Yaakov Hagoel: Wearing two hats of Jewish leadership

Hagoel has been chairman of the WZO since last October, and he assumed his responsibilities at The Jewish Agency this past summer when Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog was elected president.

 YAAKOV HAGOEL, chairman, World Zionist Organization; acting chairman, The Jewish Agency Executive. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
YAAKOV HAGOEL, chairman, World Zionist Organization; acting chairman, The Jewish Agency Executive.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

As the head of two of Israel’s most venerable NGOs, Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and acting chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency, is a busy man.

Hagoel has been chairman of the WZO since last October, and he assumed his responsibilities at The Jewish Agency this past summer when Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog was elected president. How does Hagoel handle two high-pressure jobs that keep him busy all the time? “I get up an hour earlier,” he quips.

His lighthearted remarks aside, as the head of these two prominent NGOs, Yaakov Hagoel has his finger on the pulse of the Jewish world on such vital subjects as aliyah, helping acclimate olim in Israel, combating antisemitism, and settlement in Israel’s periphery. Recently, Hagoel took time from his busy schedule to speak with The Jerusalem Post about his efforts in these areas.

Noting the alarming increase in antisemitic incidents occurring worldwide, Hagoel urged governments around the world to adopt the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism, which reads, “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.”

Hagoel says that to date, only 36 countries have adopted this definition. “We are turning to all leaders and Jewish communities to urge the leaders of the world to adopt this definition. We think that it will help explain what antisemitism is and what it means, and it will increase awareness.” Indicating the importance of the definition, Hagoel noted that recently, Ambassador to the US and the United Nations Gilad Erdan met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, urging the organization to adopt the IHRA definition.

 Yaakov Hagoel with WZO educational emissaries  (credit: Courtesy) Yaakov Hagoel with WZO educational emissaries (credit: Courtesy)

Hagoel says that governments around the world must increase educational efforts to counter the increasing amount of antisemitic incidents that have occurred. He noted that antisemitic incidents around the world have increased in each of the past five years. “To our dismay, we see that antisemitism is present everywhere around the world,” says Hagoel. “We have seen terrifying events that have occurred even in the US.”

In late October, a Jewish fraternity house at George Washington University in Washington, DC was broken into, and a Torah scroll was torn apart and covered in detergent. Jewish communities around the world need to be secure and protected, he added. “Antisemitism is not a ‘Jewish’ problem. It is a world problem.” Hagoel says that governments and foreign leaders must protect their Jewish citizens and Jewish visitors and enforce laws that outlaw antisemitism.

He also expressed concern about recent legislation in various countries in Europe restricting ritual slaughter (shechita) in various countries, saying that it is a “slippery slope that can extend to other, more serious issues.”

Turning to the issue of aliyah and absorption, Hagoel says that there are two main barriers that prevent people from making aliyah – lack of fluency in Hebrew and concerns about finding employment. The Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, he says, are working to lower these barriers.

More than 500 different ulpan classes that increase Hebrew proficiency are offered around the world through the auspices of the two organizations. “If people are interested in aliyah, we direct them towards these classes, in order to help them strengthen their Hebrew language, which gives them practical preparation for aliyah,” says Hagoel, noting that the  Aliyah and Integration Ministry is generously supporting these efforts.

Many of the classes are specialized to teach people the vocabulary they will need to succeed in their specific occupation. For example, the WZO and Jewish Agency offer Hebrew language classes for accountants, lawyers and doctors that teach them the terms and expressions used within those professions.

The WZO has stationed 250 Israeli teachers throughout the world teaching Hebrew, Jewish heritage and Zionism. “There is no doubt,” he says, “that because of these educators, thousands have become interested in aliyah. The education these teachers provide joins Jewish communities with Israel and increases Jewish values and the Zionist idea,” he says.

The Jewish Agency, says Hagoel, is addressing the second barrier to aliyah – concerns about finding employment. The Jewish Agency offers a six-month hi-tech intensive training module located in Tel Aviv. He says that close to 100% of the attendees complete the course and are being accepted into Israeli hi-tech firms. He added that plans are underway to offer similar training courses in other professions as well.

A successful aliyah involves more than finding work and learning Hebrew. It also means becoming integrated into Israeli society and knowing where to go and whom to ask. Hagoel announced a new initiative designed to create a more welcoming atmosphere for olim. Addressing both native-born Israelis as well as those who were born elsewhere before making aliyah years ago, Hagoel says, “We must understand that aliyah to Israel is a great challenge. We must give the olim a virtual hug and be their mentors.”

The Jewish Agency has designed a smartphone app that will enable prospective olim to sign up, listing their interests and plans, then matched with a listing of corresponding Israelis living here who have signed up to help newcomers. When using the app, prospective and new olim will be able to turn to veteran Israelis and receive help in numerous areas of everyday life. “I have no doubt,” says Hagoel, “that this app will create an atmosphere that will exemplify that we are one nation.” The app is in the final stages of development and is expected to be available in January.

Hagoel says that the uncertainties and fear caused by the coronavirus pandemic led to a decrease in the number of olim who came to Israel this past year. “There is a great deal of interest in aliyah but we have not reached the numbers that we had before corona,” says Hagoel. “Before corona, we had 30,000 olim in a single year. We hope to reach those numbers in 2022 and go even higher the following year.”

Addressing the issue of communities in Israel’s periphery – which affects both olim as well as veteran Israelis, Hagoel noted recent comments by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the effect that the government is planning on doubling the number of residents in the Golan Heights and will build two new settlements in the area.

Hagoel says, “We in the Zionist movement see the settlement of the land of Israel as the ethos of Zionism, and we want it to increase.” The World Zionist Organization has traditionally been tasked with carrying out government decisions regarding towns in the periphery. “We are waiting for missions to continue the settlement in Israel, and we would be happy to be partners of the government in this area,” says Hagoel.

As our conversation comes to an end, Yaakov Hagoel reiterates the essence of his message. “Most importantly, Jews everywhere, both in Israel and the Diaspora, understand that we are one nation, and we are all responsible for each other. We need to continue to hold our head up high with Jewish pride in order to overcome the challenges of today.”

This article was written in cooperation with the World Zionist Organization and The Jewish Agency.