Choosing a Jewish Agency chair shows care about Israel-Diaspora ties - editorial

The 10-member selection committee of the Jewish Agency has been unable to make a decision for the last 8½ months on who will head that organization.

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Ponder this: it takes less time to select a pope than a new chairperson of the Jewish Agency.

For the last 191 years, it has never taken more than a week for a plume of white smoke to waft from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican announcing that the cardinal electors – they numbered 115 the last time they met in 2013 – had selected a new head of the Roman Catholic church.

By contrast, the 10-member selection committee of the Jewish Agency has been unable to make a decision for the last 8½ months on who will head that organization.

If a large group of cardinals representing various schools of thought within the Catholic church can agree in a week on a candidate to lead an empire of 1.3 billion believers that commands assets estimated to be worth between $10 billion and $15 billion, then a small committee representing major Jewish and Zionist streams should be able in less than eight months to pick the head of an organization with an annual budget of about $400 million serving some 15.2 million Jews.

But that the committee has been unable to do so, and the process has been so opaque, that it is bad for the Jewish Agency and for the Jewish world as a whole.

 President Isaac Herzog, then serving as Jewish Agency chairman, speaks during a rally in Jerusalem in 2020 held in solidarity with Jews in the US and around the world following a wave of antisemitic attacks. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) President Isaac Herzog, then serving as Jewish Agency chairman, speaks during a rally in Jerusalem in 2020 held in solidarity with Jews in the US and around the world following a wave of antisemitic attacks. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

First of all, this situation tarnishes a proud institution with a glorious legacy of laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Jewish state and playing a key role in the aliyah of millions of Jews.

Furthermore, the Agency still has a vital role to play in fostering Israeli-diaspora ties as well as promoting Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

This state of affairs is bad for the organization because it gives ammunition to those who argue that the Agency’s best years are long behind it, and that with the state soon entering its 74th year, the functions served by the Jewish Agency should be taken over by various government departments.

If the Jewish Agency can survive without a leader for more than eight months, the organization’s critics are saying, then that just shows the entire organization is superfluous.

The difficulty in choosing a new Jewish Agency chair is bad for the Jewish world because at a time when a war might break out in Ukraine, leading to a significant influx of Jews from that country, when antisemitism is on the rise throughout the world, and when the emotional ties that have bound the Diaspora to Israel for generations are beginning to fray, there is a need for an organization that presents Israel to Jews around the world, and caters to  the needs and concerns of diaspora Jews about Israel and its official bodies.

But that organization needs a leader.

Since Isaac Herzog stepped down as Agency head in July to become Israel’s president, the Jewish Agency has been switched to auto-pilot. But it is not healthy for any organization to run in such a mode for so long.  Decisions must be made, priorities have to be set, money needs to be raised – and for that, a chairperson is imperative.

It is not as if there are no worthy candidates – in fact, there are a number of good candidates to choose from. There is academician and former MK, Ruth Calderon. There is Danny Danon, a former minister and ex-ambassador to the UN, and Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.  

Any one of them, and some of the other names bandied about in recent weeks, would be suitable to head the body.

Candidates there are aplenty; the ability to overcome political differences and come up with a name that nine of the 10 selection committee members can agree upon is what has proven so elusive.

The committee is scheduled to convene on Wednesday and the time has come to decide so that the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors can approve the nomination at its upcoming meeting at the end of the month. 

The continued failure name a new chairperson sends a very troubling message: nobody – neither in Israel nor in the Diaspora – really cares about relations between those two communities.