Almost no Jew can tell you what the Jewish Agency does.
Many know of the historical role that the Jewish Agency played in the last century, under David Ben-Gurion, as the proto government of the State of Israel before Independence. Many Israeli citizens are unaware that the Jewish Agency currently owns much valuable real estate around the country (including the campus of the academic institution at which I teach). Some savvy Israelis will add that the Jewish Agency supports aliyah alongside the Israeli government ministry that does this. In the US, the savvy Jew would likely say the Jewish Agency has something to do with raising money for Israel. But, pull aside the average Jew on a street in Jerusalem or New York and ask him or her, “Excuse me, do you know what the Jewish Agency does?” You will get a blank stare in return, if you are lucky.
Actually, the Jewish Agency has the potential to play its most important role since 1948, when it fostered the first realization of Jewish sovereignty in nearly 2,000 years. It should be the effective intermediary binding anew the ties between the two centers of Jews today, the United States and Israel, who account for over 85 percent of the Jews in the world. The media in both the US and Israel are full of angst ridden stories of the widening rift between American Jewry and Israel. The current role of the Jewish Agency is to begin to repair this rift and bring Jews together again to share a common ideal and the common purpose of supporting a Jewish democratic state that guarantees full equality for all of its citizens.
I have met many of the leading candidates to become the new Jewish Agency head, primarily in my former role as a US diplomat who served as political counselor at the US embassy in Israel and in other roles. I am beholden to no one but the Jewish people and I believe there is one outstanding candidate who can fulfill this critical role for the Jewish people at this time: Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. Hassan-Nahoum resonates with young Jews in America and Israel. I recently invited her to speak to my undergraduate class in Israel and saw her interactions with the students.
Hassan-Nahoum has an inspiring life story. Born in British Gibraltar to a Moroccan Jewish family and educated in the UK, she is a dynamic speaker in both Hebrew and her native English (and it doesn’t hurt that she speaks with an British accent that charms Americans) and a successful immigrant to Israel. She is a female Sephardic Jewish entrepreneur who starts businesses and NGOs.
Identity politics are very important to Americans of all persuasions, including Jews, and Hassan-Nahoum speaks to them in ways that older Ashkenazi males cannot. She came to Israel as a young adult, with no Hebrew, as a British lawyer and with her husband. She has raised a family and achieved success in business and politics through hard work and without the help of any institutional or familial backing. Her story is exactly the kind of immigrant story that appeals to American Jews of all ages, even though it is an Israeli story of very young vintage. Young Jews, especially Jewish women, hear her tell her story and can imagine themselves reaching similar achievements.
In my career as a US diplomat, I have seen what driven individuals in the Jewish Agency can do. In 1992, when I opened the US embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, with four other Americans, there was no Israeli government presence there, but there was a Jewish Agency person on the ground before us. That guy, a Georgian Jew who had immigrated to Israel years earlier, had returned right after the fall of the USSR in late 1991 and was more effective on his own than the entire staffs of the Israeli embassies to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia that came after him. He personally facilitated the aliyah of thousands of Jews throughout the Caucasus.
The mission of facilitating the aliyah of Jews from the Soviet Union, France, Argentina, the US and elsewhere, is once again vitally important. As important as the goal of aliyah and consistent with this goal is outreach to the increasingly alienated Jewish youth in the US. The Jewish people need the most effective representative to our diaspora communities as possible, and someone who can effectively represent their voices inside the halls of government in Israel. I recently met such a person and her name is Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.
The writer is a former senior US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association. He is currently a lecturer at Shalem College, managing editor of the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, senior fellow in the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security, and president of IJMA – the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance.