For decades, the core mission of the Jewish Agency for Israel has been facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel, fostering Zionist education abroad, and generally promoting ties between Israel and the diaspora.
But last week the Agency became the latest arena of years of tension between the Israeli government and North American Jewry, when the organization’s board of governors selected Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the left-center Labor Party, to chair the Knesset opposition, over the objection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It was the first time in recent memory that the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors ever appointed a new chairman despite opposition by an Israeli prime minister. Israeli political commentators quickly dubbed the decision as a swipe at Netanyahu, who had belatedly backed Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Likud loyalist. The new agency leader will replace outgoing chairman Natan Sharansky, who came from the ranks of the Likud Party.
Veteran Israeli political reporter Yoav Krakovsky described the choice on Twitter as the selection committee’s “sweet political revenge” against Netanyahu over his retreat in 2017 from the deal reached with the Jewish Agency to formalize a pluralist prayer pavilion at the Robinson’s Arch area next to the Western Wall plaza.
At the time, Netanyahu preferred to indulge the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition who opposed pluralist prayer at the Western Wall. “Netanyahu preferred the charedim for his coalition’s well-being. The members of the Board of Governors preferred Herzog,” Krakovsky wrote. Herzog, known as a consummate establishment politician and compromiser, has strong ties with diaspora Jewry.
“The leadership is angry here, and I would imagine that they didn’t want someone who would be a ‘yes’ man for Netanyahu,” said Shaul Kelner, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. “If you have someone who is more attuned to the diaspora voice, and not beholden to Netanyahu, what can they accomplish?”
In response, the Likud Party is discussing pushing a law to cut funding to the Jewish Agency. In a radio interview Sunday, the Likud coalition whip accused Herzog of backroom dealing to get the job, and said that the Board of Governors ignored an agreement that the Jewish Agency chairman would come from the Likud. “We don’t plan to give the Reform a place at the Kotel because of the Jewish Agency,” said Knesset member David Amsalem in an interview with Israel Radio.
It all might sound like inside baseball in the political realm, but the friction stirred up by the appointment highlights some of the challenges facing Herzog as he takes over the Jewish Agency. With prayer at the Western Wall and Israeli policies on conversion still roiling relations with Conservative and Reform Jewry in the U.S., how will a chairman forced on Netanyahu mediate between the government and the diaspora leadership? Will the Jewish Agency chairman now be considered something of a hostile entity among Netanyahu and his allies?
“How powerful is the Jewish Agency as an opposition institution? I don’t know the answer because it’s never been in the opposition,” Kelner said. “[Herzog] will be able to test the waters on whether the Jewish Agency will be able to bring some pressure to bear.”
One of the main challenges will be whether Herzog can forge any progress on prayer at the Western Wall or recognition of conversions performed by rabbis not recognized by the Israeli religious establishment.
Many observers question whether the Jewish Agency, whose unique role between the diaspora and Israel has been eroded over recent decades, is in fact a dinosaur and something of a money pit. Founded in 1929, the organization served as a government-in-waiting for the Jews of Palestine and was headed by David Ben-Gurion before 1948.
Once an official government took the reins of power, the role of the Jewish Agency became to encourage and facilitate aliyah, spread Zionist education and channel the money of diaspora Jewry to Israel. Kelner noted that the agency remains one of the primary levers of influence that world Jewry have with Israeli leaders.
However, in recent years, Jewish organizations like Birthright Israel and Nefesh B’Nefesh have started programs that duplicate the agency’s role in education and aliyah. At the same time, Jewish nonprofits have multiplied to direct diaspora donations to Israel for specific goals and projects.
This has been happening amid a growing gulf between Israeli Jews — who have moved to the right and dismiss non-Orthodox Judaism as a path toward assimilation — and North American Jewry, which remains decidedly liberal and dominated by the Reform and Conservative movements. Highlighting that divide, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev wrote that the demand of Reform and Conservative groups for mixed prayer at the Western Wall is “a disgrace” and unacceptable to Jewish tradition.
The chasm has hurt the ability of the sides to conduct a fruitful, strategic dialogue over Israeli policies, anti-Semitism around the world and Israel-diaspora relations, all of which makes institutions like the Jewish Agency important.
“We are badly missing a forum for consultation between Israel and Jews across the world. … In recent years, that conversation has reached a low ebb,” said Sergio Della Pergola, a Hebrew University professor who specializes in demography of the Jewish people.
Della Pergola said that Herzog’s election represents a change for the Jewish Agency, but speculated that the organization might not be able to provide a strong enough framework for Israel-diaspora dialogue. Such a framework should include leading Jewish intellectuals, additional influential organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, and ultra-Orthodox groups.
“The needs are very urgent. They need a public leadership that commands attention and authority,” he said.
Herzog is seen by some as a conciliator and deal maker who is an ideal pick to oversee a relationship that relies on consensus — and one of the only figures who could potentially drive a compromise with Netanyahu and diaspora.
“The Jewish Agency isn’t an organization of conflict. Everything is done around a coalition table, and people have to reach a consensus — there’s no one better Herzog the do the job,” said Michael Jankelowitz, a former spokesman at the agency. Keeping liberal Jews in the diaspora from turning away from Israel will figure as one of Herzog’s main challenges, Jankelowitz said.
However, some wondered if Herzog is too much of a conciliator and too much a product of the Israeli establishment to effect real change in the organization.
“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,” wrote Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer. “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.”