Former general Doron Almog elected to lead Jewish Agency, calls for Jewish unity

IDF commander-turned-disability activist takes over quasi-governmental group after yearlong search for new chair; stresses Jewish pride and centrality of Israel in inaugural speech

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, gives his inaugural speech after being elected in Jerusalem on July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, gives his inaugural speech after being elected in Jerusalem on July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former Israel Defense Forces general Doron Almog was unanimously elected to lead the Jewish Agency for Israel on Sunday morning and pledged to shore up Jewish unity and the centrality of Israel in his inaugural speech.

“We want to reach the heart of every Jew on Earth,” Almog said following the vote in a large assembly hall in Jerusalem’s Orient Hotel.

Almog’s election by the 120-member board of governors of the Jewish Agency ended a grueling and at times contentious yearlong search for a replacement for the previous chairman, Isaac Herzog, who left the organization to become president of Israel. At the same meeting on Sunday, Mark Wilf was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors, replacing Michael Siegal.

Almog, 71, a previous head of the IDF’s Southern Command, has dedicated his life after leaving the military to running a widely lauded rehabilitation village in the Negev desert for people with physical and mental disabilities. ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran is named for his son Eran, who had severe autism and physical disabilities.

He is expected to officially enter the position in September. He will take over from Yaakov Hagoel, who has served as interim chairman for the past year.

Almog enters the position as the Jewish Agency is actively working to bring to Israel thousands of Ukrainian and Ethiopian refugees fleeing the wars in their respective countries, and dealing with renewed opposition to its activities in Russia by the country’s authorities.

Almog was an unexpected choice, having expressed no interest in the role. But he was approached by representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America to take it on, due to his relevant experience and the fact that he was widely seen as a consensus candidate with unimpeachable credentials, including an Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. He was nominated unanimously by the selection committee last month.

Doron Almog, incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, kisses his wife Didi after being elected in Jerusalem on July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his inaugural speech, Almog laid out the key his primary goals: “To reach the heart of every Jew on Earth. To instill pride in our Judaism and the State of Israel, the most important enterprise of the Jewish people since 1948. To instill pride in this one miracle called the State of Israel and its extraordinary achievements in science, technology, culture, agriculture, medicine, society, economy, army, aliyah, and more.”

The connection between the State of Israel and global Jewry is of existential strategic importance

In his remarks, Almog also stressed the critical relationship between Israel and global Jewry, most notably in the United States, referring to Jews around the world as “brothers and sisters.”

“The connection between the State of Israel and global Jewry is of existential strategic importance,” he said.

Almog added that this has been true from the beginning of the state.

“Without the support of global Jewry, headed by American Jews and foreign volunteers in the War of Independence, I doubt that my parents’ generation, Israel’s founding generation, would have survived,” Almog said, referring to both material support and volunteers who fought on behalf of Israel.

Even before his official election, Almog caused a minor stir by visiting the Reform movement in Israel’s biennial conference, in one of his first acts after being nominated. At the event Almog mentioned his family’s connection to Reform Judaism — his daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah in a Reform synagogue — prompting fierce backlash by some Orthodox lawmakers.

Almog’s election was hailed by Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who works closely with the Jewish Agency, which is tasked with facilitating and encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah.

“We are in an important period with a rise in new immigrants from around the world, and I am sure that Doron will contribute greatly to the Jewish world and to fulfilling the immigration and absorption policies of the government,” Tamano-Shata said.

Acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Yaakov Hagoel, left, shakes hands with the nominee for the position, Doron Almog, outside the organization’s headquarters in Jerusalem on June 16, 2022. (Jewish Agency)

Numerous attempts to find a replacement for Herzog failed over the past year as no candidate was able to get the nine out of 10 votes necessary to secure the nomination from the selection committee. After 17 Ashkenazi male chairmen of the Jewish Agency going back to its founding, many hoped that the next head of the organization would bring a touch of diversity to the position.

“Would it have been nicer to have a woman? Would it have been nicer to have someone younger? Yes. All that’s true but you have to go with the candidate that you have,” said Siegal, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.

“This man has a distinguished career, he cares about the most vulnerable parts of Israeli society, he has fundraising capabilities, and he brings a level of credibility in Israeli society. I can’t say that anyone else brings those levels of qualifications to the job. He just doesn’t check the box of diversity for today’s society,” he said.

Almog enlisted in the IDF in 1969, serving in the Paratroopers’ Reconnaissance Company — including during the famed 1976 raid on Entebbe — and rose through the military’s ranks over the next three and a half decades to the position of Southern Command chief, retiring in 2003.

After his release from the military, Almog established the rehabilitation village, known as Aleh Negev, largely due to his personal experiences caring for his son Eran, who died in 2007.

Doron Almog puts a medal on a child from ALEH Jerusalem child at the Jerusalem Marathon. (Courtesy: Aleh)

Almog was at the center of international controversy in 2005 after Palestinian activists in the United Kingdom got a court to issue an arrest warrant for him over his role in the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip, which they said amounted to a war crime.

Almog was made aware of the arrest warrant after he and his wife touched down in the UK. To avoid an incident, he stayed on the plane and flew back to Israel on it. The arrest warrant was later rescinded.

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