The opposition leader may be Netanyahu‘s opponent, but he‘s too establishment to effect the change the agency needs to become relevant again
By Anshel Pfeffer
In recent months, Isaac Herzog has been giving visitors to his Knesset office a copy of a new English translation of the biography of his grandfather, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. The grandson, who commissioned the new edition and wrote a foreword for it, seems to have been reminding the right people, at least on a subconscious level, that he isn’t just a former leader of the Labor Party and, therefore, a figurehead for secular-liberal Israel. He is also a chief rabbi’s grandson.
Herzog, who was officially approved Sunday as the next chairman of the Jewish Agency, had an inbuilt advantage going into the final selection round: He was perceived as being an opponent to whoever would be selected as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred candidate.
It is usually the other way around. In most cases, the prime minister’s candidate, after a bit of horse-trading, is appointed. Or, at the very least, someone from the prime minister’s party. The Agency chairman is supposed to be the point man – a woman has never filled the post – in the complex Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship. He must be someone who can work well with the prime minister of Israel.
But these are not ordinary times. Netanyahu has done everything in recent years to anger the Diaspora – in particular that of the United States, the largest Jewish community in the world. He openly challenged President Barack Obama, the politician who was elected to office with the most Jewish votes ever. He has been closely embracing President Donald Trump, a man reviled by three-quarters of American Jews.
Add to that the way Netanyahu unceremoniously ditched the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space agreement last June, remained silent over the pro-Trump neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville last August and disregarded the anti-Semitic tones in the governments of his European allies in Hungary, Poland and Austria.
For many months now, the prospect of an anti-Netanyahu appointment has been in the air. Anger toward the prime minister has been palpable. But Herzog still had to win over the timider members of the Agency’s appointments committee, and he did so by reminding them that while he may have stood against Netanyahu in the last election, he is hardly an antiestablishment figure. The tactic worked, as the unanimous vote in his favor proves.
But he isn’t what the Jewish Agency needs if it is to reinvent itself. He is too much a creature of the old establishment.
The Agency has been in long-term decline and suffering a deep identity crisis long before the rift between Israel and the Diaspora came out into the open. There is little need for an organization to facilitate Jewish immigration to Israel when virtually all the potential immigrants live in relative freedom and can find whatever they need to know online about life in Israel and negotiate most of the bureaucratic hurdles themselves, or with the help of NGOs like Nefesh b’Nefesh.
A decade ago, then-Chairman Zeev Bielski shocked the veterans of the Agency by telling them they were getting out of the aliyah business and focusing on Jewish education and identity building. Then he left, preferring to go back to his old job as mayor of Ra’anana than deal with the organization’s interminable woes.
His successor, Natan Sharansky, has failed over nine years to revive the Agency’s fortunes. He can’t be blamed for the growing divide between Israel and the Diaspora – a result of the massive divergence in the values of Netanyahu’s Israel and American Jews. But under his lackluster leadership, the largest Jewish organization in the world – and with the biggest budget – has failed to articulate a core mission for itself and lost any real relevance to Jewish life in Israel or abroad.
It still has a cadre of devoted professionals, valuable programs and major resources at its disposal. But even its most valiant defenders have trouble explaining what makes it unique or indispensable these days.
Herzog’s appointment has been hailed by all sides as a positive development. He understands the concerns of the leaders of American Jewry and is seen as a conciliatory figure in polarizing times. And despite being appointed against Netanyahu’s will, he still has access to the prime minister and can serve as a mediator.
But he is the epitome of the old Israeli establishment – the son of a Labor MK who became president; a man who has spent his entire career as a lawyer and politician in the nexus of money and power. If the Agency is to regain its relevancy, it needs an iconoclast. Someone who will clear out the bureaucracy, sell off the real-estate portfolio and revolutionize its mission.
Exciting things are happening across the Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora, with young people defining for themselves the very essence of Jewish identity and community life. They are not waiting for any big organization to help them or show them the way, or tell them how they must relate to Israel and Zionism.
Nothing in Herzog’s life and career suggests he has the capacity and skills needed to open up the Agency to these changing currents. To help it make the transition from a patronizing and anachronistic institution into a more flexible outfit, capable of understanding and facilitating the many new and disparate forms of Jewish life out there.
Being the candidate who wasn’t endorsed by Netanyahu simply isn’t enough. As they say in Hebrew, Herzog is a good guy in the bad sense of the word. He won’t ruffle feathers or challenge the old orthodoxies. The grandees of the Jewish federations may love him, but they’re also irrelevant today. Herzog is too old school, too establishment, to save the Jewish Agency from the deep, probably terminal, crisis it is in.