After 12 years, Israel finally has a new prime minister in Naftali Bennett. Next month, it will also get a new president when Isaac Herzog replaces Reuven Rivlin. Herzog’s election victory has created another high-profile position in Israel that now needs filling: head of the Jewish Agency.
Granted, it doesn’t hold the power of the prime minister’s office. Neither does it carry the symbolism or stature of the president’s office. In fact, many would argue that the Agency, which was formed to serve as the governing body of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine before there was a state, has lost its raison d’être.
Still, that doesn’t mean there is any lack of candidates vying for what is still perceived as one of the most prestigious jobs in the Jewish organizational world.
Herzog is scheduled to take over as president on July 9. But as things stand, his replacement at the Agency will probably not even be picked by then and an acting chairperson will have to be installed for the meantime.
The names of about half a dozen candidates have been tossed around in recent weeks, with two seen as front-runners: Elazar Stern, a lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party (the largest faction in the new governing coalition), and Dani Dayan, Israel’s former consul general in New York.
Stern, a former head of the manpower directorate in the Israel Defense Forces and before that chief of the army’s education and youth corps, has already won the endorsement of both Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
That is obviously important, but not enough to secure him the post.
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The selection committee that chooses the Agency’s chairperson – headed by World Zionist Organization Chairman Yaakov Hagoel – is comprised of 10 members. According to Agency bylaws, the candidate must be approved by nine of the 10, meaning it is enough for two members to oppose a specific candidate for that person to be vetoed.
Until the last selection round, the committee had largely served as a rubber stamp, approving whichever candidate had the backing of the current prime minister.
That was not the case in 2018, however, after Natan Sharansky stepped down. Then-Premier Benjamin Netanyahu was opposed to replacing Sharansky with Herzog, the former Labor Party leader, and asked the committee to support instead his own nominee, Yuval Steinitz, a cabinet minister from Likud. In an unusual act of defiance, the committee rejected Netanyahu’s request and approved Herzog.
Given that precedent, Stern, 64, understands that he is not a shoo-in.
Although he wears a knitted kippa and identifies as a religious Zionist, Stern is more progressive than most Modern Orthodox Israelis, both on matters of religion and politics. Perhaps the best proof is that he chose to join a party that champions liberalism and secularism rather than a religious party.
Stern, who supports a two-state solution, lives in the religious community of Hoshaya, northern Israel. During his extended army career, he was perhaps best-known for a conversion program he created and headed for soldiers not considered halakhically Jewish. It was meant to provide them with a friendlier alternative to the rigidly Orthodox conversion program overseen by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.
Since joining the Knesset in 2013, he has been an outspoken critic of the Rabbinate, an advocate of conversion reforms (though he would not go so far as to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions) and is an outspoken supporter of the “Kotel deal.” This was meant to create a new and enhanced space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, but was suspended in 2017 under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties.
On more than one occasion, in meetings with Jewish leaders from abroad, Stern has even urged them to boycott the Israeli government until it fulfills its promises for religious reforms.
But Stern has not distinguished himself as a progressive on all issues: As chief education officer of the army 20 years ago, he shuttered the official IDF magazine for two weeks after it published a cover story on a reserve officer who came out of the closet. Stern later denied he had anything against the LGBT community, insisting that he merely objected to the timing of the article’s publication (on the eve of Memorial Day).
Stern got himself in trouble again a few years ago when he appeared to suggest during a heated Knesset debate that then-Likud minister Miri Regev, who had formerly served as chief army spokeswoman, received her military promotions in exchange for sexual favors.
The Agency is often required to serve as a mediator between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry during times of crisis. Stern’s confrontational style, sources familiar with the selection process noted, might not be well-suited for a job that requires such diplomatic finesse.
When asked for his response, Stern told Haaretz: “Breaking through boundaries often requires friction.”
His lack of fluency in English, the sources added, could also prove a liability in a job that requires a high level of interaction with non-Hebrew speakers.
Stern was sworn in as intelligence minister in the new government on Sunday. Since the intelligence minister in Israel does not have control of the secret services or the army intelligence unit, it is a position without much substance, created largely for the purpose of giving a party loyalist a seat around the government table. When asked if he would give up his ministerial post if appointed Agency chairman, Stern said: “Probably.”
Should he assume the position, he added, his goal would be “to make sure that every Jew living in the Diaspora would want to say that he or she is proud of being Jewish, regardless of the reason.”
Dayan is, in many ways, his polar opposite. A resident of the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Shomron, he used to lead the Yesha Council, the lobbying organization of the settler movement. He was eventually succeeded in that position by Israel’s newly installed prime minister, and he and Bennett were known to have had “ups and downs” in their relationship, as Dayan admits. Unlike Bennett and Stern, Dayan, 65, does not wear a kippa and is a proud secularist.
Born in Argentina, he was a member of Likud for many years. Indeed, it was thanks to the close ties he once enjoyed with Netanyahu that he was appointed Israel’s consul general in New York in 2015. He had originally been destined for Brasilia, but the Brazilian government at the time vetoed his appointment on account of his affiliation with the settler enterprise.
Many wondered how a right-wing ideologue like Dayan would fare in one of the most progressive cities in the world, but he proved to be a surprising success as a diplomat.
His decision to focus on outreach to the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, as well as to the Black and Latino communities, was undoubtedly key to his popularity and explains how he was able to erode some of the initial resistance to his appointment.
Dayan publicly split with Netanyahu before Israel’s most recent election in March, when he quit Likud and joined the new right-wing, anti-Netanyahu New Hope party set up by Gideon Sa’ar (now part of the governing coalition). The party didn’t capture enough votes, however, for Dayan to win a seat in the Knesset.
“I believe I have an advantage in that I know American Jews quite intimately by now,” Dayan told Haaretz. “At the same time, I’m also a proud Latino Jew – and that’s a community that often feels neglected.”
If he lands the position, Dayan said, he would make his top objective educating Israelis about their responsibility toward Diaspora Jews, and vice versa. “Israel must see itself as responsible not only for its own citizens, but also for the continued flourishing of Jewish life in the Diaspora, while Diaspora Jews need to understand that without a strong bond to Israel, their Judaism is unsustainable,” he said.
While Stern may have the endorsement of Israeli government leaders, Dayan is said to have the support of many key members of the selection committee, who consider his diplomatic experience and his ties to the non-Orthodox movements an advantage.
Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations and a former Likud minister, is also reportedly interested in the job. However, he doesn’t stand much of a chance, according to well-placed sources, because of opposition from the Reform and Conservative movements, which have representatives on the selection committee.
Steinitz, who was Netanyahu’s candidate in the last round, is also said to be interested in the job, as is former Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich, who was also the first ultra-Orthodox woman to serve in the Israeli cabinet. However, both her Haredi affiliation and her increasingly warm embrace of the settler movement could prove to be too many strikes against her.
No date has yet been set for the selection committee to convene and choose a candidate, who will then have to be approved by the Agency’s board of governors. The selection committee, however, doesn’t appear to be in any rush to make a final decision and will probably wait to see if Israel’s fragile new government actually survives its first few months in office.