is an inner debate in these parties and whether they want to change their platform and learn the lessons of the past.
We should be wary of antisemitic parties. It’s totally different from saying be wary of far-right parties. [Far-]right-wing and [far-]left wing parties exist everywhere in democracies. The position of the government of Israel vis-à-vis each one of them is a political issue.
When it comes to an antisemitic party, it’s an unequivocal no, and here the Jewish Agency must raise its position and say it out loud.
The Jewish Agency cannot voice an opinion, however, about the internal politics of other countries. We also operate in countries, for the well-being of Jews, which are unfortunately undemocratic. If it comes to issues pertaining to the Jewish people, we should voice an opinion. Otherwise, it’s for the government of Israel to take a position.