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Standing on both sides of the divide
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Standing on both sides of the divide

Isaac Herzog, head of Jewish Agency, seeks to bridge U.S.-Israel ties

Head of the Jewish Agency for Israel Isaac Herzog, front row, fourth from right, with rishonim, young Israeli emissaries, and other staff and leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Photo courtesy Greater MetroWest Federation
Head of the Jewish Agency for Israel Isaac Herzog, front row, fourth from right, with rishonim, young Israeli emissaries, and other staff and leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Photo courtesy Greater MetroWest Federation

Three generations of Isaac Herzog’s family have been “illustriously involved in Jewish history,” he told a group of some 50 people gathered at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston on Jan. 29.

His father was Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel; his grandfather Rabbi Isaac Herzog was the state’s first chief rabbi; and his uncle was Abba Eban, scholar, statesman, diplomat. Herzog himself is chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the Jerusalem-based organization that links the global Jewish community with Israel.

His pedigree is impressive and his political leadership extensive — he’s a former head of the Labor Party (who lost his 2015 bid for prime minister to Benjamin Netanyahu) and served as a Knesset member and in several ministerial posts. Inevitably a conversation with Herzog, aka “Bougie,” covers any number of heavy-hitting topics: the geopolitics of Israel, anti-Semitism’s effect on aliyah, upcoming Knesset elections, and more. But the first question posed to him in an exclusive interview with NJJN was, “What’s your favorite Israeli TV show streaming on Netflix?”

His answer showed that exporting popular culture could be some of the best public relations for the often-embattled country.

“Wherever I go all around the world, unbelievably, I’m approached about ‘Shtisel’ or ‘Fauda’ by Jews and non-Jews,” he said about scripted dramas streaming in Hebrew with English subtitles on Netflix. “I think it’s great.” It was a moment of some light-heartedness from a leader who otherwise appears serious and focused.

“If I can relay a message to your readers, it’s that Israel is ever-changing, it’s ever-interesting, it’s a hotbed for brilliant ideas,” he added in regard to the world-wide popularity of Israeli TV shows.

That day Herzog had four meetings scheduled with professionals and lay leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The federation is among the partner agencies of JAFI, which include Jewish Federations of North America (Greater MetroWest’s parent organization), Keren Hayesod, and the World Zionist Organization.

“We’re deeply grateful that he came to see the Jewish Agency’s impact in our Greater MetroWest community,” Dov Ben-Shimon, federation CEO, told NJJN. He described the connection with JAFI as “deep, meaningful, and long-lasting.” The federation annually gives almost $3 million to JAFI for programming at home and abroad. Some of the partnerships with the agency include the shlichim and rishonim (Israeli emissaries) programs, the “P2G” partnerships in the Negev, and the Youth Futures program, which helps develop Israel’s most vulnerable young populations.

In turn, Greater MetroWest has a “front-row seat to the key developments happening in the Jewish world.… Our UJA support for the agency’s work cares for those in need, builds Jewish communities, and literally saves life,” Ben-Shimon wrote in an email to NJJN. “That’s why having Bougie here is such an important reflection of our federation values of ‘care, build, save.’”

“Bougie” appears to be a good candidate to bridge the often-talked-about divide between Israel and North American Jewry, although he thinks the complaining from the States — about the lack of religious pluralism in Israel and Netanyahu’s right-wing policies, for example — is because “there’s no existential threat to Jews or Israel,” he told NJJN. “When Jews feel more secure they complain.”

Isaac Herzog said Israelis are willing to take “painful steps for peace” but are “not willing to try again and be faced with terror.” Photo by Shira Vickar-Fox

He perhaps understands some of the nuances of diaspora Jews that are foreign to many Israelis because he lived and studied in the United States. When his father was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations (1975-78), the teenage Isaac attended Ramaz Upper School, the Modern Orthodox day school in Manhattan; he also took courses at Cornell and New York universities. One example of an issue concerning American Jews whose subtlety is lost on Israelis is intermarriage and the decreasing numbers of Jews. “Israelis have no clue about it,” he said.

Herzog said he tells rabbis and fellow politicians in Israel to “shut up” and “don’t say a word about the diaspora before you learn what you’ve spoken about.”

A trained lawyer and politically a centrist, Herzog said he’s a “democratic person” who doesn’t mind arguing with people who are critical of his country. However, there’s a line he’s not willing to cross: “The red line is: Never delegitimize Israel’s right to exist or Israel’s right to defend itself and take forceful action to defend its people. This is the innate right of any nation.”

Additionally, he asked that opponents “learn the facts.” By way of example, he cited a little-known detail about a Muslim Brotherhood party with representatives in the Knesset. Even though those members “say the worst things possible to the Zionist’s ear,” Herzog, a man who lauds Israel’s rule of law and democratic foundations, said, “I’m very proud of this.”

In his brief conversation with NJJN he managed to squeeze in a dig at U.S. President Donald Trump. “You can challenge Israel on many issues — but we will never have a shutdown,” he said.

Regarding prospects for peace with the Palestinians, Herzog said that Israelis are “cautious.”

“We are willing to take painful steps for peace, but we’re not willing to try again and be faced with terror,” he said. Not surprisingly, he blamed his political rival Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the “total stalemate” in the process and said he’s “doubtful” that the Trump administration will make headway.

NJJN’s conversation was followed by a meeting with senior federation leaders at Beth Shalom, which lasted less than one hour. After some short remarks, Herzog was open to questions from the audience “on anything you want to ask about, from Donald Trump to Bibi,” which generated some chuckling.

Questions ranged from immigrant absorption and JAFI’s priorities, to possible Netanyahu successors and the effectiveness of Women Wage Peace, a grassroots group in Israel — Herzog’s wife is a member — that advocates for dialogue with the Palestinians. “I love that organization,” he said, although “the tragedy is that they didn’t find Palestinian women to march with them … or raise their voice in Palestine.”

Someone asked about the challenges facing Russian olim, some of whom were not considered fully Jewish, to which Herzog replied, “It’s not Israel; it’s the rabbanut,” the country’s religious authority; Israel “loves” and “respects” the diaspora, he said.

On that note, Herzog expressed optimism about the growth of religious pluralism. “The religious influence on Israeli politics is diminished, not increased,” he told those gathered.

Looking back to the start of the conversation with NJJN, Herzog had not named his favorite Israeli TV show. He did say he’s never seen “Fauda,” the often-violent series about an elite Israeli army unit that combats terror. The reason offered was grounded and pragmatic: “When you have kids who serve in some of these units, I say I have enough of that.”

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