The following is a transcript of the interview conducted by Anshel Pfeffer with Isaac Herzog, it has been translated from Hebrew, with the questions lightly edited for clarity and two mild expletives deleted
So why do we need the Jewish Agency anyway?
I admit that the question has been asked a lot. I’ve found here an exceptional organization with the problem in my opinion, that it doesn’t know how to tell it’s own story.
The question is in what form does Israel maintain a joint table for a lively and fruitful dialogue with the Jewish people?
It’s true that the Jewish people doesn’t express itself only at this table. It’s a richly diverse people, which is fascinating and defies conventions from all directions. But it needs a formal table that is not subservient to the Israeli government and independently safeguards the interests of the Diaspora within the Israeli state and serves as a bridge between Israel and the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency, with a lot of wisdom, considerable influence and quiet work, sometimes too quiet, has achieved great accomplishments, maintaining this bridge in various forms. And I ask myself every morning, since I’ve started this job, whether abolishing the Jewish Agency would be a good or bad thing and I’ve 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.
But why does the bridge need an organization to maintain it? The Jews of Jerusalem and Babylon today have so many other ways to communicate with each other.
There are a lot of players in the arena. No one is disputing that. I respect them all and know most of the organizations, foundations and NGOs. But the Jewish Agency’s advantage that it is a very big organization, a giant in Jewish world terms, and the people in it are dealing all day just with this. We’re dealing with how to connect Israel and the Diaspora and how to create a joint future for the Jewish people and that’s not simple.
I’m looking at the trends which are happening, and unlike someone who claims, and you know who that is.
Unlike the person who claims that the Diaspora will disappear in two generations, unlike that claim, I claim that Babylon, the Diaspora, contains great intellectual, and spiritual and Jewish wealth, in its own right. And that Jerusalem also has intellectual, spiritual and Jewish wealth in its own right. When they are apart and not connected, it’s a disaster for the Jewish people and its future.
But there’s constant contact on thousands of levels.
We need to ensure that.
You can’t. It’s happening anyway. Why do you see that threatened?
The first threat is the bridge between two different perspectives, and I’m not talking about the different nuances between them, of the meaning of Jewish life. Roughly speaking, there isn’t much similarity between the communities of Jerusalem and Babylon. The one in Jerusalem lives a mainly irreligious life, but practices Orthodoxy. The one in Babylon is mainly Reform or Conservative in its practice and lives a life which not necessarily connected to a Jewish environment. That means, the community living in Israel is Jewish, as a given. So they don’t have to necessarily be religious to feel Jewish and that’s a massive gap that is widening. Add to that the massive political tension, that is hovering over the relationship, because of the voices within the American-Jewish community who oppose President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu and add to that all the perspectives of an entire generation who experience things differently to when we were young.
When we were young, most of the Jews were bound to Israel by feelings of deep solidarity and survival anxiety. Today, there’s a generation that I have to create their deep solidarity.
Can you do that without fear?
Right. Without existential fear.
But you’re talking about two very separate groups. Whose members came from different places and have had very different experiences over a century. How can you expect them to share similar values?
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 the Diapora Jews feel that Israelis are condescending to them and ruling them out. And I told them the Diaspora Jews are Jews just like you.
That’s because the ultra-Orthodox MKs, and not just them, are indeed ruling out most Diaspora Jews.
That’s not true. It’s much less. People in closed rooms talk very differently. And I was in North America now and I told them, you guys aren’t aware of deep tectonic shifts which are for example taking place now in the ultra-Orthodox community. Another example. 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 very 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 its 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. 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. A controversy that hasn’t reached at all from Jerusalem to the Jewish communities abroad. They don’t know that there are Jews here, sorry, citizens, who say we want 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 suddenly that 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.
But you want them to be involved in the discourse, and at the same time you’re trying to dictate the terms of reference. You’re telling American Jews and the ultra-Orthodox Israelis that they don’t understand. That comes off very superior.
