Jewish Agency Invites Staff to Radical West Bank Settlement for Holiday Trip

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Palestinians pray during Friday prayers at a protest against construction on the Jewish side at the Ibrahimi Mosque, which Jews call the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of Hebron, this month.
Palestinians pray during Friday prayers at a protest against construction on the Jewish side at the Ibrahimi Mosque, which Jews call the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of Hebron, this mCredit: Majdi Mohammed,AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The new acting chairman of the Jewish Agency did not wait long before starting to promote his political agenda.

Hardly a month after temporarily assuming the helm of the organization, Yaakov Hagoel, the former head of World Likud, was already helping plan a trip for Jewish Agency staffers to the West Bank city of Hebron, a hotbed of settler extremism. The event is being organized by the World Zionist Organization, which Hagoel also heads.

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Invitations to the outing, scheduled for Thursday, were sent out earlier this week not only to employees of the WZO – whose member parties and movements are known to engage in political and religious advocacy – but also to employees of the Jewish Agency, a strictly apolitical organization.

Veteran staff members of the Jewish Agency, who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity, said they did not recall ever being invited to participate in an event at such a politically contentious location. In Hebron, around 700 Jewish settlers live alongside more than 215,000 Palestinians, who are subject to strict limitations on movement within the city.

During the World Zionist Congress held last October, Hagoel was appointed chairman of the WZO, having served previously as its vice chairman. Last month, he also became acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, filling in until a permanent replacement is chosen for Isaac Herzog, the former Labor Party leader who now serves as president of Israel.

According to the invitation sent out to the WZO and Jewish Agency employees, Thursday’s excursion will include “an exciting tour around Hebron,” a visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs and a recital of the penitential prayers and liturgy, also known as selichot, as is traditional before the High Holy Days. In addition to Hagoel, the featured speakers will be Ifat Ovadia Luski, a representative of Likud on the WZO executive and head of its department of Hebrew language and culture – which organized the trip – and Malachi Levinger, the former mayor of the settlements of Hebron and the adjacent Kiryat Arba.

Asked why Hebron – a location that is not part of the Jewish world consensus – was chosen for the outing, the WZO spokesman issued the following response: “In the Jewish month of Elul, several selichot events are being held. The selichot event in the Cave of Patriarchs, initiated by our culture department, is the first, and staff are being invited to participate after work hours. The chairman of the executive welcomes this event at the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is part of our ancient heritage and one of the most sacred sites in Judaism.” He did not respond to questions about whether the executive board of the WZO had been consulted or whether the heads of the Jewish Agency had been notified in advance about the destination for the trip.

Sylvio Joscowicz, a member of the WZO executive, expressed concerns about the choice of venue. “As we are heading into the period of the High Holy Days, as I see it, the Zionist movement should be looking for places and events that symbolize what unites us rather than what divides us,” he said, when asked to comment on the event. “There are many places where that can be done, but regretfully, they have chosen to deepen the rifts between us rather than search for consensus.” Joscowicz, who heads the department for Zionist enterprises at the WZO, is a representative of the merged Kachol-Lavan/Labor faction in the organization, which is affiliated with the center-left.

Yaron Shavit, who serves as deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency and was previously head of the Reform movement in Israel, said he was not consulted before the invitations were sent out.

When asked for his response to the decision to extend invitations to Jewish Agency staff to an event with strong political overtones, Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of governors, wrote in an email: “I have no comment.”

According to the invitation, the event in Hebron is being co-sponsored by Tarbut L’Yisrael, a division jointly run by the main Zionist Institutions (WZO, Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod) with the aim of promoting cultural events in Israel’s geographic periphery, as well as the Hebron Heritage Museum.

By virtue of his position at the WZO, Hagoel heads the nominations committee that will choose the next chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency. The members of this committee, whose names were announced last week, were proposed by Hagoel. Given its composition, the chances that the job will go to Elazar Stern – a lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party who was considered a front-runner in the race – have weakened considerably.  The new chairman of the Jewish Agency is meant to be chosen by the end of October, when its board of governors holds its next meeting.

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