It's time for the Jewish Agency to choose a chairman - editorial

The Jewish Agency has been without a chairman for six months since Isaac Herzog left to become president.

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

The Jewish Agency, the historic organization that founded the State of Israel and continues to work to bolster weak segments of society and foster ties with the Diaspora is in turmoil.

For more than six months it has remained without a chairman, ever since Isaac Herzog was elected Israel’s president.

In the time since, the Agency - as it is often referred to - has seemed to be a bit lost and its voice on key issues - like relations with the Diaspora at a time that the Kotel compromise is again being delayed or when Diaspora Jewry is being banned from entering the country - is not being heard.

Once upon a time, when the Agency was led by Herzog or the likes of Natan Sharansky, this would have been unfathomable. They would have spoken up; they would have lobbied the government; and they would have fought to move the dial on these important issues.

They might not have succeeded, but the Israel-Diaspora relationship would have had an address and an advocate that is not just the Diaspora Ministry which is part of the government.

 President Isaac Herzog. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) President Isaac Herzog. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Despite the time that has passed, the selection committee has refused to vote on a new candidate.

And there are candidates.

There are former MKs Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Danny Danon, Michael Oren and Omer Yankelevich. There is Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and Bar-Ilan University law professor Yaffa Zilbershats.

The selection committee though is not meeting and is refusing to hold a vote. It instead seems to be waiting to see if the government will present it with a new candidate of its own.

The lack of a government candidate is the result of the controversy surrounding the coalition’s original candidate, Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern, who had a slip of tongue in a radio interview that was later misquoted as if he said that he had shredded anonymous sexual harassment complaints back when he served as head of the IDF Manpower Division in the mid-2000s.

Despite attempts to contain the fallout from the interview, Stern ended up withdrawing his candidacy and since then the process has been stuck.

Stern appears to have moved on. People who have spoken with him say that he has put his focus back into the Intelligence Ministry and has upped his participation in security-related forums and other national security matters. While he still speaks on Diaspora matters - see the op-ed he published in the Post on Friday about the Kotel deal - he does not seem to be actively seeking the Agency job for now.

Should the selection committee revisit Stern’s candidacy? It might be something to consider since he was the only candidate who seemed to have the most support from among the committee members.

The slip of the tongue that was misreported never amounted to anything. No one came forward - despite media attempts to discover such cases – claiming that they were witness to the alleged shredding of complaints.

In addition, the fact that the government has not put forward a new candidate leaves open this possibility and while it would take some convincing to get Stern to throw his hat once again into the ring, he might do so considering the current dire state of affairs between Israel and the Diaspora surrounding the Kotel, conversion and more importantly, the way the state continues to keep Jews of the world outside its borders.

But this is not just about Stern. Israeli-Diaspora relations need cultivating and fostering. Yes, the government has a ministry led by Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, but being in government ties one’s hands. The Jewish Agency’s power stems from its non-government status and its ability to bring Jews together from all sides of the political and religious spectrum. 

There are real issues that need to be managed and the Jewish Agency is without leadership. The time has come for that to change. This isn’t just about political appointments. This is about a message to the Jewish world that there is someone at the Agency representing Jews’ interests and serving as their voice within the corridors of power.

Choose a chairman. It’s time.