Editor’s Note: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote an op-ed out of fear.
JEWISH AGENCY Chairman Isaac Herzog learns how to play soccer without a ball. (photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
Last Thursday, as party after party arrived at the Knesset to submit its list of candidates for the upcoming election, former Labor Party chairman Isaac “Buji” Herzog couldn’t have been farther away.
In the year since he has left politics, his party has changed its leader twice, had gone from 24 seats to just six in the April election and now merged with the right-wing Gesher. Up until new Labor leader Amir Peretz submitted his list on Thursday, there was still talk of the possibility that he would again merge with the Meretz-Ehud Barak Democratic Union.
But Herzog was nowhere near any of this. He was thousands of miles away in South Africa, visiting the Jewish community, learning to play soccer without a ball and doing his best to dance to African music with some local school children.
It was a great way for Herzog to mark his one-year anniversary since leaving politics last August after being appointed chairman of the Jewish Agency. It also was a stark contrast from what Herzog would have been doing had he still been a member of Labor and a candidate in the upcoming elections.
In July, 2017 Herzog was ousted as Labor’s chairman even after he led it in the 2015 election to what now seems unimaginable – 24 seats. When Natan Sharansky announced his retirement from the Jewish Agency, the organization’s leadership looked for someone who could take the agency to the next level. Herzog was their man.
Over the past year, Herzog has crisscrossed the globe. He has been to Australia, South Africa, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and all over Europe. In a few weeks, he is scheduled to visit Canada.
Herzog’s purpose during these trips is quite simple – he wants Jewish communities around the world to know that they have a friend in Israel. At a time when matters of religion and state and the impasse in a diplomatic process with the Palestinians seem to be turning traditional allies away from Israel, this is not an easy feat.
Then there is the rise in antisemitism that has spread to all corners of the earth, which Herzog has designated as one of the agency’s top challenges. In the last year, 12 Jews were murdered in synagogues in the US not to mention countless acts of antisemitism in Europe.
“We need to give hope,” is what Herzog often tells his staff in the agency. “To do that, we need to improve the connection between Israel and Jews around the world.”
One way Herzog has done that has been by establishing a political department in the agency and putting at its head, Yigal Palmor, an experienced former diplomat who has served as the agency spokesman in recent years. The thinking behind the move is that the battle against antisemitism needs to be fought on multiple levels – education, diplomatic engagement with local governments and cooperation with local law enforcement agencies.
He is also looking to redefine the Jewish Agency’s objectives as a way to ensure that the 90-year-old organization – which many view as anachronistic – can still be relevant in the years to come. This has included an internal agency dialogue, as well as consultations around the world, which Herzog has said he will share toward the end of 2019.
What has Herzog really concerned though is the divide he sees continuing to grow between Israel and Diaspora Jews. A veteran politician, Herzog is no stranger to the Diaspora. As head of the opposition from 2015 to 2018, he traveled frequently abroad and, in Israel, met with almost every visiting dignitary. His familiarity with the Diaspora started as a teenager. When his father – the late president Chaim Herzog – served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Herzog went to Ramaz, a New York-based Jewish day school. The summers he spent at Camp Ramah Nyack.
SINCE TAKING up his role, Herzog has tried to meet with all of the relevant players involved in efforts to establish a third prayer plaza at the Western Wall for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer. In January 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government approved a deal that was to lead to the construction of a new plaza and the establishment of a governing body that would have included, for the first time, representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements. But then in June 2017, Netanyahu revoked the earlier decision after coming under pressure from the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
While nothing has really advanced since then, Herzog is working to get the existing platform renovated and to have the government allocate the funds to construct an elevator or ramp so it can be wheelchair-accessible. Currently, it is only possible to get to the site through a long set of stairs.
The problem is that with the government unwilling to advance the plan, it is stuck in the different municipal committees, where it is easy for low-level officials to trip things up. Herzog is using his political savvy and connections to get the plan back on track, but with the government not supportive, it will be a tough lift.
What has most surprised him as head of the Jewish Agency has been the number of inter-faith families that are – contrary to popular opinion in Israel – interested in strengthening their connection with Judaism and Israel. Comments like those made by Education Minister Rafi Peretz, that intermarriage in the United States is like a “second Holocaust” are self-defeating, he tells his staff.
In an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post this week, Brandeis University Prof. Leonard Saxe revealed studies showing that nearly 80% of children of intermarried parents are surprisingly being raised as Jews, and among adult millennials, almost 60% identify as Jews, a sharp increase from older generations.
Why is this happening? According to Saxe, the integration is partially due to the US Jewish community’s positive response to the challenges posed by intermarriage. There, comments like Peretz’s are not the mainstream.
Can Herzog make Israel more open and attractive? It is possible. His grandfather, Isaac Halevi Herzog whose name he shares, was Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, and is known for courageous halachic decisions concerning matters of Jewish identity that today are almost unheard of.
On Sunday, Jews around the world will mark the Tisha Be’av fast day, commemorating the destruction of the two Jewish temples in Jerusalem and the eventual eviction of Jews from their homeland. Then, internal strife is said to have led to the national tragedy. Herzog wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.