Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 - 20 of Tishri, 5780

Isaac Herzog: From the Labor Party to ‘prime minister of the Jews’

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A year after replacing Natan Sharansky as chair of the Jewish Agency, Herzog has shaken up the decades-old organization. The million-dollar question is whether he’s in it for the long term.

By Zvika Klein, Makor Rishon via JNS

The ORT Jewish school in Buenos Aires was looking festive: Israeli flags hung in every corner, the classrooms were pristine and the walls were decorated. The party, held several months ago, was in honor of a visit by the chairman of the Jewish Agency. The excitement extended beyond the school—the community organized a number of events around the “state visit.”

Only a few months earlier, said chairman, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, was combating intrigue in the Labor Party and tensions within the Knesset opposition. And suddenly he was welcomed as a king by this strong and Zionist community, as if he was the prime minister. Against the backdrop of the song “You and I Will Change the World,” Herzog entered, accompanied by his wife, Michal, waving to hundreds of children wearing blue shirts and waving small Israeli flags. “Love for Israel emanates from the walls,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It’s incredibly moving!”

Some raised their eyebrows when Herzog’s name came up as a candidate to replace Natan Sharansky as Jewish Agency chairman. This was a man who had almost become Israel’s prime minister, who held a high-ranking and enviable political position—why would he want to leave for a job that, while still prominent and with political power, was with an organization with severe budgetary problems, whose status was deteriorating and whose public image was problematic?

On Aug. 1, Herzog completed his first year as chairman. A year after entering the position, it seems Herzog is in a place most natural for him: meetings with heads of state, leaders of Jewish communities and philanthropists, among whom he is seen as royalty. His exit from politics has proven to be a smart move, given the current state of the Labor Party, which is now in a war for survival.

This past month, around 100 Jewish Agency employees entered early retirement following widespread budget cuts, an indication that the organization is no longer as strong or central as it once was. On the other hand, it also shows that Herzog is energizing the organization, bringing new air, connecting the organization to social media in ways it never has been before, and trying to seek new purpose and goals.

Last week also saw the organization’s annual aliyah celebration, which primarily focused on immigration from France. It has been a tough year from this perspective as well: To date, less than 1,000 French Jews have immigrated to Israel this year, compared to around 8,000 during the peak year (2015). The Jewish Agency and the government of Israel have not succeed in keeping up the historic momentum, and do not give the impression they have been trying especially hard.

Sheriff against anti-Semitism

Historically, the prime minister recommends a candidate for the role of Jewish Agency chairman, and a search committee and the organization’s board of governors approves the nomination. Before Herzog’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wavered, and did not truly advance the candidate he had proposed, Minister Yuval Steinitz, or former Knesset member and ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.

Herzog was nominated from within the organization itself. Not only representatives from the left, but also some from the right, felt he was fit for the job. There were those who thought that Netanyahu’s displeasure with Herzog might motivate Netanyahu to try to harm the organization should Herzog be elected, but in reality, the situation (between the government and the agency) remained as it had been, and the two even met to talk about the status of the Jewish world.

Herzog took the agency’s historic building on Jerusalem’s King George Street by storm: He brought with him his entire staff and started lighting fires in every direction. There are hardly any events dealing in one way or another with world Jewry, anti-Semitism, Zionism or Judaism that Herzog does not attend. Agency employees, especially in the CEO’s office, say they are suddenly working overtime. The new chairman is sometimes the last to turn out the lights, he meets non-stop with officials from Israel and around the world. At the same time, presence on social media has revived the organization’s image, and has raised awareness about its activities to people who are unfamiliar with it.

Herzog also chose wisely when it came to replacing CEO Alan Hoffman, who had been with the organization for a long time and was considered an authority: he appointed Amira Ahronoviz to the post. Besides being the first woman to ever serve in the position, Ahronoviz grew her career within the organization. Herzog thus signaled to employees that while he is making changes, he is still relying on insiders to assist him with the revolution.

He also travels much more than Sharansky did, and visits as many Jewish communities as he can every month. “Sharansky would fly only if he really had to, and even then he preferred not to be away from home on Shabbat,” say those who worked with him. Herzog’s staff say that trips abroad with him are exhausting: their itineraries begin early in the morning and end late at night, and the days are filled with meetings, interviews and conferences. He does not take advantage of any opportunities for shopping or entertainment. He’s a workaholic in the full sense of the word.

Herzog also turned himself into Diaspora Jewry’s “sheriff”: He addresses the issue of anti-Semitism constantly, as it is on the rise across Europe and even the United States. He meets with law enforcement agencies and countries’ leaders, fighting stubbornly against the seepage of anti-Semitism into their political institutions. He is aided in this by Jewish Agency spokesman Yigal Palmor, who hails from the Foreign Ministry. Herzog made Palmor head of the organization’s Political Department, and in doing so, created a miniature Foreign Ministry for himself, which keeps his finger on the pulse of all these issues.

