Yaakov Hagoel: World Zionist Organization is the Jewish world’s government

A significant challenge? Repairing the relationship between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, Hagoel says.

YAAKOV HAGOEL steps into his new role as chairman of the World Zionist Organization (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
YAAKOV HAGOEL steps into his new role as chairman of the World Zionist Organization
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yaakov Hagoel, the newly elected chairman of the World Zionist Organization, has served in many roles – CEO of Betar, chairman of World Likud, founder of WZO’s Center for Countering Antisemitism, and most recently, WZO vice chairman. Yet when asked what job best prepared him for his current role, he replies unhesitatingly, “My year of national service that I spent in Ofakim before I began my army service was most significant.
“I gave of myself, and I got a tremendous amount back in return. It was a year that helped make me what I am today. I learned to give of myself, to be part of the Jewish people, and to recognize the diversity of our people.”
In his new post of chairman, Hagoel intends to make the unity of the Jewish people the centerpiece of the organization while at the same time respecting and understanding the diversity of different groups: “As head of the WZO, I want to reach every Jew, whether he or she lives in Buenos Aires or Manhattan or Rio de Janeiro, or Johannesburg, Yakir, Itamar or Netanya – each and every Jew is a source of our strength.”
Hagoel comes into the job as head of the World Zionist Organization with world Judaism facing numerous challenges. The coronavirus, with its accompanying economic devastation, has made Jewish communal life around the world more difficult. Jewish education has always been expensive, says Hagoel, but it is even more difficult today when many people are out of work and are struggling. The foundation of the Jewish community is based on financial support, from maintaining Jewish Community Centers to paying synagogue dues. All of these institutions have been adversely affected by the pandemic. In addition, he adds, antisemitism has increased, in large measure due to the coronavirus.
The “everyday” issues that affect the Jewish people are no less profound. The frayed relationship between the Jews of Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, the increasing rate of assimilation, and the lack of Jewish identity among Israelis living in the United States and other communities are just three of the most significant issues. “One million Israelis are living in the Diaspora,” says Hagoel, “and their ‘disconnect’ rate is higher than the rate of assimilation of Jewish communities. They have almost no connection with Jewish communities.” To help remedy the situation, Hagoel says that the WZO has established a special department that helps Israelis living in the Diaspora maintain their connection with Israel and Judaism, and ultimately, bring them home to Israel. “Many Israeli organizations ignore them, but this is an area that we have focused on in the past, and we want to focus on in the future.”  
Hagoel says that repairing and strengthening the relationship between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora is a significant challenge. “Each year, 15,000 young people visit Israel on various programs. One of the problems is that they see Israelis only from the bus and don’t interact enough with them. We will create programs that will encourage them to meet and interact with Israelis – to meet with kids in Sderot, for example. I have no doubt that these meetings from both sides will create a bridge among both groups.”
HAGOEL SPEAKS at the annual World Zionism Quiz in 2019. (WZO)HAGOEL SPEAKS at the annual World Zionism Quiz in 2019. (WZO)
Another connection between Jews that Hagoel says is vital to maintain is the Hebrew language. Hagoel laments that fewer people in the Diaspora can speak and understand Hebrew. “We are investing huge sums in strengthening Hebrew language proficiency,” he says. “We see it as more than a language. It is a base for us as a people.”
The mission of the World Zionist Organization extends to Israel as well, Hagoel notes. The Settlement Department of the WZO is active throughout the country, working with the government, developing new settlements, and supporting existing ones in the Negev, Galil, Judea and Samaria. “We want to attract more people to these settlements to strengthen Israel’s periphery.”
Segueing from Israel’s geographical periphery to social issues, Hagoel says that the World Zionist Organization is dedicated to improving Israel’s social periphery and assisting weaker populations present in the north, south, and the center of the country. “Our organization, that Theodor Herzl established, while its primary goal was establishing a Jewish state, also set a goal to build a better and more just society.” Hagoel also suggests that the WZO has an important role to play within the country in fortifying the Zionist spirit, even among Israelis living here, who may consider themselves “post-Zionists.” “We want to strengthen the Zionist values among the Jews living in Israel.”
Hagoel says that the World Zionist Organization is unique among all Jewish organizations because it represents Jews around the world. “We need to remember that we are not the Israeli government or a philanthropic organization. We are the ‘government’ of the Jewish people – the same Congress that Herzl convened in Basel 123 years go.” Three weeks ago, 740 delegates from around the Jewish world gathered for the World Zionist Congress – haredi (ultra-Orthodox), secular, Reform, Conservative, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, left-wing, right-wing – from 34 countries. “There is nothing like this in the entire Jewish world, where people come and speak Zionism. There is a haredi party that brought in a large number of mandates from the US because they want to be part of the Zionist tent. I consider this to be a great blessing, and I want to make the Zionist tent bigger. If we want to be the ‘government’ of the Jewish people, we have to present the variety that is in the Jewish people.”
IT IS the diversity of the groups that make up the World Zionist Organization, says Hagoel, that justifies its existence 72 years after the establishment of the State of Israel. “In helping establish the state, we have achieved one of our main goals,” says Hagoel. “But there are many challenges that can be met only by an organization that represents all Jews. There is no other organization representing the entire Jewish people, that can deal with challenges like encouraging Aliyah, the struggle against antisemitism, assimilation, strengthening Jewish pride and Jewish identity.” While the Israeli government is a vital partner in many of these areas, says Hagoel, it cannot and shouldn’t be leading these efforts. The World Zionist Organization is uniquely positioned to work both inside and outside Israel for the Jewish people. He points out that since its inception, it has been dedicated to turning dreams into realities. “The WZO is the very same organization that Theodor Herzl founded at the Zionist Congress in 1897. Herzl was a great visionary and dreamed of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. In addition to his ability to dream, he was a man of action. He founded the World Zionist Organization to help realize his dream.”
As Hagoel begins his five-year term at the helm of the World Zionist Organization, he recalls Menachem Begin’s reply to the question as to how he would lead as prime minister. “In a good Jewish style,” Begin answered. “Inspired by this great leader,” says Hagoel, “I will strive to lead this important organization, in a Jewish, Zionist, ethical and decent manner, working together with the members of the Zionist Executive in Israel and the Diaspora. The WZO is the organization that brought about the establishment of the State of Israel and constitutes the ‘government’ of the Jewish people that binds and unites all the opinions, views, currents and challenges faced by the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.
“With all of our differences, the issues we all deal with are well-known. Some of us live in the Diaspora, but we all view the land of Israel as the home of every Jew. We are here, together, to face the numerous challenges of our people.
Our shared values include strengthening Jewish and Zionist identity, combating antisemitism and boycott movements, supporting education, strengthening settlement in Israel, and the centrality of Jerusalem as our eternal and historic capital, promoting aliyah, tradition, and the Hebrew language that has accompanied us for generations.”
Combining the vision of both Herzl and Begin, Hagoel hopes to advance the Zionist dream that Herzl began, with action and deeds, in a Jewish, Zionist and decent manner, well into the 21st century.
This article was written in cooperation with the World Zionist Organization.