The role of Israel’s presidency as it currently stands has been up for discussion for a number of years. Critics ask why taxpayers should cover the costs for a position that is largely ceremonial in nature and does not affect the day-to-day lives of Israelis.
In actuality, however, the events of recent years have proven the need for stability, diplomacy and an apolitical approach across several disciplines. Today, for example, when Jews in the US and around the Diaspora are facing significant challenges, having a president who acts as a unifying force is crucial.
One pressing challenge is antisemitism and threats to Jewish security. Lately, we’ve seen an alarming rise in antisemitism across the spectrum of American politics, while more anti-Jewish voices are heard on streets throughout the US from both the Right and Left. Those voices are also given legitimacy. President Isaac Herzog will have to contend with transforming antisemitism from a niche problem that only affects Diaspora Jews to a greater challenge facing the Jewish people as a whole, including the ones who live in Israel.
Another obstacle in relations with the Diaspora is the fact that younger people are criticizing and distancing themselves from Israel. These Jewish Americans from the younger generation have trouble reconciling their feelings toward Israel and their multicultural identity with their politics, which lean more to the Left and revolve around seeking justice for marginalized individuals. The days when young American Jews boasted about Israel as a source of pride, and when the Jewish state was a focal point for strengthening their Jewish identity, are no more. Herzog, then, will face an uphill battle in reinserting Israel into the lives of American Jews in a way that positions the country as a positive force for banding a people together, instead of being perceived as a liability.
The third challenge is maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. As younger Jews become increasingly secular, their interest in Jewish life, culture and traditions wanes. This is not necessarily true for older Jews, many of whom still adhere to Jewish traditions even when they do not maintain a strictly observant lifestyle.
MR. HERZOG SHOULD strategize around how he can narrow this gap and promote a narrative of Jewish peoplehood in which Israel is not only about religion or ideology. For thousands of years we’ve been a link in a chain of traditions that should not be forgotten. Thus, a common denominator is needed that connects the most secular and most religious among us, thereby strengthening the bond with Israel.
Next, Herzog will have to contend with an environment in which major Jewish institutions are less relevant in American Jewish life. Jewish institutions have long been a rallying force among Jews, providing them with ways to observe Judaism in the Diaspora and support the State of Israel. With more and more young Jews turning away from these institutions, it may signal the downfall of many Jewish communities in the US. A paradigm shift among these institutions is needed so young Jews will learn and want to reengage with these organizations, and it is incumbent upon Herzog to identify what role the Israeli presidency might play in that process.
The fifth challenge will be raising public awareness surrounding Jewish life in America among Israeli Jews, who need greater access to their American brothers and sisters living an ocean away. Herzog will have to navigate what Israel’s role will be in this conversation. A stable connection between these two groups is critical. After all, American Jews comprise 45% of world Jewry. Not addressing their strategic importance would be a tactical error for Israel moving forward. The Israeli public needs to understand the value that American Jews have, and engage with them accordingly.
An innovative and creative approach is needed when reimagining how Israel interacts with Diaspora Jewry. Establishing a program that will jointly represent both communities could be an important first step. Herzog should be tasked with envisioning what this dialogue will look like and how both sides can feel that they have a seat at the table. With so many challenges ahead, a swift, efficient and robust action plan is required.
The Ruderman Family Foundation is eager and ready to offer such a plan. With President Herzog at the helm, we believe a strong, stable, long-term connection between Israeli and American Jews will lead to the stability, security and camaraderie that is necessary to prolong and enrich the existence of the Jewish people.
Jay and Shira Ruderman are president and executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation.