Can Netanyahu’s Biggest Critic Now Work With Him to Save Israel-Diaspora Relations?

In his first official interview as Jewish Agency chairman, Isaac Herzog discusses the ‘minefield’ of political tensions between liberal American Jews and Netanyahu's Israel. He tells Haaretz why he’d let BDS activists into Israel and why some Jews are just lost causes

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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New Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. "The bridge between Israel and the Jewish people."
New Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog. "The bridge between Israel and the Jewish people."Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“Since I’ve started this job, I ask myself every morning whether abolishing the Jewish Agency would be a good or bad thing,” says Isaac Herzog. Conveniently for him – since he’s just left the Knesset and become the Agency’s new chairman – he’s reached the conclusion that it would be “a tragedy for anyone who believes in the centrality of Israel to the dialogue between what I call Jerusalem and Babylon.”

Three and a half years ago, Herzog was on the brink of causing a massive political upset when his Zionist Union alliance was, in the polls at least, leading Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud on the eve of the 2015 parliamentary election. But instead of unseating Netanyahu – who then kept him waiting for the next two years for a national-unity government in which he would have received the Foreign Ministry as his consolation prize – he was unceremoniously dumped by his political party, Labor, which in July 2017 elected newcomer Avi Gabbay as its new leader.

Herzog’s appointment as head of the largest Jewish organization in the world is a belated victory of sorts over Netanyahu – the first time the Agency has voted for a chairman from a rival party to that of Israel’s sitting prime minister. Netanyahu didn’t even issue a statement congratulating the new chairman.

But it’s also a final concession of defeat for Herzog: he’s never going to be prime minister.

This being Herzog, the man with the most impeccable manners in Israeli politics, he bears his defeat with grace. No longer the leader of the opposition, but now the man in charge of what he calls the “bridge between Israel and the Jewish people,” he can’t call out Netanyahu in his first interview since becoming chairman. At least, he tries not to, by not mentioning him explicitly by name.

“Unlike the person who claims that the Diaspora will disappear in two generations, I claim that Babylon, the Diaspora, contains great intellectual and spiritual and Jewish wealth in its own right,” says Herzog. But the person who has repeatedly been quoted as privately predicting the disappearance of the Diaspora – more specifically, the liberal American-Jewish section of the Diaspora – is the prime minister of Israel.

Inevitably, when Herzog lists the threats imperiling the bridge between Israel and the Diaspora (including the religious controversy between Orthodox Judaism in Israel and progressive Jews in America), he mentions the “massive political tension that’s hovering over the relationship, because of the voices within the American-Jewish community who oppose President [Donald] Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

But how can the Jewish Agency chairman rebuild the Israel-Diaspora relationship when the prime minister seems to be doing everything possible to sabotage it?

“You’re dragging me into a minefield, I’ll tell you frankly,” Herzog responds. “Look, until not long ago I was leader of the opposition and Netanyahu’s biggest critic. And, clearly, I said then that I’m a better alternative – for those in Israel and the Diaspora as well. And yet I’m trying to explain to everyone that we have to respect Israeli democracy and the will of the voters.”

Maybe that’s the deeper issue. After all, liberal Jews aren’t disputing the results of successive Israeli elections. They simply don’t like the motives of Israelis voting for right-wing governments. Herzog realizes this, and believes it can be confronted.

A March 2015 billboard showing Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv just prior to the Knesset election. Credit: AFP

“You can’t express your political frustration against the basic concept of the Jewish people’s nation-state,” he says. “It’s much deeper: Jewish life and the historical continuum – not to mention the immense national challenge that Israel was founded to answer. And I want to do everything to ensure its safe existence for generations. But support for Israel has to be way beyond affection for this or that politician, and that’s what I’m trying to tell American Jews.

“It’s not about personalities, it’s something much larger,” he continues. “The historical panorama is much wider than any leader, even if you don’t accept his views. By the way, in the center-left camp we used to think that Netanyahu and Likud’s views are much more prevalent among Diaspora Jews. That’s why we were always against any notion of allowing Israelis or Jews living outside of Israel to vote: we thought they were all right-wingers.”

This is an interesting observation, which indicates that ignorance about prevailing Diaspora views is as common among the ostensibly more worldly Israeli center-left as it is on the political right. Herzog himself, who claims he “knows most of the organizations and foundations and NGOs” in the Diaspora, quickly discovered he has a glaring blind spot.