“He was almost elected Prime Minister, and when that didn’t happen, he decided to move on to the next challenge: Prime Minister of the Jewish People,” says a Jewish Agency employee, and this is evident in Herzog’s activities. He styles himself as one who meets with people who can save the world, tries to appease parties within the Jewish world and in Israel, speaks at state and international events and makes sure to take part in every major move in the global Jewish ecosystem.

The world of Jewish organizations grew stormy in the past few months when it became known that the Jewish Agency had held what it called “The Laboratory”: a conference in New Jersey of 150 Jewish leaders from all over the world, who began to form new goals for the 90-year-old organization. By the end of 2019, Herzog is expected to present the results of this process, and announce the organization’s new directions.

A decade ago it was Chairman Sharansky who decided that the field of immigration to Israel would no longer be the Jewish Agency’s central mission, and that it would focus rather on strengthening Jewish identity among young Jews around the world. During the Sharansky period, immigration was also partially privatized: Nefesh B’Nefesh is now exclusively responsible for immigration from North America, and in recent years the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has also entered this space, and threatens to take a large share by providing extra benefits to immigrants who come through their framework.

“The Fellowship has more employees dedicated to aliyah than the Jewish Agency, which is insane,” said a veteran employee. According to him, “Once upon a time, an entire building [the Tirat Bat Sheva Hotel in central Jerusalem]was dedicated to the Aliyah Department. Today there are a few rooms.”

Indeed, it seems that Herzog’s focus is less on immigration to Israel and more on connecting the various communities.

Many initiatives have launched from Herzog’s office in the past year, and he has met with senior officials from all Jewish sectors in Israel and the world, to try to bridge gaps between them. Few details have emerged about the content of these meetings, but in an interview a few weeks ago with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Herzog said that he often meets with right-wing leaders in Israel in attempts to prevent them from taking actions that would be offensive.

Additionally, he is in contact with ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel and worldwide, and even visited the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey, one of the largest yeshivot in the world (along with the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem). All in addition, of course, to meetings requested by heads of the religious streams and major Jewish organizations.

Liked among both right and left

As befits a polished politician in modern times, Herzog has an impressive presence on social media: close to 130,000 followers on Facebook and around 50,000 followers on Twitter. Every day he uploads several tweets about his meetings and his work, and about the many events on his schedule. Those around him say that Herzog is “raising the communications profile of the organization in Israel and worldwide, as the largest Jewish organization, from an understanding of the new world.”

And indeed, this year the organization’s activity on the various media platforms has jumped tens of percentage points. The Israeli media, too, has shown an increase in publications about the Jewish Agency. The difference is not only in quantity: the speaker for the organization is Herzog, and only Herzog, in contrast to the situation during Sharansky’s era.

The organization currently does not have an official spokesperson, and in practice the one directing communications is veteran media liaison Hagit Hallali. Herzog himself speaks through his loyal adviser, Liron Zach, who came with him from the Knesset. Therefore, every press release includes a reference to the chairman, and most also include his photo. Organization officials say that Herzog addressed this in closed-door conversations, saying, “I am the outward face of the agency.” For the job of ongoing management, he relies on Ahronoviz.

Just as was the case in the political system, so too at the Agency it is difficult to find anyone who will speak negatively about Herzog. He is admired and respected on both the right and the left as an idealistic, Zionist public figure. There are employees who say they “don’t understand his direction or what strategic issue he’ll take on, but there is no doubt that he is very present. He’s at every event, visits communities and is learning about all the Jewish Agency’s activities in Israel and around the world.” Another employee gave a slight criticism: “I don’t understand why he has to be involved in everything that happens. Sharansky delegated a lot more authority.”

Thanks to his interpersonal skills, Herzog has restored collaborations that had been damaged in recent years, first and foremost with Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which until recently was headed by Naftali Bennett. Those in Bennett’s office good-naturedly referred to Herzog as “Mr. President,” and the two had a good relationship.

During Sharansky’s time, much bad blood flowed between the Jewish Agency and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, mainly due to the establishment of what was then known as “the Joint Initiative” and is now known as Mosaic United—a series of ventures to strengthen the connection with the Jewish world. Both bodies promoted the initiative together with the Prime Minister’s Office, but eventually the Jewish Agency was pushed to the side.

As part of rebuilding its relationship with the ministry, the Jewish Agency has initiated several collaborations: “Shalom Corps,” a Jewish peace corps; the “Placement Initiative,” to recruit teachers for Jewish schools around the world, from all over the world (and not only from Israel, as is the case with Teacher Emissaries); and a “Shlichim to Small Communities” initiative, through which Israeli emissaries who speak various languages spend short amounts of time, several times per year, in isolated Jewish communities that do not have long-term emissaries.

