Dark horse candidate aims to revamp Jewish Agency

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum would be the first woman to head the agency and its first chair of Sephardi descent. Interviews with contenders begin next week.

Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Economic Development and Tourism Fleur Hassan-Nahoum on the site of planned expansion of the US Embassy in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Economic Development and Tourism Fleur Hassan-Nahoum on the site of planned expansion of the US Embassy in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)

When transit camps were needed for Moroccan immigrants on the way to Israel in the 1960s, the Jewish Agency approached the head of the government of Gibraltar, chief minister Joshua Hassan, who as a proud Zionist gave his approval.

On a visit to the camp, he was impressed by Marcelle Bensimon, the Moroccan nurse who ran it with care. The two were married in 1969, and had their daughter, Fleur, four years later.

Now Fleur Hassan-Nahoum is deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a dark horse candidate to head the Jewish Agency, and the irony is not lost on her.

“I exist thanks to the Jewish Agency,” she said. “If I am chosen to lead the agency, I would come full circle.” 

Next week the 10-member selection committee made up of representatives of the World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod and Jewish Federations of North America will start interviewing the 10 candidates looking to succeed new president Isaac Herzog.

Intelligence Services Minister Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), who has the support of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, remains the leading candidate. But only two no votes from the selection committee are enough to doom a candidate, which has flung the race wide open.

If Stern and other well-known candidates like former ministers Danny Danon and Omer Yankelevich are vetoed by two members, a lesser-known, dark-horse candidate with no significant opposition – like Hassan-Nahoum – could pull off a surprising victory.

 View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem,  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90) View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

She would be the first woman to head the Agency, and its first chairwoman of Sephardi descent. She would join Natan Sharansky as an immigrant who held the post, and would highlight the untold story of the agency’s success with North African aliyah.

“It would be historic for a woman of color to take the leadership role,” Hassan-Nahoum said. “If we want to show the beauty of the diversity of the Jewish community in all its glory, we need to display that diversity in our leadership as well. Diversity and hearing different voices enable better decision-making. It’s a fantastic sign of the times that six of the 10 candidates are women, but the best person should be chosen, regardless of gender.”

Hassan-Nahoum said she wants the job because she has the unique skill set, talent, and experience in fundraising, branding and messaging to lead the Agency to its next stage. She has employed those skills to promote Jerusalem from her volunteer position advancing the city’s foreign affairs and tourism, and even though there is no one on the city council who can replace her, Mayor Moshe Lion supports the candidacy of his deputy.

“I believe God puts us here for a reason, and I made aliyah, because I wanted to serve my people,” said Hassan-Nahoum. “The Jewish world is changing. The Spanish-speaking world is excited about a Spanish speaker potentially getting the job. Also, Latin American Jews in the US want to be more engaged, and there are new Jewish communities arising in Arab countries. I can bring in new philanthropists and engage communities that have not been as involved.”

While she is careful not to criticize any of her rival contenders, Hassan-Nahoum explained why she would be a better choice for the selection committee.

Panel members need to consider not only who their political or personal top choice would be, she said, but also who could unite the Jewish people as represented on the selection committee.

“There are many candidates who are looking for their next move politically or are in their retirement phase, and I think the Agency needs leadership completely committed to its cause of strengthening the Jewish people and helping immigrants settle in Israel,” she said. “The Jewish people need vision and leadership. I have a sense of mission and a passion to unite people.”

To that end, Hassan-Nahoum organized what she describes as the first-ever fact-finding solidarity mission of Israelis to the US in June with Gesher. They met with Jewish federations, the Anti-Defamation League, and representatives of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in New York. 

“It’s about time for Israel to help the Diaspora,” she said. “We went to see what was happening and what Israel could do to help. The new era of Israel-Diaspora relations is a more neutral relationship.”

Hassan-Nahoum will be going to Dubai next week for the opening of the Israel pavilion at the World Expo. She has been a pioneer in developing relations with the UAE and Bahrain since the Abraham Accords were signed, and has become close to the Jewish community there.

In her outreach, Hassan-Nahoum has emphasized the pluralism symbolized by Jerusalem. She prays at both Ashkenazi and Sephardi services on a regular basis, and while she is Orthodox, she speaks at Reform, Conservative, Chabad and haredi synagogues, not boycotting anyone.

“King David picked Jerusalem as his capital because it’s where all Jews from all tribes feel at home,” she said. “We need to accommodate all Jews and make them feel comfortable. We have to be inclusive. The Agency has a huge role to play in creating a network of inspiring leaders for the next generation. The call to action for today’s leadership has to be unity.”