Labor MK Isaac Herzog on Sunday was formally elected the new leader of the Jewish Agency, against the wishes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Through a show of hands, the venerable agency’s Board of Governors unanimously elected Herzog, a former cabinet minister and currently the leader of the opposition, to succeed Nathan Sharansky as its chairman of its executive.
“I take this challenge humbly. I know how difficult and challenging it is,” Herzog said upon his election.
Herzog, who will need to give up his Knesset seat, is expected to assume office later this summer. It is currently unclear who will replace him as leader of the opposition on August 1.
Netanyahu wanted his confidant Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to take the Agency position, but nine out of 10 members of the Jewish Agency’s Leadership Nominating Committee had voted for Herzog and recommended him to the Board of Governors, which is convening in Jerusalem this week.
“I say to the government and to the prime minister,” Herzog said minutes after being elected, “we will work together with full cooperation.”
In his acceptance speech, Herzog quoted a famous saying attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, which says that “the entire world is a very narrow bridge” but that one should not be afraid to attempt to cross it.
“The world is a very small bridge. And the Jewish Agency in my mind is the narrow bridge that connects the State of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they are. It is that bridge that created the State of Israel, and the bridge brought millions of Jews to the State of Israel and this bridge now has to confront the great challenges that face our people,” he said.
The reference also appeared to pay tribute to his predecessor Sharansky, a former prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, who famously sang the Hebrew song based on the Bratslav quote while imprisoned in the Gulag.
The Jewish people are at a crossroads, Herzog went on, presumably referring to a widening rift between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, especially regarding the Western Wall and the refusal of Israel to formally recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
“We have to do whatever we can to unify the Jewish people and make sure it is not split and divided. And we all know what we are talking about,” Herzog said.
“We have to strengthen the centrality of Israel within the heart of every Jew, especially the young generations; to fight BDS [the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement], to educate, to connect and to promote aliyah [immigration], and to bring more and more Jews to Israel,” Herzog added.
“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and it doesn’t matter to what stream he belongs to or what he wears on his head,” Herzog went on. “We are all one people, and this is what we need to do to preserve and foster the great story of the Jews, and the great story of the State of Israel being the pumping heart of the Jewish people.”
Immediately prior to the vote, World Zionist Organization Chairman Avraham Duvdevani, who headed the Jewish Agency’s Leadership Nominating Committee, explained that he and his colleagues looked for Sharansky’s replacement for about a year and half and consulted with the prime minister at various stages and considered all the candidates he proposed.
Herzog, he added, had been a favorite of the agency for a long time.
“We couldn’t elect somebody more fitting for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency,” he said.
Minutes after the vote, President Reuven Rivlin issued a statement congratulating Herzog on his appointment.
“There are few who understand better than Herzog the challenges facing the Jewish world today, and the need to teach and reinforce Jewish identity, and to strengthen the bonds between Israel and Jews around the world — today more than ever,” Rivlin said.
“These are far from small challenges, and there are true obstacles to overcome,” he added.
In ignoring the premier’s wishes in choosing its chairman, the Jewish Agency took a very rare step. Its leadership only once before defied the prime minister’s wish and elected another candidate as leader.
Sources in the agency told The Times of Israel on Thursday that choosing Herzog could be understood as a reaction to government actions that have angered Diaspora Jewry, including Netanyahu’s reversal of a 2016 decision on pluralistic prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu sought to block Herzog’s nomination, despite nine of 10 committee members supporting the former leader of the Zionist Union party.
On Thursday, after the nomination was announced, Netanyahu canceled a meeting with Diaspora Jewish leaders and the heads of the Jewish Agency, scheduled for Monday.
It's official: Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog invited to head Jewish Agency, against wishes of Netanyahu. pic.twitter.com/Ew2fPTjkgY
— Eylon A. Levy (@EylonALevy) June 21, 2018
When committee members met with Netanyahu to present him with their recommendation, the premier admonished them for failing to meet with Steinitz, his preferred candidate, and asked them to meet with the Likud minister before making their final recommendation. The committee met with Steinitz on Thursday, but shortly thereafter announced that it had chosen Herzog.
Officials said Herzog gave the committee a very convincing presentation on his plans for the agency. Steinitz on the other hand did not even respond to the committee’s invitation to appear before it until the premier demanded the meeting on Wednesday.
Sharansky is to step down as head of the Jewish Agency next month, after nine years in the position.
In addition to Herzog and Steinitz, candidates who had been floated as possible replacements for Sharansky included Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai; deputy diplomacy minister and former US ambassador Michael Oren; former UN ambassadors Dan Gillerman and Ron Prosor; Rivka Carmi, who is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Ma’ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel.
In March, Netanayhu reportedly recommended Yohanna Arbib-Perugia, head of the Jerusalem Foundation and a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency, for the position. However, a day later Haaretz reported that Netanyahu withdrew the nomination after she apparently rejected the offer.
In 2016, the government suspended a decision to guarantee non-Orthodox Jews permanent access for pluralistic prayer at the wall, due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders.
As part of the January 2016 agreement, which the cabinet approved after four years of negotiations, the government committed to renovating the so-called “Ezrat Yisrael” prayer platform. However, the deal also included building a common entrance to the Western Wall for three prayer areas — the Orthodox men’s and women’s section and the “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza, where men and women can worship together — and for representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to share in the joint oversight of the pluralistic prayer area.
In June of that year, after some ultra-Orthodox websites started to criticize the agreement, the cabinet voted to suspend it, backing away from what was perceived to be a degree of recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Sharansky has since warned the government of widespread anger over the Wall as well as over the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.