How will Isaac Herzog’s Jewish Agency look?

The struggling organization and the bruised politician who just landed at its helm may grant each other life after political death.

Isaac Herzog shares a laugh with Natan Sharansky following Herzog’s election as chairman of the Jewish Agency at the Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem on June 24, 2018 (photo credit: NIR KAFRI/JAF)
Isaac Herzog shares a laugh with Natan Sharansky following Herzog’s election as chairman of the Jewish Agency at the Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem on June 24, 2018
(photo credit: NIR KAFRI/JAF)
Split between the 79-year-old David Ben-Gurion and the Labor Party’s old guard on which he waged war, 2,500 delegates rose to their feet in a standing ovation for a frail man carted to the stage on the wheelchair from which he now addressed the party’s 10th convention.
“A great thing happened to our nation in this era, a wonderful thing that changed the course of Jewish history, and in the public’s mindset that greatness is identified with one personality,” said the mustachioed man in the wheelchair, referring to Ben-Gurion without mentioning him by name.
After conceding that his former ally was the epoch’s hero, the speaker who would die five months later said tersely that Ben-Gurion should step aside, for he had lost the humility that his status demanded, and was “dishonoring Israel’s leadership and undermining its prestige.”
Carted away amid resumed applause, the speaker was former prime minister Moshe Sharett, the antihero who was sidelined by Ben-Gurion the previous decade, and now spoke in the capacity of the ultimate has-been: chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
It was a winter’s day in 1965 in Tel Aviv’s Mann Concert Hall, and it was also the last time a chairman of the Jewish Agency emerged, albeit momentarily, at the center of a national drama. Otherwise, the organization that between 1921 and 1948 incubated the Jewish state became a political oddity constantly struggling for new relevance, resources and clout.
Lending new meaning to this unusual outfit will be the task of Isaac (Bougie) Herzog, the agency’s new chairman, and the second former Labor leader – after Sharett – to land in the austere but handsome building on the corner of Jerusalem’s King George and Jewish National Fund streets.
CONCEIVED BY the British government as its liaison to Mandatory Palestine’s Jews, the Jewish Agency soon emerged as the de facto Jewish government. The agency oversaw the Zionist efforts to build settlements; organized immigrants in their lands of origin; provided jobs and housing to immigrants once they arrived; oversaw an elaborate educational system; and created a militia, arms industry, and diplomatic service.
Meanwhile, the ever far-sighted Chaim Weizmann, in his capacity as head of the World Zionist Organization, led in 1929 the Jewish Agency’s expansion to the Diaspora’s moneyed elite.
Harnessing luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Leon Blum, and financiers Louis Marshall and Felix Warburg, the man who had engineered the Balfour Declaration now rebooted the Jewish Agency as a pan-Jewish operation.
The move that was festively launched in the summer of 1929 was soon challenged by financial catastrophe in Wall Street and Arab riots in the Promised Land. Even so, the Jewish Agency was now, at least in its own eyes, the representative of the entire Jewish people, and as war clouds gathered in Europe it found itself playing poker with superpowers, twice: first, by producing the 1933 deal with Nazi Berlin to let German Jews transfer capital to Palestine; and the following decade by getting London to establish the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, whose veterans would play first violin in the creation of the IDF.
The Jewish Agency, in short, was a government in all by name. That is why its Jerusalem campus was the target of a Palestinian car bomb in March 1948, which collapsed much of its Bauhaus façade while killing 13 and injuring dozens more. Those who chose that target appreciated the Jewish Agency as the place from which the Jews led their effort to build the Jewish state.
That is also why when news broke in November 1947 that the UN voted to establish a Jewish state, it was so natural for thousands to throng to the agency’s spacious courtyard, where they sang and danced into the night under the gleaming gaze of leaders like Golda Meir, who emerged from the building’s offices and crowded the balcony that to this day laces its broad façade.
Such were the Jewish Agency’s role and prestige during the 27 years in which it bred the Jewish state, an era dominated by Ben-Gurion’s 13-year chairmanship since 1935, and Sharett’s leadership of its diplomatic arm since 1933.
Little would be left of that clout by the following decade, and even less of that prestige.
The morning after Israel’s birth in 1948, the Jewish Agency’s brilliant past made way for a foggy future, as the newborn state took over its military, diplomatic, and civilian duties, with Ben-Gurion becoming prime minister and defense minister, Sharett becoming foreign minister, and the agency’s treasurer of the previous 15 years, Eliezer Kaplan, becoming Israel’s first finance minister.
Even so, the Israeli leaders’ political reflex, in line with Murphy’s Law, was not to dismantle the bureaucratic elephant at which they now started, but to seek for it new purpose.
The Jewish people’s situation in 1948 indeed offered plenty of work that could be plausibly delegated to a body that would represent Jewish rather than Israeli affairs. The agency was therefore redesigned as the channel through which the Jewish state would operate in the Jewish Diaspora.
That is how in Israel’s first years the agency managed the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, casting for that purpose a broad network of operatives in three continents, and absorbing thousands of orphaned teenagers and children in special boarding schools.
The deployment of hundreds of representatives worldwide meant political power. So did the agency’s task of cultivating Jewish schools wherever Jews lived.
In addition to these tasks, the agency was also Israel’s tool for reaching remote Jewish communities. That is how it sent expeditions already in the early 1950s to Ethiopia to map its Jewish communities and cultivate their ties to the Jewish state.
Even so, circumstances steadily marginalized the Jewish Agency.
The first challenge came from the Mossad. With much of the Diaspora held hostage by hostile governments, the agency had to make way for the spying juggernaut that could do the clandestine work circumstances demanded. That is why work among Soviet Jews was managed by the spy agency’s offshoot, Nativ, and Ethiopian Jewry’s exodus was managed by the Mossad.
The second challenge came with the liberations of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewries, which accelerated the agency’s devaluation, because the newcomers’ absorption was placed in the hands of the ministries of absorption and housing.
A third challenge emerged as the agency that had suffered from its inability to work in totalitarian settings was challenged by the free world’s privately run competitors, so much so that in 2008 it outsourced to American-Jewish organization Nefesh B’Nefesh the management of immigration from North America and Britain.
A similar pattern emerged on the financial side.
After having enlisted in 1929 much of the Diaspora’s moneyed elite through Weizmann and Marshall’s move, Ben-Gurion and Sharett sought a way to raise funds from the Diaspora’s masses following the War of Independence, since the young state struggled with the costs of reconstruction and absorption.
However, the tool Israel ended up creating with American Jewish leaders – the Israel Bonds, which borrowed anyone’s money at rates better than the markets’ – worked outside the Jewish Agency, and in fact competed with it, since the agency’s funds also came from the Diaspora, as they do to this day.
Understandably then, the outfit whose power has been diminishing steadily since Israel’s establishment never returned to be the conduit to political greatness that it was for Ben-Gurion.
Some of the agency’s chairmen were its own products, like Aryeh Pincus (1965-1974), Aryeh Dulzin (1978-1987), and Salai Meridor (1999-2005), each of whom had served as JA treasurer.
Others were national leaders past their prime, like Sharett (1961-1965), whom Ben-Gurion had removed as foreign minister due to his opposition to the Sinai Campaign; and Pinchas Sapir (1974-1975), Golda Meir’s finance minister who might have succeeded her if not for the Yom Kippur War.
One, Avraham Burg (1995-1999) arrived at the Jewish Agency while on his political way up, only to fail in his attempt to become Labor’s leader.
And one, Natan Sharansky (2009-2018), brought the aura of a prisoner of Zion whose heroic biography was both inspired and shaped by the Jewish solidarity that the Jewish Agency was meant to be all about.
Alas, the man whose struggle once brought together pretty much the entire Jewish people, now found himself in the crossfire of religious antagonists who made a mockery of his Sisyphean struggle to keep the Jewish nation intact.
Herzog’s arrival combines the aspirations that drove Burg and the challenges that faced Sharansky.
