The Jewish Agency for Israel has a long and storied history, but an uncertain future.
Having moved from its quasi-governmental and traditional mission of bringing in and settling new immigrants to Israel, the Jewish Agency is now focused on building global Jewish identity. That change — born of a pragmatic reality — came about during the nine-year Agency chairmanship of Natan Sharansky, and fit well with the image and goals of the charismatic refusenik and most famous face of the Soviet Jewry movement.
Sharansky also became a respected political force in Israel and developed a positive relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Because of that, he served as the intermediary on several sensitive issues between Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli government, like the flashpoint of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
Despite years of work and an agreement for an egalitarian prayer space that was approved by the government, Sharansky’s Kotel compromise foundered on Israeli coalition politics. Simply put, Netanyahu needs the haredi-Orthodox parties to support him in power more than he needs the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as others in the Diaspora who don’t vote in Israeli elections.
But Diaspora Jews do have a vote. On Sunday, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors elected Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog to a four-year term as chairman, to begin in August. Herzog, a former chair of the Labor Party, has served in the Knesset since 2003 and has also held various ministerial posts, including Diaspora Affairs minister. Herzog has an understanding of the Diaspora, having lived and studied in the United States when his father, Chaim Herzog, served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s.
Although Herzog was unanimously elected by the Agency board, he was missing one crucial endorsement. He was not supported by Netanyahu. And that could be a problem. That’s because it won’t be easy for the former leader of the opposition to advocate on sensitive issues with the very leadership he has openly opposed. Indeed, if Netanyahu couldn’t make a deal work with his ally Sharansky, it isn’t likely that he would have greater motivation to succeed with his adversary.
Nor does it yet appear that Herzog has a plan to help the moribund Jewish Agency reinvent itself. Although he acknowledged that “these are days of significant challenges concerning the relations between the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” we don’t have any idea what new thinking, ideas or approach Herzog brings to the issue.
All is not lost, however. Herzog is a thoughtful, moderate figure. And he is a smart and experienced politician. His new job will undoubtedly test his talents in each of these areas, and we look forward to his plans to address the organizational, governance, mission, government and Diaspora relations issues which the Jewish Agency faces. We wish Herzog success in this big and challenging undertaking. PJC