Since the creation of the State of Israel, most, if not all, the chairmen of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) got the job after having less-than-successful careers in politics. Isaac Herzog, who became the chairman earlier this month, is no exception.
About a year ago, the Israeli Labor Party that he headed replaced him with Avi Gabbay. Because Gabbay doesn’t have a seat in the Knesset, Herzog remained the titular leader of the opposition. His departure has exposed new tensions between his party and Hatnuah, the parliamentary partner led by Tzipi Livni that formed the Zionist Union. She has now become the leader of the Opposition.
Will Herzog do better as the chair of JAFI?
Though born in Israel, he understands diaspora Jewry and cares for it. But is this enough to lead the organization that seeks to build bridges between Israel and the Diaspora?
One of the portfolios Herzog held was minister of Diaspora affairs, during which he must have had much contact with JAFI. Although he’s the grandson of former Ashkenazic chief rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, after whom he was named, he’s said to have been supportive of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, in their struggle for equal rights in Israel.
Perhaps it was the government’s very mixed messages on this issue that persuaded the nominating committee to recommend Herzog as the JAFI chair and not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allegedly faithful mouthpiece, Yuval Steinitz. Herzog’s election seems to have been a sharp rejoinder to the prime minister that’s indicative of the growing tension between him and diaspora Jewry.
Herzog may have left one political hotbed – the tensions within the Zionist Union and its inability to effectively challenge the current government – to move into another: the looming crisis between Israel and the Diaspora.
The JAFI board consists of 120 members: 48 from Israel, 47 from the United States and 25 from the rest of the world. Though the Diaspora has the majority, until recently, it was Israel that dominated the organization. Whatever the government of Israel wanted, it usually got. The rest of the world, particularly the United States, was primarily a source of funds.
JAFI was also responsible for aliyah and helping with Jewish education abroad by sending emissaries and providing resources. This has remained important, particularly in small communities around the world.
But much else has changed. Nowadays, the Diaspora needs most of the money it collects to maintain its institutions, particularly its schools, while Israel’s economy is strong enough to manage without outside help. And much of the immigration to Israel now has less to do with the ideological commitment of those who are making aliyah and more to do with the rise in global anti-Semitism.
And many seemingly successful efforts to expose young diaspora Jews to Israel, such as Birthright, are privately funded and operate largely outside the Jewish Agency.
The weakening Zionist commitment of young Jews throughout the world is reflected in the growing number of supporters of liberal groups that some would describe as “radical anti-Zionist.” Right-wing politicians in Israel, including Netanyahu and many of his colleagues, are prone to blame the non-Orthodox movements that are dominant in the United States. But this is just another way of antagonizing the Reform and Conservative Jews who are fighting for equal rights and recognition in Israel.
The new chairman of JAFI is thus facing formidable challenges. The nice man that he is, he’ll no doubt try to do his best to bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora. The question is: will that be enough?