New Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog, center, at an event welcoming some 300 new immigrants from France on a special aliyah flight organized by the Jewish Agency, at Ben Gurion Airport on July 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
New Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog, center, at an event welcoming some 300 new immigrants from France on a special aliyah flight organized by the Jewish Agency, at Ben Gurion Airport on July 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Interview'There’s much more life than darkness'

Isaac Herzog sees hope for the Jewish Agency, and the fractured nation it serves

Locked in a slow but seemingly inexorable decline, the institution, still one of Israel’s most important charities, ‘doesn’t know how to tell its story,’ says its new boss

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Main image by Miriam Alster/Flash90

Isaac Herzog , 57, is a strange sort of politician. He is simultaneously unassuming and ambitious. He speaks quietly, in careful sentences; he was an attorney in his first career. That he was also an officer in the army’s tech-savvy signals intelligence unit 8200 is, once you meet him, entirely unsurprising.

He concluded a 19-year career in Israeli politics last month with the reputation of a competent manager, a quiet man who lacks the shamelessness, and, it must be said, the charisma to engage in the sort of populism that has become a defining feature of present-day politics.

Last month, he became head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and that, too, cuts against the grain. (Full disclosure: This writer served as a spokesman for the Jewish Agency from 2010 to 2012.)

Herzog came to the job against the wishes of sitting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who preferred a political ally — current Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. That’s a rare occurrence in the annals of the agency, whose leadership positions have historically been treated by Israeli leaders as political loot, part of the long list of political appointments that are the meat and potatoes of the Israeli coalition-building process.

Herzog’s appointment thus reveals a great deal about the present state of both the storied organization — once the institutional wellspring of the nascent Jewish state’s earliest political structures — and Israel-Diaspora relations.

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)

Herzog was the preferred choice of the Jewish Agency’s biggest funders, especially the leaders of the American Jewish federations who sit on the organization’s board and provide no small part of its core funding, as well as the liberal Jewish religious streams represented on that board. For them, Herzog’s election is in part a rebellion against Netanyahu, and a statement that the prime minister, after his backtracking in recent years on issues of religious pluralism due to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox political partners, can no longer get his way with Diaspora leaders.

At the same time, Herzog’s liberal credentials — he was the previous head of the Labor party, and resigned as opposition leader in the Knesset to take the agency job — make him a more comfortable partner for the generally more progressive-leaning leaders of the American Jewish institutional world, especially at a time of growing tensions with Israel’s right-wing government.

The appointment is also a testament to the agency’s own changing position. Not only has the agency shrunk dramatically over the past four decades — it now receives from its largest contributors, American Jews, perhaps 15 percent of what it attracted 40 years ago, corrected for inflation — but its role as the central platform for Diaspora Jewish contributions to Israel has all but evaporated. Its share of American Jewish giving to Israel declined just as precipitously. In the 1980s, as much as four-fifths of American Jewish donations to Israel passed through the agency; today that figure is far less than 15 percent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with Leader of the Zionist Union party Isaac Herzog (C) and Leader of the Joint Arab list, Ayman Odeh in the Knesset (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That means, among other things, that its leadership is less a prize than it once was. An Israeli prime minister in 2018 is less likely to fight tooth and nail to retain control of the agency than he might have been in the 1970s, when the agency was an important actor in the Israeli economy and a meaningful instrument for Israeli foreign and Diaspora policy.

The bottom line: Isaac Herzog has taken the helm of an organization that has been diminishing in size and influence at a slow but steady creep over many decades now, and whose primary source of funding from overseas is experiencing a similar slow but seemingly unstoppable decline. This decline isn’t simply a marketing challenge, but a more fundamental shift of donor attention and culture, a new set of expectations in the American Jewish community that the Jewish Agency has thus far been unable to meet.

There is an unfair irony in all this. Were it not for the agency’s illustrious history, its present state would emphatically be hailed as a remarkable achievement in its own right. It remains one of the largest non-profit institutions in Israel, a billion-shekel-a-year behemoth, an ecosystem of programs that includes some of the country’s largest nongovernmental social empowerment and welfare projects. It is worth preserving.

As a new leader takes the helm, can he deliver for the agency, at long last and against all past experience, a financial turnaround? And perhaps more importantly, can he give this old institution a clear and compelling narrative in a new world radically different from the one for which it was originally constructed?

There is an inevitable clash here between the old and the new, the large institution that must find its footing in a world of short attention spans and fast-moving agendas. Without a fitting story, the money won’t flow.

The Times of Israel spoke with Herzog last week ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, and heard a man who urges a new optimism not only for his organization, but for Israel-Diaspora relations more generally.

Isaac Herzog outside the Knesset. (Courtesy)

The Times of Israel: You’ve been on the job for about a month. How has your first month been?

I’m constantly learning. Every day I go to work and find myself learning more things that I never knew about the Diaspora — and this comes from a person who has been heavily involved with the story of the Jewish people the world over.

Your appointment despite open opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a powerful statement from the organization’s biggest funders. At the same time, the Israeli government is one of the agency’s major partners in social welfare programs, Masa, you name it. Can you work with the government despite the political rift between you and Netanyahu?

I reject any threat about any adverse impact on the Jewish Agency because of my election. I think the truth of the matter is that it’s absolutely the opposite. I enjoy very close relations with the Israeli political system. You only have to look at the way I was treated when I left the Knesset and when I entered the Jewish Agency, from all sides of the Knesset plenum, and all parties. I’ve met with the prime minister twice since I was elected. I have stretched out my hand in full cooperation to meet the challenges that face the Jewish people. We will argue about what needs to be argued and cooperate on what needs cooperation.