My life’s mission is the unity of the Jewish people and that’s what I believe. I’ve just reviewed Wasserstein’s On The Eve for Haaretz. It’s a must-read. You see there how tragedies can effect us when we’re not united and there isn’t a debate within the family. We’re a family and a tiny people among billions of human beings and I see the tragedy that can happen. (On The Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by British historian Bernard Wasserstein, is published this month in Hebrew by Yad Vashem).
You mean the Holocaust took place because Jews weren’t united?
God forbid no. But we had an opportunity before the Holocaust, and I’ve been saying that for years, that if we weren’t so divided, and there wasn’t so much terrible hatred among Jews as there was in the 1930s, we could have accepted the Peel Commission in 1937 and could have had a state for the Jewish people then. I always say that one of our worst tragedies is that we’re gripped by this terrible internal hatred and we ignore the dangerous trends outside. That’s why after the election I was in favor of exploring the possibility of a national-unity government with Netanyahu. One of the dangerous trends is that I don’t know if my grandchild and your grandchild will feel they belong to the same people and I want them to feel that.
But why do you need a massive organization to do that? The Jewish Agency doesn’t even know what its mission is today. I remember ten years ago when Zeev Bielsky was still chairman and he told the emissaries to the Former Soviet Union at a meeting in Kiev that the agency was shifting focus away from Aliyah, to Jewish education and identity instead, how shocked they were. It doesn’t look as if the Agency has worked out yet what it needs to be doing in an era when Aliyah is an individual choice, not something you need a big organization to facilitate.
The organization today is working in a number of main directions that were focused and professionalized significantly during Natan Sharansky’s nine-year leadership, together with CEO Alan Hoffman, who built a more focused and different structure. By and large, I like this structure a lot. First of all, Aliyah is an important and central issue. The fact is that this year we’ve had a record Aliyah of thirty thousand. And it’s not just thanks to the Jewish Agency but that’s an amazing number and I’ve already had the chance to go and meet Olim, at two absorption centers, at our Giyur institute and Ben Gurion Airport.
It’s an amazing experience of renewal, an incredible engine, and for me an important mission of the Jewish Agency. It was fascinating to see the variety of countries from where the Olim were arriving.
The second issue is a Jewish identity that crosses borders and spans continents. We’re working on that through our various “Israel Experience” programs, and Israelis who are working in Jewish communities, whether its emissaries or gap-year volunteers, and on Jewish identity programs on campus. All this, and our education work in places like pre-military academies in Israel, creates a fabric for doing two things – in Israel, to act as agents of change within Israeli society so we can bring the Diaspora’s message to Israel and as agents of change within Jewish communities to strengthen the connection between the Jewish people and Israel.
The final major front is projects that come under the wide Tikkun Olam category. Projects in which the Diaspora are influencing Israeli society and the eduction of the next generation, on equality and relations with minorities. Projects of helping anyone, and I’m very proud that we have special aid centers in Africa and for refugees in Europe. We’re taking upon ourselves the ideal of Tikkun Olam and interpreting it in to something very Jewish and I see in this a flag of the Jewish people, that can also be part of the process taking place inside Israeli society.
A result of all these things is the positive part of the argument you and I are having. When I was a young man, the Jewish people didn’t have any demands of Israel. It accepted it as given that this is Israel and it 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. 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.
But it’s a tension that creates a contradiction in the Jewish Agency’s role. It was founded to build the Jewish state, but that state became a reality in 1948, so the agency got a new mission to bring Aliyah. But that mission is over. The agency is stuck with the reality that it’s an Israeli and Zionist organization and half of the Jewish people don’t live in Israel and aren’t coming on Aliyah. You can’t face that.
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 it at any moment. To encourage it. But we’re not naïve. After seventy years you know that you can’t bring everyone and there are even communities who say to me, help us first bring all the unaffiliated Jews back in to the fold, before you demand we send the Zionist ones to Israel. Allow us first to strengthen our critical infrastructure. I’ve heard it from a very important community, not the U.S.
France. Jewish leaders there have been saying this to the Agency for years.
Right. So we can do both. Encourage Aliyah and give communities tools.
Sounds like you’re doing them a favor.