Herzog has similarly expanded work with the Education Ministry, Strategic Affairs Ministry, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and more.

Additionally, a committee recently convened—the first meeting in two years, according to the Makor Rishon daily—to update Prime Minister Netanyahu on the goings-on among Diaspora Jews, and to advance the interests of the Jewish Agency and world Jewry vis-à-vis the Israeli government.

The Jewish Agency is experiencing deep financial difficulties. Some said at the start of Herzog’s term that had he known the extent of the budget deficit, he would not have agreed to take on the job. Herzog replaced the organization’s fundraiser, and started creating relationships with philanthropic foundations.

Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea Foundation, which acts against anti-Semitism worldwide, donated $5 million toward the fight against anti-Semitism; the Ruderman Family Foundation supports Jewish Agency efforts to leverage returning shlichim as agents of change in Israeli society; and the agency is currently in renewed negotiations with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which in the past donated millions each year, a relationship that was discontinued due primarily to personal matters related to the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

Those around Herzog explain that he does not see other Jewish organizations as competition, saying, “He said there are organizations doing a very good job in their fields, and we need to cooperate with them for the sake of the major goals of the Jewish People.”

The end goal: president of Israel?

As mentioned above, one of the projects that Herzog is promoting is the “Shalom Corps,” which aims to engage young Jews from around the world who feel that the essence of Judaism is Tikkun Olam—Repairing the World. Together with Mosaic United and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Jewish Agency has established a Jewish peace corps that should dramatically expand opportunities for volunteerism both within Jewish communities and outside them—including in Third World countries, with young Israelis and young Jews from overseas working together. The goal: “A better world,” with the secondary benefit of “serving Israel’s good reputation in the world.”

An issue that Herzog has advanced since the beginning of his term is the struggle for the Falash Mura, members of the Ethiopian Jewish community who remain in Ethiopia. In an interview published in Makor Rishon, Herzog referenced the ruling of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who recognized this community as Jews. Yosef’s ruling, Herzog said, had been preceded by the ruling of his [Herzog’s] grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog, who allowed their immigration.

Although Rabbi Herzog had doubted that the Falash Mura were “descendants of Jews or of converts,” he ruled that it would be appropriate “to bring them closer to the source of Israel” and bring them to the Land of Israel.

On this issue, Isaac Herzog is in opposition to the Israeli government, which is delaying the immigration of around 8,000 would-be immigrants who remain in Ethiopia.

“It’s not so much that he’s making an impact on the organization, but rather on public opinion,” says a veteran employee. “In that sense he has been very successful, perhaps more than in his internal organizational work. Even though there has been a huge decrease in human resources, of 10%, and a decrease in activities—from the outside people think we are still talking about the huge and powerful body that it used to be, with tens of thousands of employees.”

Herzog, the son of a former president of Israel and the grandson of a former chief rabbi, is greatly strengthening his “brand.” Still, there is no comparison between his image and the celebrity status of Sharansky, who is world-famous as a Prisoner of Zion whose release was fought for by American Jews.

A now-retired employee says: “In the past, when Sharansky was interviewed, they didn’t always put in the article that he’s the chairman of the Jewish Agency, because he was Sharansky, a brand in and of himself. With Bougie the situation is different—he identifies strongly with the organization. True, his family history helps, but he still stands on his own. Note, however, that Bougie is suddenly connecting himself to his family background, and through it is trying to build an image of great patriotism, in anticipation of a possible run for president.”

This is the million-dollar question: Did Herzog join the agency for the long term, or is it perhaps an interim position?

Most of the people we spoke to are sure that this is not his last stop. One employee said that “with Sharansky, it was obvious that the political world was behind him, and at best when he left [the Jewish Agency]he’d work for some public institution or other. But in the hallways now it is clear to everyone that Bougie does not intend to stay here for two terms.”

Everyone mentions the possibility of a run for president, but there are some who do not rule out a return to politics.

“If an opportunity arises to return to a senior position, without having to hustle for it or go through primaries, there’s a good chance he’d want to return, perhaps to unite the left-wing parties,” they say in the agency. This does not seem likely to happen any time soon—another reason that Herzog appears to enjoy his current position very much.

So Herzog has succeeded in making a lot of noise and arousing interest in the sleepy organization, all in his first year as chairman. But the hope is that after a year of working in multiple arenas, the Jewish Agency will focus on taking a truly meaningful mission upon itself, which will truly justify the existence of the historic organization, which was originally founded to build a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

This article first appeared in Makor Rishon.

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