The Battle Over the ‘Acting Chair’ Position at the Jewish Agency, and Why It Matters

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Outgoing Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog after being elected Israeli president earlier this month.
Outgoing Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog after being elected Israeli president earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Bets are still being taken on who will replace Isaac Herzog as chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency when he assumes his role as Israeli president next month. But behind the scenes, an ever-fiercer battle over who will serve as his temporary replacement until the permanent job is filled threatens to split the Jewish organizational world.

This is not a joke.

The controversy over who gets to serve as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency executive after Herzog departs has in recent days divided top functionaries at the “Zionist institutions” into two rival camps: those who say it must be Michael Siegal, the chairman of the board of governors; and those who say it can only be Yaron Shavit, the deputy chairman of the executive.

It is not just a question of which of the two is better suited or how to interpret the Jewish Agency bylaws that govern such situations (which the organization itself has refused to share).

The real battle here is over who gets to call the shots: the Jewish Agency or the World Zionist Organization, which is effectively its parent organization since it holds half the seats on the board of governors (the other half being divided between the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod, which both raise money abroad for the Jewish Agency).

Siegal, an American businessman and philanthropist, has served as chairman of the board of governors, which oversees the executive, since 2017. Although he is based in Cleveland, he is known to be heavily engaged in the day-to-day affairs of the organization. When Herzog recently asked for a temporary leave so he could devote himself to his presidential campaign, Siegal filled in for him.

The top brass of the Jewish Agency have been pushing for Siegal – who represents JFNA on the board of governors and previously served as its chair – to take on this dual function again when Herzog leaves and until the permanent replacement is named.

Shavit, an attorney and former executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, has only been in his role as deputy chairman of the executive since October. It is a position typically filled by representatives of the non-Orthodox movements. Since they have the largest representation on the board of governors, WZO officials insist, they get to choose the temporary chairman – and the most natural choice would be Shavit as he is also a representative of the WZO on the board of governors.

Herzog is scheduled to assume his role as president on July 7. The leading candidate to replace him is MK Elazar Stern of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who currently serves as intelligence minister. Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid have endorsed him as their candidate. He will have to be approved, however, by a 10-member selection committee headed by WZO Chairman Yaakov Hagoel. Nine of the 10 members must vote in his favor for Stern to be submitted for final approval to the Jewish Agency board of governors. The board of governors has its next meeting scheduled for October, but that doesn’t mean Stern couldn’t be chosen before then.

Another possible candidate is Dani Dayan, the former Israeli consul general in New York.

The Jewish Agency executive board is scheduled to convene next Monday and may decide then on Herzog’s temporary replacement.

Michael SiegalCredit: Jewish Agency

If neither camp budges, senior sources said, a compromise deal might be worked out whereby the acting chairman position is divided up between Siegal and Shavit. Asked for response, the Jewish Agency said no decision had yet been taken on the temporary replacement for Herzog. “In any event, we will act according to our bylaws, in coordination with our legal adviser,” a spokesperson said.

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