For the first time in 23 years, the Prime Minister of Israel’s choice for chairman of the Jewish Agency was rejected. Not only that, but the man elected to the post heads the opposition and is the last man Benjamin Netanyahu wanted in the role.
The election of Isaac (“Bougie”) Herzog as chairman is diaspora Jewry’s way of letting Netanyahu know that its willingness to support Israel regardless of how it is treated is coming to an end. In electing Herzog, the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel accepted the recommendation of the Leadership Nominating Committee, composed of the leaders of the Jewish Agency’s constituent bodies and major Zionist organisations of the diaspora — namely, the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod-UIA, and the World Zionist Organisation.
Until recently, Herzog would not have been able to be elected, because the prime minister had to approve the Jewish Agency’s chair. No more — those bylaws were changed, and the Zionist organisations are actively demonstrating that they refuse to be under the influence of the prime minister.
This is a significant change. When Israel’s security was precarious, when the country was under fire and hounded by terror, Jewish communities across the world put aside their concerns about the issues that affect them most, very often matters of religion and state, for the sake of unity.
Though there are ongoing attacks, including massive fires, from Gaza, the security wall seems to be doing its job and Iron Dome covers the skies. Perhaps Israel’s security has been in a holding pattern long enough that the diaspora can demand that the government give the issues it finds concerning their fair due. Or maybe the diaspora now believes that these issues are a true threat to the future of Israel.
If so, it has good reason to feel that way. Over the past few years, Netanyahu has broken the promises and reneged on the deals that were explicitly established by the Jewish Agency to enable diaspora Jewry to feel more at home in Israel.
Most famously, this included the Kotel deal, which called for changes to the Western Wall plaza that would have put Reform and Conservative Judaism on more equal footing with the Orthodoxy that runs the Kotel. When Strictly Orthodox coalition members threatened to leave the government, which effectively would have toppled it, Netanyahu squashed the deal.
Netanyahu does what he can to keep a stable coalition— in this case, catering to the Charedi parties and giving them control over all things religion and state. In doing so, however, the Prime Minister puts himself on a direct collision course, not only with the elements of Israeli society that reject the Charedi monopoly, but also with diaspora Jewry, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox.
Natan Sharansky, outgoing chair of the Jewish Agency warned Israeli lawmakers that another major flare-up between Israel and diaspora Jewry would undoubtedly occur if the government were to fail to take action with regard to the Western Wall and matters of conversion. “I have to warn you that the crisis continues. We might have a new crisis.”
It makes sense, then, that the Jewish Agency turned to Herzog who had expressed vehement criticism of the government’s Western Wall about-face. Even better, his views on matters of religion and state, as well as the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel align well with those of the majority of diaspora Jewry.
For Herzog — whose father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president of Israel and whose grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was first chief rabbi of the state of Israel — “a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and it doesn’t matter what stream he belongs to or what he wears on his head. We are all one people… and the great story of the state of Israel being the beating heart of the Jewish people.” He also declared that we “have to make it possible for anyone who wants to be Jewish to join easily.”
How Herzog plans to turn the prevailing approach to Judaism in Israel into an open house, while the Strictly Orthodox parties remain in the coalition is anyone’s guess. Then again, Herzog knows Netanyahu and he knows Israeli politics, and he may be just the right person, now in the right role, at the helm of the Agency, to be able to accomplish more for both Israel and diaspora Jewry than he ever could have done as opposition leader.
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist