Analysis |

The Jewish Agency Has a New Chairman. These Are the Five Things He Needs to Do

During a period of acute crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations, Isaac Herzog's appointment could still prove a success

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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New Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog during his time as Zionist Union leader.
New Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog during his time as Zionist Union leader. He will need to be a good listener at the Agency. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Today, Isaac Herzog is officially the new chairman of the Jewish Agency. I wrote here a couple of months ago, upon his appointment, why he is not the best person for the position during a period of acute crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations.

But everyone deserves a fair chance at the start of a new job and Herzog could still prove to be a success. Here are a few things he needs to do in order to make that happen.

Promise not to run for the presidency

Herzog has made no secret of his desire to one day occupy the position his father Chaim once held. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition. But if he has any thoughts of succeeding President Reuven Rivlin – whose seven-year term ends in 2021 – it means that not only is Herzog planning a very short term as Agency chairman, less than three years, but that every decision, every appointment, every budget allocation during that period, will somehow be hostage to Herzog’s fortune.

His new job could be an excellent stepping stone to the president’s residence. But if he spends the next three years using his office to lobby the 120 Knesset members who elect the president by secret ballot, he will be abusing that office and will soon lose credibility. He needs to make it clear now that his presidential aspirations are on hold until 2028 at the earliest.

Archive: Then-President Chaim Herzog, father of Isaac Herzog, with Nathan Sharansky. The younger Herzog took over for Sharasnky as head of the Jewish Agency todayCredit: Yaakov Sa'ar / GPO

Listen; you don’t know it all

Herzog is one of the most courteous men in Israeli politics. His politeness is not just a product of a privileged upbringing, but has served him well as a cover for a silent-killer instinct.

FILE: A campaign poster for Isaac HerzogCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

He has one annoying characteristic, though, and that’s a know-it-all attitude.

He has been at the center of Israeli power virtually from birth and believes he has seen it all. That tendency extends itself to his belief that he has a deep understanding of the Diaspora. And while by Israel’s low standards his manners are impeccable, he still has trouble hiding his Israeli arrogance.

That tendency was already on display in the first interview he gave after his appointment, where he called intermarriage a “plague” – at a time when many in the Diaspora have realized that whatever they may think privately about it, intermarriage is a fact of Jewish life.

Now more than ever, he has to realize that the three years he spent as a teenager in New York don’t make him an expert on the Diaspora and adopt a listening mode. Not only will it create a good impression, he may actually learn a few things.

Don’t waste your time making up with Bibi

Normally, the fact that the new Agency chairman was appointed against the express wishes of the Israeli prime minister would be a major obstacle. It makes it that much harder when competing against government agencies for funds and powers. The Agency can’t function without government support and cooperation. But these are not normal times.

The faces of Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog on an election sign in 2015Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has driven the relationship between Israel and the Jews of the world – not just liberal Jews in the United States, but also communities in places like France and Hungary – to rock-bottom.

Currying favor with Netanyahu is a waste of time. Every time the prime minister has to choose between the concerns of the Diaspora and the demands of one of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, or sensitive feelings of authoritarian friends like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, he will leave Diaspora Jews by the wayside.

The way for Herzog to build trust in the Diaspora is to show there is clear daylight between him and Bibi.

Appoint the right team

After nine years under Natan Sharansky, the Agency is well overdue an organizational shake-up. Veteran CEO Alan Hoffmann is leaving as well, and instead of appointing one of the candidates from within the organization, Herzog would benefit from bringing in a fresh face – someone not beholden to the tired loyalties and bureaucracy.

FILE: Co-leader of the center-left Zionist Union Isaac Herzog visits a market in Tel Aviv, Israel. Credit: Dan Balilty/AP

The same goes for his personal team. Herzog needs men and women around him who have wide experience of life in Israel and especially the Diaspora, outside of the stultifying existence of the big Jewish organizations.

He doesn’t need anyone to help him talk with the power politicians and big shots of the federations. Them he knows well enough himself.

He needs people who can explain to him bluntly why so many young Jews worldwide have been turned off, both by Israel and their local communal establishment.

Focus on one mission

The main advantage of bringing in a CEO from outside is that the Agency, despite several rounds of cost cutting, still does too many things that other Jewish organizations do better, and with less funding.

A new CEO should be able to make the tough decisions on which programs to cut, which functions should be outsourced and where best to direct the ever-shrinking budget, devoid of political and traditional considerations cost cutting – and, most crucially, allow Herzog to focus on what he can be good at: diplomacy.

There is certainly a role right now for a senior Israeli figure who is capable of simply listening to the concerns of Jews around the world instead of lecturing them, and articulating those concerns to the Israeli public and in Jerusalem's corridors of power.

If Herzog, at the age of 58, is capable of putting aside his own political ambitions, and frustrations, and reining in his own know-it-all arrogance, he may still be that person.

Isaac Herzog speaking at a conference in the Negev, March 2018.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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