Time for an Anglo chair of the Jewish Agency? - opinion

Few Jewish Agency chairs have been able to understand the complexity of growing up and living in a Diaspora Jewish community.

 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)

In a couple of weeks, or months, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s 10-member chairmanship selection committee will recommend a candidate to lead the organization, which will then be approved by the Board of Governors.

For many Israelis, the Jewish Agency is an organization to which they pay little interest, or believe should no longer exist, having long outlived its usefulness or original mandate.

However, for olim, particularly Israelis from English-speaking countries, the Jewish Agency has a vital importance and a historic aura that belies those who doubt its efficacy.

Those of us who came from the Diaspora and have since moved to the Jewish homeland remain with one foot firmly in both worlds. We may have moved the focus of our lives to Israel, but we maintain ongoing and regular ties to family, communities and friends left behind, and regularly visit to see for ourselves the reality of Jewish life outside of Israel.

In fact, one could argue that the Jewish Agency’s mission statement is almost an expression of our physical manifestation.

Jewish Agency returning shlichim participate in a JReady emergency  preparedness course, listening to a lecture by an IDF colonel (res.) who  established a COVID-19 war room. (credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)Jewish Agency returning shlichim participate in a JReady emergency preparedness course, listening to a lecture by an IDF colonel (res.) who established a COVID-19 war room. (credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)

“The Jewish Agency provides the global framework for aliyah, ensures global Jewish safety, strengthens Jewish identity and connects Jews to Israel and one another, and conveys the voice of the Jewish People to the State of Israel to help shape its society,” the statement reads.

Most Diaspora Jews live in English-speaking countries, so, as Anglo-Israelis, we know better than most the needs of these communities, and regularly serve as a bridge, by design or default, between Israel and the world Jewry.

Anglos see the challenges and the opportunities in aliyah, Jewish identity, antisemitism and a connection to the State of Israel. We have seen them from both sides of the ledger, and have much to recommend on these issues to the decision-makers.

Since we founded the Anglo Vision, we have coalesced many disparate Anglo-Israelis around a vision of unifying positions that can affect change, development and progress, and above all, contribute to our beloved homeland.

We have been successful in engaging decision-makers and opinion-shapers in Israel on the needs and requirements of olim in general, and immigrants from English-speaking countries in particular.

More than that: we have succeeded in ensuring that members of the government, the Knesset and other portals of power are aware of our ability to suggest solutions to many issues and challenges facing Israel, primarily because we have significant and substantial experience of different countries, structures and systems.

I know many Israeli politicians who have come to recognize the power and potential of hundreds of thousands of Anglo-Israelis, and what we can offer to our homeland.

For a number of years, the 92-year-old Jewish Agency has been led, with the exception of Natan Sharansky, by Sabras. While many had close ties to Jewish communities abroad, like the most recent chairman and now president, Isaac Herzog, few have been able to understand the complexity of growing up and living in a Diaspora Jewish community, and the relationship it has with those that are a part of it, and its bond to Israel.

This is of course not a criticism. Many children and grandchildren of Anglos will be born in Israel, and we would not want it any other way. They will understand moments and challenges that we, as immigrants, might never properly appreciate, like conscription to the IDF as an 18-year-old recruit.

However, they will not be able to grasp fully, and to understand the problems currently facing world Jewry.

This is why at the Anglo Vision, we are delighted that there are so many olim vying to be next chair of the Jewish Agency.

ANU museum director Irina Nevzlin, Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, and former MKs Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Michael Oren and Omer Yankelevitch are just some of the olim that have presented their credentials and been interviewed by the committee.

Out of that number, it is certainly unprecedented and a source of great pride that three highly respected Anglo-Israelis – Hassan-Nahoum, Oren and Cotler-Wunsh – are in the running.

Each have brought an Anglo flavor to their public life and contribution to the Jewish state. They each have succeeded in attaining high-level positions in the State of Israel, and have all used their experience and understanding of the Diaspora to make our country a better place in various arenas.

While we don’t necessarily see one’s birthplace as the most crucial detail in ascertaining the right candidate to head the Jewish Agency, we also don’t think that their experience and understanding both worlds of the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state should be overlooked.

They all represent the best of what we Anglos have to offer our new/old homeland, so we call on the selection committee to consider their candidacy carefully as they evaluate who would be best placed to lead the Jewish Agency toward the second century of its existence. 

Someone who speaks the language of the majority of the Diaspora – not necessarily in the literal sense but in a deep comprehension of what it takes to bridge the ever-increasing gap between Israel and world Jewry, and how to unify around a common vision – is a major asset, if not one of the most important.

Perhaps it is time for an Anglo chair of the Jewish Agency.

The writer is founder of the Anglo Vision and founder and dean of The Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development, an organization dedicated to building Israeli society one community at a time by successfully bringing Diaspora models of community-building to Israel. [email protected]