Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), was in Canada this month on a tour that took him to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.
Founded in 1929, JAFI supports vulnerable populations and works with Jewish communities around the world to strengthen Jewish identity and fight anti-Semitism.
Herzog served as a member of Israel’s Knesset from 2003 to 2018 and held several ministerial posts. He was head of the opposition Labor party from 2013 until 2018.
Do we still need the Jewish Agency?
Absolutely, yes. It’s essential for the global connectivity of the Jewish people around the world and the promotion of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.
I’m inundated by nations all over the world that have diasporas and are interested to learn the model of the Jewish Agency in order to copy it. Recently, I met the president of Cyprus, which has about a million people abroad. Together with Cyprus and Greece, we have an agreement whereby we share our know-how about serving our diasporas. The model of the Jewish Agency thrills them. They would like to have one like it in their nations.
Is your job more difficult, knowing that you were not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first choice?
No, it’s not relevant at all. I was the first choice, the unanimous choice, of the leadership of world Jewry. I was unanimously elected by our board of governors. The prime minister disliked my appointment because, at the time, I was leader of the opposition, so it’s only natural that he would be wary or suspicious of whether I would be a confrontational leader. I made it clear that I intend to lead the Jewish Agency on the merits of the issues, without politics. I think I’ve proven that. I would stand up for the cause of pluralism and world Jewry in Israel, and for Israel, without any political considerations.
How have the agency’s priorities changed over the years, and what priorities have you set?
The Sochnut, as the Jewish Agency is called, was the organization that founded the State of Israel. It was established exactly 90 years ago. David Ben-Gurion led it to form the State of Israel, and I sit in the room from where he went on to declare the State of Israel, which gives me special inspiration every day I go into the office.
Thereafter, the organization was commissioned to bring olim (immigrants) to Israel from all corners of the earth to fulfil the dreams of old, and we brought well over 3.5 million Jews to Israel.
We are the global glue of the Jewish people. We serve the needs of communities all over the world, including in Canada, by advancing and promoting programs that connect and serve communities, by advancing knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish identity, and by bringing shlichim (emissaries) and especially shinshinim (youth leaders) who live in and serve the communities. We are also helping security needs of communities, combating anti-Semitism, twinning schools and educational institutions, placing educators and attracting young Jews and young Israelis to serve in Third World countries. Together with our partners Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Federations of North America and the World Zionist Organization, we are dealing with the most complicated challenges of the Jewish people in the current era.
Do you miss the political arena?
I voted early in the current Israeli election as head of the Jewish Agency. By law, we are emissaries, including myself, and are permitted to vote in our embassies and consulates. So I voted in the consulate in Toronto. And the interviews I gave on Israeli television all had to do with my internal conflict between being a public figure and a leading former politician, and currently as a major leader in the Jewish world. And I say to myself that I have been blessed for being able to lead such an incredible institution and deal with the issues of my people.
Don’t forget, I come from a family that has served Jewish life all throughout. In Montreal, I told about my grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog’s visit in December 1954 to Canada. The Jewish community declared Rabbi Herzog Day all throughout Canada because his visit was as the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel. Later on, my father, Chaim, as president of Israel, visited Canada during Brian Mulroney’s time as prime minister. My uncle, Yaakov Herzog, was a legendary ambassador of Israel to Canada. My late cousin, Shira Herzog, contributed so much to the community. And even my other late uncle, Abba Eban, another Israeli legend, was here numerous times in his capacity as foreign minister of Israel.
So I continue carrying the torch from generation to generation. In this generation, I think the unity of the Jewish people, and making sure the Jewish identity will continue to the next generation, is a huge challenge for the people of Israel and for the Jewish people, and I’m proud to be leading this challenge.
What’s your message to Canadian Jewry?
My message to Canadian Jewry is my message the world over, which is: what you read in certain newspapers does not reflect Israel at all. Israel is fascinating, interesting, challenging, is as ever-evolving as any modern society. It has its good and bad moments, its dark sides and brighter sides, but we should appreciate the greatness of our own independent state of the Jewish people.
I feel that, in the current era, it is our duty in Israel to care more about world Jewry and empower communities. While advocating aliyah and the centrality of Israel, we need to make sure that every Jew can practise Judaism in whichever form or manner they want – with no fear, and with no threat and with no limitations – anywhere around the globe, meaning we need to help every community there is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity