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Herzog’s challenge
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Herzog’s challenge

It’s not hard to see why Isaac (“Bougie”) Herzog was the favored candidate of the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) to succeed Natan Sharansky, who now leaves after nine years in the post as chairman.

Herzog, former head of the Labor Party, is thoughtful, intelligent, refined, and fits in comfortably with the mindset of JAFI’s American-Jewish leaders, who tend to be more liberal in their views than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, a number of observers believe Herzog was chosen as an act of revenge by the diaspora leadership against Netanyahu, with whom they are still angry for reneging on the long-sought compromise plan for full egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and for allowing the chief rabbinate to tighten their hold on conversions. In the Trump era, many U.S. Jewish leaders feel uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s close ties with the president, despite the administration’s strong support for Israel.

While it is customary for the prime minister to choose or at least approve of the Jewish Agency candidate for chairman, Netanyahu, in this instance, supported his Likud ally, Yuval Steinitz, who is minister of energy, for the position.

Herzog, in his initial remarks after his election to a four-year term that begins Aug. 1, seemed to address the concerns of diaspora leaders in declaring, “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter what stream and whatever skullcap he puts on his head.” His comment drew applause. 

In noting that the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body, “is the narrow bridge that connects the State of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they are,” Herzog pledged to focus on ensuring “unity of the Jewish people, especially the young generation,” in heading the world’s largest Jewish
organization.

And though he is a political opponent of Netanyahu, the incoming chairman promised to “work together to foster and strengthen the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” noting: “We have a common cause.”

The key question that remains is the relevancy of JAFI, which once focused on encouraging and facilitating aliyah from the diaspora, now handled proficiently by Nefesh B’Nefesh and similar groups. Sharansky, the last of the Zionist heroes, remains widely admired by world Jewry, but the success of his tenure, marked by an effort to revise JAFI’s core mission toward Jewish education and identity, is hard to assess. Most Jews are still fuzzy about what JAFI does with its budget of approximately $360 million. It has a long list of programs — many of them impressive — aimed at strengthening Jewish communities around the world and tightening the bond between the diaspora and Israel. But the combination of controversial Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians and a diaspora whose youth is less committed to Zionism has made for a growing challenge. 

Isaac Herzog, grandson of former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, is a popular figure who understands that challenge. Whether he has the creativity to find ways to inspire a younger generation of Jews — and convince Israeli leaders to appreciate the importance of a strengthened diaspora — remains to be seen. But he should be pleased to know so many are rooting for him.

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