In an interview with Israeli news site Ynet immediately after his appointment was announced in June, Herzog listed intermarriage as one of the main threats to the Jewish people’s future. He called it a “real plague,” angering many American Jews as well as some Israelis. But after returning from his first trip to the United States as Agency chairman, he is apologetic. “I was speaking totally innocently to an Israeli website. I’ve learned since then to choose my words more wisely,” he notes.

But does he still think intermarriage is a plague on the Jewish people? “I was talking about assimilation, which is a term every Israeli knows – and that’s the challenge. But the truth is – and I’m saying this with utmost frankness – I have no right, and it’s not my intention, to judge anyone. I’m not judgmental toward anyone and I’ve been in the U.S., meeting spiritual and communal leaders, rabbis and rabbas, and hearing their perspective that ‘We are bringing into the Jewish people those who want to be part of it.’ There’s a question which has to be part of the debate between streams and within streams: how do we ensure Jewish continuity? I personally, through my upbringing, believe in Jewish continuity through marriage between Jews. But I can’t in any way cancel out or, heaven forbid, patronize or give out grades for anyone else’s concept of marriage or partnership.”

Shut up and learn

Whether it’s Netanyahu, intermarriage or other conflicts between Orthodox and progressive Jews like the Western Wall prayer area agreement, it seems Israelis and Diaspora Jews simply don’t share that many common values anymore. A fact Herzog doesn’t deny.

“I don’t expect them to have an identical world of values; I really don’t expect that. I expect at the first stage to have a dialogue, a constructive argument. With mutual respect. Since I’ve started this job, I am constantly appearing and talking to both sides. I went to every ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset and asked them to shut up about this. To just learn. Listen, I spoke with all of them and I told them that what they say goes to the heart of every Jew anywhere – and they don’t understand the impact and the damage of what they’re saying. I explained that Diaspora Jews feel Israelis are condescending to them, and I told them that Diaspora Jews are Jews just like you.”

But if he blames Israelis for patronizing Diaspora Jews, he also sees a lack of Diaspora awareness of Israeli affairs as a major reason for that disillusionment. “I was in North America now and I told them, ‘You guys aren’t aware of deep tectonic shifts that are, for example, taking place now in the ultra-Orthodox community.'”

Herzog is also trying to act as commentator on Israel’s right-wing for American Jewry. “I appeared in one of the big communities, at their federation, and I said, ‘Listen, I led the opposition to the nation-state law in the Knesset. You are totally against the nation-state law and think it’s entirely racist. You forget that the law itself defines things that were defined by Zionism.’ It defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the Law of Return and Jewish identity. At the same time, it’s perceived very differently because of the complete absence of essential components that you would expect there, such as equality, and a Jewish and democratic state, which we were always demanding.

Isaac Herzog, then-Zionist Union leader, with Arye Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, June 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“But what I was trying to explain to them was that this is a 15-year process – a controversy over the powers of the Israeli judiciary,” he says. “A controversy that hasn’t reached at all from Jerusalem to the Jewish communities abroad. They don’t know there are Jews – sorry, citizens – here who say ‘We want a Justice Kavanaugh of our own.’ And when they don’t get their own Justice Kavanaugh, they reject the judiciary. So some American Jews don’t understand that and think this happened all of a sudden, not that it’s part of a process. So I’m inviting them to be involved and be part of the discourse.”

Herzog knows there has been a tectonic shift in that discourse. “When I was a young man, the Jewish people didn’t have any demands of Israel. It accepted as a given that this is Israel and they can only give and help, and perhaps make a tiny protest when Israel angers them – because it’s Israel, and Israelis are busy building a state and a nation and they can’t disturb it. Today, the Jewish people are coming and saying to Israelis, ‘You’re our brothers and we want to be partners.’ Right, they don’t live here, but perhaps they would be happy if their children did. They see themselves as partners and want to have influence; they don’t vote in the elections but want to have influence. This is where there’s tension.”

That tension is also the contradiction at the heart of the Agency’s role. Founded in 1929 to build the state-in-waiting, when Israel became a reality and then-chairman David Ben-Gurion was elected prime minister two decades later, the agency was not disbanded but instead received a new mission: To organize and encourage Jewish emigration to Israel from the Diaspora.