They ask for help. It’s a partnership where we take responsibility.
But you want to have one policy for communities like French Jews and then repair the relationship with American Jews.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a vacuum the Agency fills.
But you’re the Israeli coming to tell the Jews in the Diaspora how the relationship should work. And they should be the ones who pay.
The Diaspora has a large control over how the Jewish Agency works.
But you’re Israeli. You’re the chairman.
Those are the bylaws.
Why not change the bylaws? They’re not set in stone.
I don’t think that would be the right thing. I think that the wisdom is in building a bridge between Jerusalem and Babylon and that’s why it’s right for the chairman to be an Israeli and someone like me who comes from deep within the establishment and knows exactly what Israel can give the Diaspora, not in patronizing terms of superiority, but responsibility for each other.
Why can’t the Chairman of the Jewish Agency be an American?
I think the arrangement that the Agency chairman is Israeli and an American is chair of the board of governors is an arrangement that works well.
That just perpetuates the arrangement where Israelis decide policy and the Diaspora pays the bill.
You know very well that today half the Agency’s budget comes from the Israeli government’s funding for our programs.
Yes. But that hasn’t changed the basic paradigm of Israeli decision-making and Diaspora check-writing.
I don’t accept that paradigm and it doesn’t need to change because I don’t see an alternative. I’ve learned in life that when you set out to destroy the establishment, to its foundations, it’s not always the right thing. Take for example the Histadrut (Trade Union Federation). They (the Labor Party) shouldn’t have destroyed it. We all understand now how the Histadrut is crucial. It shouldn’t have been a revolution. I believe in evolution, not revolution. When I finish my term the Jewish Agency will be stronger and more focused. That’s what I’m demanding from all our partners, Israel and Diaspora, that the organization focuses itself. That doesn’t mean the structure is wrong. I think there’s a lot of logic to it.
Do you think there are roles of the Agency that would be better handed to the Israeli government?
Certainly. I think there are. But this is my learning period. You’re catching me in my third week at the job. I’m working day and night, like you know me. I’ve no doubt that there are a lot unturned stones and I’ll turn them, without a doubt. I’m aware of all the claims and I’m going to inspect them.
But doesn’t it bother you that Israel, which has just received an AA credit rating and has today western-level prosperity, is still acting like a schnorrer?
No. Because that’s the wrong way of looking at it. We’re not begging for tzedaka. What we’re doing is part of a concept of joint responsibility.
Look, I’ve found here a much younger organization than I expected, at the employee level. Professionals, highly educated and filled with a sense of mission, and I’m very impressed. And there’s no politicization here, no irrelevant considerations within the organization. It’s focused on its target. But we are a bit on a desert island when it comes to telling our story and explaining the raison d’etre, our mission statement. In October, I will present a clear mission statement to GA (the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America) and the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.
The other thing I’ve found is an organization run relatively well in regard to human resources and finances. I’m not saying I know everything and I’m pretty sure we can be more efficient. I’m sure there still is excess fat, but relative to the image, that stuck to the agency mainly because of previous generations, and not the current one – that’s no longer the case. The employees packages are fair. This organization came through a lot of crises to reach this point. I’ve also found that despite the Agency’s image, it’s involved, deeply, in many aspects of Israeli society and can create influence and it’s a real invitation to the Jewish people – come, you don’t know what we’re doing. Come and be more involved. Not just in dialogue between the different streams of Judaism, not just in a theological discourse, but in a real functional public conversation of Israel and the Diaspora. And of course, one of the things I’ll focus on is the tension between the streams and trying to find solutions to contentious issues.
But it’s not just a tension between religious streams. It’s a much deeper divide over how either side see the future of the Jewish people. Whether it’s all about numbers and demography and is intermarriage such a terrible thing? You already stepped in it when you gave an interview immediately after your appointment when you called intermarriage a “real plague” and angered many American Jews. Didn’t you realize some of them read Hebrew?
I was speaking totally innocently of course to an Israeli website. I’ve learned since then to choose my words more wisely.
You’re a veteran politician who claims to know Diaspora Jews well. I’d thought you’d have learned that by now.
