Incoming Jewish Agency head walks back description of intermarriage as ‘plague’

Isaac Herzog says was using term as slang and not in any negative way, accuses critics of 'distorting' his words

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) attends a discussion at the Knesset, May 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel said remarks he made comparing intermarriage to a “plague” were misunderstood.

On Sunday, Isaac Herzog had used the Hebrew word for “plague” to describe marriages in the Diaspora between Jews and those of other faiths and said there must be “a solution” to the issue.

But in an interview Wednesday with the Forward, Herzog said he was using it as a slang word and “didn’t mean it in any negative terms.”

Negative reactions to his original remarks had “distorted the meaning and intention of what I said. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter which stream they belong to, if they wear a skullcap or not,” Herzog said.

On Sunday, the Israeli opposition leader was approved to succeed Natan Sharansky as the head of the quasi-governmental organization.

Outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Chairman-elect MK Isaac Herzog following Herzog’s election at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ meetings in Jerusalem, June 24, 2018. (Nir Kafri for The Jewish Agency for Israel/courtesy)

The Jewish Agency for Israel, founded in 1929, is the largest Jewish nonprofit in the world and is primarily known for fostering the immigration of Jews to Israel. Under Sharansky, however, the agency moved away from its traditional mission of bringing in and settling the new immigrants and focused more squarely toward building global Jewish identity.

Ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry have been strained recently over issues like creating egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish marriage and conversion in Israel.

The agency receives more than $100 million annually in funds from the North American Jewish federation system largely earmarked for specific purposes and programs and partners with Birthright Israel, runs the MASA umbrella for longer-term stays in Israel, and other programs to strengthen Diaspora Jewish identity and connections between Israel and Jews worldwide.

Herzog, who will step down from the Knesset to assume the new position, will start his four-year term on August 1.

He was approved despite the opposition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency rejected Netanyahu’s preferred choice, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz — the first time the agency has rejected a prime minister’s pick for the position in 23 years, according to Haaretz.

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