Sharanksy, a genuinely admired guest in any seat of power between the White House and the Kremlin, lent to the Jewish Agency’s chairmanship the kind of prestige it had not enjoyed since Moshe Sharett’s stint more than half-a-century ago. Then again, the agency Sharansky is bequeathing is not much different from the one he inherited.
With a budget of $362 million and 1,140 employees, the agency’s most vibrant and appreciated activity during the departing chairman’s tenure has been its leadership of programs that bring Diaspora young adults to Israel.
The Taglit-Birthright Israel project that brings to Israel annually some 9,000 young Jews for a 10-day visit has defied pessimists and already brought more than 600,000 Jewish visitors. Though launched by private philanthropists, the agency has been instrumental first in helping it happen, and then in expanding it, both geographically and conceptually.
About one fifth of the participants in Taglit-Birthright Israel now come from Europe and Latin America, while the agency brings annually some 10,000 young adults for periods ranging from several months to a year, during which they study, do communal work, and take part in career development programs.
At the same time, the agency runs in Israel 23 absorption centers where it helps new immigrants learn Hebrew, land jobs and find housing, and it also leads Diaspora funds and volunteers to disadvantaged parts of Israeli society, for instance through boarding schools for children from dysfunctional families.
However, in terms of impacting history, the new relevance the Jewish Agency has found lies in its role as a generator of Jewish identity.
The organization that started off as a builder of the Jewish state is now laboring to preserve a steadily assimilating Jewish Diaspora, and cement a religiously fraying Jewish people.
That is what its 295 emissaries worldwide mostly do, that is what programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and Masa do, and that is what Sharansky resolved to do when he positioned himself as a bridge between Judaism’s Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations.
Eager to bring together as a free man the Jewish nation he brought together as a prisoner, Sharansky masterminded the plan for creating space at the Western Wall’s southern end for non-Orthodoxy as well as feminist and egalitarian services.
However, after ultra-Orthodox politicians endorsed the scheme, and let the government endorse it in January 2016, assorted rabbis derided it as an abomination, leading to its suspension the following year.
Now, as he takes over Sharansky in August, this is Herzog’s predicament. It is also his opportunity.
Isaac Herzog’ political career seemed to have peaked when he was Labor’s candidate for prime minister just before it nosedived, twice: first, when he lost the 2015 general election, and then when he lost Labor’s leadership in its primaries last year.
Now the struggling Jewish Agency and the bruised politician who landed at its helm may grant each other life after political death.
Herzog brings diplomatic skill, political experience, religious legitimacy, and unique lineage as the grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi, Isaac HaLevi Herzog, and son of its sixth president, Chaim Herzog.
At 57, the lawyer who served as a minister in the Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu-cabinets, has displayed unique bridging skills.
As leader of the opposition, he emerged in a press conference in winter 2014 flanked by Arab and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers whom he united to jointly battle a package of Likud-led bills. As party leader, he struck an alliance with Tzipi Livni that resulted in Labor’s growth from 15 to 24 Knesset seats.
Armed with good English acquired in Manhattan’s Ramaz High School while his father was Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Herzog the compromiser may well emerge as a pivotal figure at the heart of the Jewish world.
Combining tact and inventiveness while playing up his rabbinical roots and liberal credentials, he may manage to deliver the intra-Jewish reconciliation that eluded Sharansky. If successful at this, Herzog will have lent new relevance to the agency, as well as new hope for a political career that only several months ago seemed clinically dead.
In such a scenario, the kinetic energy that the Jewish Agency has built by moving thousands to visit Israel, will be redoubled by a kind of nuclear energy, as the Western Wall that currently divides Jewish worshippers will morph into a reactor of spiritual tolerance and Jewish unity.
In the more likely event, whereby non-Orthodox Jewry and right-wing Israeli governments continue to spar, Herzog will be tested by his willingness to stand up to them. Such a role will doubtfully restore his status as a prime-ministerial contender; it may, however, restore the role once played by Moshe Sharett, when the Jewish Agency’s chairman loomed as a gathering opposition’s moral compass.