Jewish Agency Chairman Calls Crisis Between Israel, U.S. Jewry ‘Existential’

At GA, Isaac Herzog promises help fund Hebrew language courses for Jews outside Israel in order to create a common language for dialogue

Jewish Agency chief Isaac Herzog in JNFA GA meeting inTel Aviv Monday Oct 23 2018.
Liron Tzach / JNFA GA

Terming the crisis between Israel and American Jewry “existential,” Jewish Agency Chairman Issac Herzog said on Tuesday that he was “shaken to my core” by the growing rift between the two largest Jewish communities in the world.

Addressing a plenary session of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Herzog said: “Dear friends, let me speak candidly, even emotionally, from the bottom of my heart: I am worried. I see the demography of the Holy Land and I understand that if Israel does not change course, it will endanger itself. I see the identity crisis of many North American millennials and I understand that if American Jewry does not redefine itself, its phenomenal success story might be jeopardized.”

In Israel, he said, “there are those who shamefully refuse to recognize the great non-Orthodox Judaism of North America,” while in North America, “there are those who disavow the centrality of Israel to Jewish life. “ 

“This is wrong,” he added. “This is not the way forward.”

It was the first time Herzog, former Labor party leader, had addressed the GA in his position as chairman of the Jewish Agency, after replacing Natan Sharansky. He assumed the top job at the organization, which receives much of its funding from the JFNA, in August.

Herzog warned that if Israel and Diaspora Jewry did not work together to mend their differences, “we are in danger of losing a significant part of the Jewish people.”

The GA is held once every five years in Israel. This is the first year that the most important Jewish world event of the year - titled "We Need to Talk" - is being held in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address the estimated 3,000 delegates in attendance at the closing session on Wednesday.

Herzog outlined in his address his vision of what he termed a “new unity” for the Jewish people.

“This new unity cannot be the unity we so often spoke of in the past,” he said. “We can no longer pretend we are all the same. We are not. We can no longer pretend that there are no major disagreements between us. There are. We cannot tell ourselves we are all angels. We are not. And we cannot tell our children we have no flaws. We do. What we can — and must — do is to create for our people a new ethos of a pluralistic union.”

Vision, he said, was not sufficient, though, and it was time to take immediate action. As a first step, the Jewish Agency leader said he intended to demand funding from the government to subsidize Hebrew language courses for Jews abroad – out of a belief that if Jews in Israel and overseas spoke a common language, they would communicate better.

“From here on,” he said, “it will be every young Jew’s birthright, where ever he or she may live, not only to visit this historic homeland but to learn the language of the Jewish people. Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews, from all streams of Judaism and of affiliated.”

President Reuven Rivlin spoke at the opening session of the three-day conference on Monday and called for the creation of a “Reverse Taglit-Birthright” program to help young Israelis acquaint themselves with Jewish communities abroad.

“We must increase Israeli exposure to your schools, camps and communities,” Rivlin told more than 2,000 delegates. “They must realize they have a family.”

Referring to the event's title, Rivlin said: “I cannot agree more. We need to talk. We have to talk, and we need to listen. We are not strategic allies. We are a family, we are one big family. We don’t have only shared interests – we have a shared faith, history and future and a very bright one. It may not be easy to have a truly honest conversation, but this is what needs to happen.”