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 utmost frankness – I have no right and it’s not my intention to judge anyone. I’m not judgmental towards anyone and I’ve been now in the US, meeting spiritual and communal leaders, rabbis and rabbas, about this issue and hearing from them their perspective, that they say we are bringing in to 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 concepts of marriage or partnership. On the contrary, I respect every person and say come and be a part of the Jewish people. And I’m going to the religious establishment in Israel and demanding that they be flexible and open the doors and be brave confronting this massive challenge facing our generation.
And the Israeli religious establishment will do nothing to help you out.
I’m the alumnus of a few issues in which we achieved historic religious compromises. I know that what they say out in the open isn’t what they say in closed rooms and maybe because I come with some credit, because of who I am and what I represent, all the streams, ask the greatest rabbis, not just of the State Rabbinate, and they’ll tell you they are willing to talk to me and work hard with me to find solutions. I learned from my grandfather’s Halachic rulings how to find compromises.
Your grandfather (Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi) Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog was indeed a man who didn’t fear other senior rabbis in his rulings. We both know very well that in today’s Israeli religious establishment, there’s no chance he’d ever have become chief rabbi.
It’s not the same Jewish people or the same Israeli society as when he was chief rabbi.
I don’t know. I can’t judge.
I’ve studied Rabbi Herzog’s rulings. There’s no way they would be accepted today.
My grandfather was very brave. Today I understand it.
That’s over, this is a different generation. But things are changing within the ultra-Orthodox community. Perhaps you should be focusing more on them.
The rabbinical hegemony is diminishing and I think that is part of the opportunities and possibilities. By the way, it wasn’t mentioned in your book, and that’s a pity, but since it’s no secret that the Haredi politicians respect me and it was clear that I could have formed a coalition with them after the 2015 election, Netanyahu was very worried by it. Someone from Likud offered a lot of money to one of the Haredi websites to pay for a smear campaign that was titled “Bougie is a friend of the Reforms.” It was a series of video clips of me speaking at the Reform and Conservative conferences. But that didn’t change the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox establishment towards me. People there are willing to listen, if you don’t offend them and don’t turn the dialogue in to a conversation of extremes. Which is what I insist on not doing.
Except when you offended American Jews with your intermarriage comment. You got burned there.
I won’t say I was burned. But I’ve sharpened my messaging and am a lot more careful with it now and I’m learning all the time.
But there’s a much wider problem, when you’re coming as the leader of a Zionist organization and a growing number of American Jews, mainly young, but not only, who are interested in Israel, some of them have lived here and speak Hebrew, and even have a passion for this place, see Zionism as a red-flag and don’t want to be associated with it.
It’s exactly a matter of perspective. Look, when I founded the Zionist Union (the joint list of Labor and The Movement) with Tzipi Livni, one of our party activists came to me and said that her daughter asked “what does Zionist Union mean? Are we a religious party now?” As if Zionism belongs only to the religious world and religious parties. I’ve no doubt there’s a misconception about what Zionism is. It’s basically the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.
But Israel is a reality and it’s not going anywhere. So why not talk about what Israel should be, instead of talking about an abstract idea like Zionism?
Talking about Zionism is what what allows the Jewish people to be involved and to influence Israel’s direction.
You mean only self-identifying Zionists have a right to weigh in on the debate over Israel’s direction?
Where does that right come from? From Zionism. I say that every Jew has the right. But if you inspect it from a legal and a political aspect, you understand that Israel is a Zionist state because it was founded by the Zionist movement that sees it as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Which is a partnership with the Jewish people. Based on our shared responsibility.
You’re using the term arvut, the value of shared Jewish responsibility, and basically equating it with Zionism. But if a Jew doesn’t want to be a Zionist, can they still have an opinion on what is happening here?
Of course. They can say whatever they want. I can’t prevent anyone.
But do they have the moral right?
I respect as a democrat any view and prepared to argue with any view, even if I abhor it. So I’m not going to grade people over whether they’re Zionist or not. Do you want to influence the nation-state of the Jewish people? Do you want to understand why it’s important? It’s like your family’s Seder night. You come filled with dread and suffer the entire evening, but you can’t do without it.