For more than a decade now, the Agency has been undergoing a painful transition from its role as “Jewish travel agent.” Just like commercial travel agencies have struggled with the challenge of online ticketing sites, the Agency has had to contend with the fact that the days of “mass aliyah” seem to be over, and those who are immigrating have much less need of it.

Still a central issue

Herzog seems more enthused with his role as ambassador-at-large to the Jews, wherever they live, than acting as their potential travel agent. Like his immediate predecessors Natan Sharansky and, particularly, Zeev Bielski, who signaled the Agency’s shift, Herzog prefers to speak of the organization’s Jewish identity and education programs. However, he still lists aliyah as the Agency’s first role, and has already made the rounds of visits to absorption centers and greeted new arrivals at Ben-Gurion Airport, calling it “an amazing experience of renewal.”

Herzog insists “aliyah is an important and central issue,” but admits the 30,000 new immigrants arriving this year are “not just thanks to the Jewish Agency.” He’s also aware of the tension between his role as aliyah facilitator and the fact his target audience is the millions of Jews who have no intention of emigrating.

“Jews pray ‘When God will return us to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.’ But you know it isn’t always realistic. We have to facilitate aliyah at any moment, to encourage it. But we’re not naive. After 70 years, you know that you can’t bring everyone.”

But doesn’t accepting that at least half the Jewish people will remain outside Zion somehow undermine a principle of traditional Zionism?

Herzog describes that as “a philosophical question, irrelevant. I don’t see it in those terms. I think that Jewish continuity is essential in every place and I believe it will remain, and flourish. And I believe that Babylon can be very strong in its interaction with Jerusalem, and vice versa. I think one of the great things that Israel can do – as part of its aspiration to be a light unto the nations – is to respect the liberal-democratic set of values projected by the liberal Jewish communities of the United States.”

Jewish dissent

Meanwhile, Israel seems to be trying to keep its American-Jewish critics out, detaining and questioning journalists and activists, and sometimes even just passengers with a leaflet in Arabic or political book in their suitcase. Herzog claims to have been against it before the issue even hit the headlines.

“In May, when I first heard of academics arriving from abroad, being detained at Ben-Gurion [Airport], as leader of the opposition I wrote to Avi Dichter – chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – and demanded we hold a review of this. Ask him why that hasn’t happened yet. What I do know is that the Foreign Ministry isn’t always in the loop and the Interior Ministry [in charge of border control] is making statements about people it knows nothing about.”

It isn’t just a matter of a bureaucratic muddle: Herzog has a different attitude toward Jewish dissent. Unlike his predecessor Sharansky, who made fighting “delegitimization” of Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement one of the Agency’s core missions, Herzog doesn’t even mention this when listing the Agency’s main issues.

When pressed, he insists that he “ascribes a lot of importance to the fight against BDS,” and calls the movement “a large, well-oiled operation, self-sustaining, that comes in many forms and has a dramatic influence in certain areas on the connection of the younger generation with Israel. On campuses, I’ve also seen the situation of terrible brainwashing of young Jewish students, who go in and hear all kinds of terrible stuff.”

But he’s less eager to block BDS supporters from reaching Israel. “I abhor the BDS movement and will fight them in every way, but I’m prepared for them to come here so we can argue with them.”

He’s certain all it will take is to give them the appropriate information. “They’re muddled because they don’t have the full picture of why we can’t, for example, allow tens of thousands of people to cross the border from Gaza violently and threaten Israelis in the kibbutzim. Part of our aim is, through our Israel fellows, to create a more balanced and true picture of Israel. Despite all its flaws, I think Israel is a flourishing and glorious democracy.”

Not that he’ll rule out preventing entry all together. “That’s why I demanded a policy review in the Knesset – so we could have parameters. When there is a situation that calls for it, we can do what other countries do and prevent entry. There are cases where you have to ban them. There were cases in the past when even Jews were prevented from entering and some even deported. I’m not going to rule it out in every case. There are people who are lost causes, those carrying out entire campaigns against Israel.”

So the Jewish Agency chairman believes there are Jews who are lost causes? “Of course there are. We’ve always had them in Jewish history.”

>> Between Jerusalem and Babylon, Trump and Netanyahu: Read the full transcript of Anshel Pfeffer's interview with Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog <<

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