‘Dark Horse’ Candidate Becoming More Likely to Nab Top Job at Jewish Agency

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Yesh Atid's Elazar Stern in the presidential residence in jerusalem, two months ago.
Yesh Atid's Elazar Stern in the presidential residence in jerusalem, two months ago.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The chances that Elazar Stern, a lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, will be named the next chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency have weakened considerably, given the composition of the newly appointed nominations committee.

Stern’s candidacy was put forward by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, with the blessing of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Until now, Stern – who is Orthodox, but very liberal – was considered to be the front-runner in the race.

Isaac Herzog, the former chairman of the executive, was sworn in as president of Israel in early July, before there was time to name his successor at the Jewish Agency. Since then, Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, has been filling in as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency.

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A candidate for the position of Jewish Agency chairman must be endorsed by nine of the 10 members of the nominations committee, whose names were announced on Wednesday night. They will be asked to choose a candidate by the end of October, in time for the next Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting. The board will be asked to approve the candidate at that meeting.

But given the current makeup of the nominations committee, Stern could be easily blocked from obtaining such a large majority. As a result, the prospect of a dark horse candidate being named to the position – among the highest profile in the Jewish world – now seems increasingly likely.

The nominations committee does not include any representatives of the Conservative movement, Yesh Atid or the Labor Party, which could have strengthened Stern’s prospects. Instead, Kahol Lavan – the centrist party, which has tense relations with Yesh Atid since the collapse of their merger – received a seat on the committee.

The 10-person committee is typically comprised of five representatives of the WZO, three representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America and two representatives of Keren Hayesod. In terms of political and religious breakdown, the composition of the committee is meant to reflect the relative breakdown of the different Zionist movements and parties in the World Zionist Congress.

The names of the five members of the WZO delegation to the committee were proposed by Hagoel, who previously served as head of World Likud. Likud and Eretz Kadosh, a brand new ultra-Orthodox party, operate as one faction in the WZC.

The ultra-Orthodox are opposed to Stern because of his progressive views, which means that Hagoel, who is chairman of the nominations committee and one of the five members of the WZO delegation, will almost certainly not support him (the vote is secret). Neither is it likely that Racheli Baratz-Riks, the Kahol Lavan representative (and head of the WZO Department for Combating Antisemitism and Promoting Diaspora Community Resilience) will.

Benny Gantz, Kahol Lavan's head, has been lobbying for the appointment of Omer Yankelevich, the ultra-Orthodox woman who was a member of his party and served as minister of Diaspora Affairs in the last government, to the top position at the Jewish Agency, or alternatively, at Keren Hayesod, which engages primarily in fundraising for the State of Israel abroad.

Kahol Lavan and Labor operate as one faction in the WZC, but Hagoel decided to choose a representative of Kahol Lavan rather than Labor to represent it on the committee, which could have detrimental consequences for Stern.

The other three members of the WZO contingency are Harvey Blitz, chairman of the board of World Mizrahi; Helena Glazer, the honorary president of WIZO; and Meir Azari, the executive director of Beit Daniel, the flagship synagogue of the Reform movement in Israel.

The representatives of JFNA are Michael Siegal, chairman of the Jewish Agency board of governors;  Mark Wilf, chairman of the JFNA board of trustees; and Jeff Schoenfeld, chair of JNFA's Israel and Overseas Committee. The representatives of Keren Hayesod are Steven Lowy, chairman of its world board of trustees, and David Koschitzky, a member of its world board.

Before his recent appointment to the position of chairman of Yad Vashem, Dani Dayan, the former Israeli consul-general in New York, was seen as a leading candidate for the top job at the Jewish Agency. Danny Danon, the current head of World Likud and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is also eyeing the job. Others who have been mentioned as possible candidates are Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem; Tehila Friedman, a former Kahol Lavan Knesset member; and quite recently, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

On a visit to Israel in June, Siegal held informal meetings with some of the candidates but was reportedly not overly impressed with any one of them. This has strengthened speculation that he may propose his own candidate.

In the past, the nominations committee almost always approved the candidate put forward by the prime minister. The exception was the last round in 2018, when the committee voted for Herzog, in defiance of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the candidacy of the former Labor party leader and tried but failed to push one of his own Likud loyalists into the job.

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