Meanwhile, this family is working hard to keep the Jewish people away, and I’m not talking just about questioning people at Ben Gurion. The entire last decade of Netanyahu’s Israel is repelling many Jews.
You’re dragging me in to a minefield, I’ll tell you frankly. Look, until not long ago 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.
Respect. But a lot of Jews say to themselves that if this is the Israeli voters’ will, they don’t want to be a part of it.
You can’t express your political frustration against the basic concept of the Jewish people’s nation-state. It’s not just a lover’s wounds. 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 generation. But support for Israel has to be way and 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. The historical panorama is much wider than any leader, even if you don’t accept his views. By the way, we used to think, in the center-left camp, that Netanyahu and the 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 Israel to vote. We thought they were all right-wingers. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.
Netanyahu thinks that in a couple of generations liberal American Jews will disappear and Israel should invest in relations only with Orthdoox Jews and Evangelicals.
Well I think all you have to do is open your eyes and look at what’s happening within the Diaspora, especially in North American, and you’ll find an extraordinary spiritual richness, in thousand of Jewish congregations. You find a concept of identity and a variety of strong communal life. Not just at the federation level, but within communities as well. In Jewish schools, universities, think-tanks and a huge range of Jewish alternatives for a younger generation. And it’s right to raise the question – when a majority of non-Orthodox Jew in the US are OK with interfaith marriages, will they remain part of the Jewish people? A lot of people, especially in the Reform movement, insist that the answer is yes and they’re drawing people in to the Jewish people.
In any case, I’m not prepared to accept the predictions that entire groups of Jews will disappear. Sure, I’d like to see everyone in Israel, but my assumption is that it’s not realistic.
Do you really think that the Jewish people would be better off if all Jews live in Israel? You mentioned it twice.
It’s a philosophical question. Irrelevant.
But do you think you can be a Zionist and still think that it’s perfectly healthy for half the Jewish people to live outside Israel?
I don’t know. 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 that one of the great things that Israel can do, as part of its aspiration to be a light to the nations, is to respect the liberal-democratic set of values projected by the liberal Jewish communities of the US.
Sharansky saw confronting delegitimization of Israel and BDS as a core mission of the Jewish Agency. I notice you didn’t mention that in the main issues. That’s great. Do you also think that this is a phantom menace and not something anyone should be unduly worried about?
No, I ascribe a lot of importance to the fight against BDS. Unlike you. I’ve studied the issue in depth. My brother Mike (former IDF Brigadier-General Michael Herzog, currently a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute) has also written an extensive report on it. It’s 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 brainwash of young Jewish students, who go in and hear all kinds of terrible stuff.
Perhaps they just have different views?
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.
You ascribe this to brainwashing and a lack of information. And maybe they just see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a different way?
Part of our aim is through our Israel Fellows, to create a more balanced and true picture of Israel. With all due respect, despite all its flaws, I think Israel is a flourishing and glorious democracy.
So are you in favor of not letting them in to Israel?
In May, when I first heard of academics arriving from abroad, being detained at Ben Gurion, as leader of the opposition I wrote to Avi Dichter, chair of the Knesset’s 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 in always the loop and the Interior Ministry (in charge of border control) are making statements about people they know nothing about.
But beyond the bureaucratic muddle, as a matter of principle, are you in favor of keeping some Jews out of Israel?
In principle, I’m against boycotts.
Including boycotts of those calling to boycott 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.
So you’re against banning them?
There are cases where you have to ban them. There were cases in the past where 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.
Who gets to say which Jew is a lost cause?
That’s why I demanded a policy review in the Knesset. So we could have parameters. When is there a situation that we can do what other countries do and prevent entry.
So there are Jews who are lost causes?
Of course there are. We’ve always had them in Jewish history.
But we’re not living in the dark period when Jewish renegades helped the Catholic Church persecute their brothers.
Look. My worldview is that in a democratic culture, everyone has the right to argue and I’m prepared to confront anyone and show them Israel’s incredible achievements, its true character and the fact that we are being libeled in many cases.