Talia Newfield, left, and Zoe Saldinger at Masada in Israel. (Courtesy of Cathryn Saldinger via JTA)

Truth be told, the Jewish Agency is serving a role that the government wants it to serve. Projects like Masa and others are at the pulsating heart of the Jewish people. There are also very complex issues in Israeli society [that the Jewish Agency handles for the government] such as the conversion of soldiers.

Let’s get to the main challenge. The Jewish Agency’s income from donations has been steadily dropping for decades.

The Jewish Agency, first and foremost, is a partner organization.

I have found a fascinating organization with excellent people, some of them much younger than I expected, a lot of them well-educated, professional, committed, zestful, with a real sense of mission.

However, it’s an organization that really doesn’t know how to tell its story. That’s why people doubt its necessity.

I think it will be a disaster if the organization ceases to exist, a disaster for the ability of the Diaspora and Jewish communities in Israel — what I have called from day one “Jerusalem and Babylon” — to have an open and frank discussion under the umbrella of a strong entity such as the Jewish Agency, which is actually the only organization with the exclusive purview to handle such things [for the Israeli state] under Israeli law.

It alone has the ability to take on missions and agendas on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel, with high-level representation of the various Jewish voices from within Israel. So without detracting from all other entities and Jewish organizations and NGOs doing great work, the Jewish Agency is exceptional in this field, and therefore has to continue to be strengthened.

Jewish Agency volunteers offer aid in Mexico, following a deadly earthquake (courtesy

How do you propose strengthening the agency?

We are in an era of huge change. I still believe the Jewish Federations of North America have to play a big role, as well as Jewish foundations, private donors and Israeli donors as well. But there are also new avenues, crowdfunding and other ideas. Everything will be checked and tested and taken into account.

It is true that the world of financial resource development [i.e., fundraising] is changing. We have to adapt to the change. But that doesn’t mean that there are no new sources [of funding] to reach out to, no new ways to be innovative and use modern technologies and platforms to make sure there is a partnership between the Jewish people and the state of Israel.

But for me it’s not the money [that is the measure of the agency’s success], it’s much more the affiliation. My aim is to make sure that, for example, our Facebook page bring more people in and is more interesting to the public and reaches a new and younger crowd, alongside Twitter and other methods.

Does the Jewish Agency know how to do that, how to reach those new audiences and donors?

This is the challenge I face. When I was welfare minister [from 2007 to 2011], I took a derelict ministry, in collapse, and ended up adding 2 billion shekels [to its annual budget]. Later on as head of the Labor Party [from 2013 to 2017], which I found in a NIS 120 million debt, I ended up doubling its [Knesset] mandates [from 15 to 24 seats].

View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the fundraising failure goes deeper than just finding new donors or organizational reform. More philanthropic money is coming to Israel, but less each year comes to the Jewish Agency. There is a broader cultural problem here. It suggests the agency needs more than just a turnaround.

The Jewish Agency has incredible programs, an incredible wealth of knowledge. I agree there’s an influx of capital contributions to Israel in various fields, and I think it’s a blessed phenomenon and shows the incredible interest of the Diaspora in Israel, in various fields of activity. I believe the Jewish Agency has a lot to offer in terms of partnerships that can turn the tide.

I believe the organization is focused on exactly what it needs to do. And if it identifies its main objectives and focuses on them and prioritizes, things can turn around.

Again, what makes you think it can do that?

I object to the general feeling of despair. I find the Jewish people as a whole, despite huge debates within it, are actually living in a very fascinating era. We need to work hard and make change and not give up, to hold our heads high as a strong organization in the Jewish story. I know I’m taking a lot on my shoulders.

The rift between Israeli Jews and American Jews seems to be growing. The Jewish Agency under your predecessor Natan Sharansky tried mightily to play a role in bridging the gap on conversion, the Western Wall and other issues, but found it could not bring the sides to lasting compromises, especially when it came to certain Israeli political factions. Are we headed for an ever-deepening rift between the two largest Jewish communities in the world?

I don’t know what you term American Jewry. Manhattan isn’t the only epitomization of American Jewry. American Jewry is diverse. One has to consider the whole vast elaborate story of the Jews around the world, and the same goes for America. Within America, and even within Manhattan itself, you’ll find an incredible diversity of congregations, “each under his own vine and fig tree.”

I’m aware of the conflicts and debates, of the divisiveness. All of that is there. It needs to be dealt with.

Isaac Herzog, shown speaking August 8, 2018 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, called for unity and pluralism in his first US visit as chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. (Courtesy JAFI via JTA)

But I also think Israel now interests the Diaspora much more than in previous generations. In previous generations, the Diaspora loved Israel and bowed to anything that happened here. In this generation, the Diaspora shows a great deal of frustration and anger over Israel, but that’s because it cares about Israel and wants to be involved and is much more active in the Israeli discourse than ever before.

What I’ve done from day one is to ask everyone to first of all lower the anger and flames and start talking, start understanding the processes within each other. I intend to encourage and boost the agency’s Ami-Unity program [which works to teach Israelis about the cultural gap with American Jews, and how Israeli limits on religious pluralism, for example, affect the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel], including in the school system.

Each era has its challenge. This era has challenges rooted in the political situation in the United States, in issues of Jewish continuity that have become clear, in the interests of young people and the feeling that Israel is strong enough to stand alone now. Conflicts over values, BDS, the ordinary pressures of life, it’s all there [impinging on the relationship]. We have to deal with it, and we’re dealing with it.

And we’re saying to those who are dealing with it, don’t give up. There’s much more life there than darkness. If we expose the life, the common denominators, we’ll find we’re much stronger than the general feeling of despair.

That’s my call to everyone on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

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