So are you in this job for the long-haul? You’re not going to run for president in two years when Rivlin’s (seven-year) term is up?
Yes. I’m here long-term. Everyone says I will run for president but I don’t know.
So why don’t you just rule out leaving in two years?
Because I just don’t know.
If you want to replace Rivlin, you’ve basically got to start lobbying the Knesset members now.
That’s not true. I don’t know. Listen Anshel, I know that I’m now giving my body and soul for the Jewish Agency.
So just rule it out. You can run for president next time around in nine years.
I don’t know what the circumstances will be. If there will be circumstances in which I think it is the right thing to do, so I can balance the country in all kinds of ways. But I have no idea and I’m saying this to you with all honesty. I don’t know what the political scene will look like. What will happen. Thank God I’m a young man. If I told you now outright no, and then everything changes in the end, you’ll say I lied. And I say outright yes. My life has always led me to the right job and I’ve given everything in that job.
You say that you know the Diaspora well and American Jewry in particular. Still, you’re an Israeli and new in the job. What do you reckon you don’t know about them.
I don’t pretend to know everything about American and Diaspora Jews. Anyone who claims that is self-aggrandizing. I’ve got a relative advantage of many years of acquaintance with communities, organizations and people, and I have a base in my own education in the US. But it’s obviously a totally different place to the one I knew as a teenager and that’s why I’m now learning. No doubt I’ve got a lot to make up. This was always through history a very diverse people and the range of of views and beliefs is staggering.
What are the gaps you feel you need to fill and how are you going to go about doing it?
I thought I was aware of the theological discourse between the various streams and even between communities within the same streams. Very soon I realized that I have gaps in information and understanding and need to learn. Which is why I’m enjoying meeting rabbis from all the streams and getting their perspectives on issues such as the future of the Jewish family, conversion, Halacha and of course how they see Israel and the place it has in their worlds.
I try also to communicate to groups and people I meet, the burning sense of urgency I feel over the threat of schism that’s facing our people and in some cases I feel that within the Diaspora there’s a big lack of awareness of the trends in Israeli society and its different groups. I think the common denominator of the extended Jewish family under the broad Jewish tent is much larger than the controversies that come out in the open. In closed conversations, I hear a lot more positive things than negative. I’ll do everything to learn more, and hopefully also teach and find solutions. I’ve got quite a bit of experience in my long career and on the eve of a new Jewish year, I urge all leaders of all groups and streams in Israel and the Diaspora to lower the flames and start talking.
There’s a lot of Diaspora Jews, not just young ones, who are pretty fed up with the current organizational framework of Jewish life and are much happier defining their Jewish identity independently. Do you think as the head of the biggest Jewish organization you have a way of reaching them?
I recognize that as a fact and it’s their right to live according to their beliefs and there’s nothing to complain about. Just work hard for the ideal of a Jewish collective. But in an era of individualism, aspiration, and pursuit of personal happiness, I’m rooting for all of them but asking them not to forget the value of arvut hadadit (mutual responsibility) and to try and connect with the Jewish network as it is, in whatever way they feel comfortable. We have a small people in a giant interconnected world. I want to ensure individual identity within it, so we can guarantee our collective, multi-faceted identity for the next generations. In an age of social networks, our “Israel projects,” and programs for volunteering for young people, I want the Jewish Agency to provide all the up-to-date tools for this and I’ve instructed the Agency to focus on that in the short-term. We’ll work not only through the establishment, but also a lot outside it. In the next stage, I’d like to see these individuals linking in to the massive networks of communities and federations that are keeping al the communal elements of our people together and will help it survive across generations and take responsibility for their generation’s future and those after them. That’s the process.
Winston Churchill began his political career in Manchester, in an area where a third of the residents were Jewish and always made a point of saying what a deep impression Jewish communal life made on him. He called it “corporate Jewish life” and we have what to be proud of. We should be trying to safeguard that Jewish sense of uniqueness, also in the challenging global age we are living in and I see that as an immense mission.