Doron Almog, bereaved brother and father, former IDF general, and current head of the Jewish Agency, is looking to bring the Jewish people together at a time when he believes the incoming government could wrench it apart by altering the Law of Return, the legislation that determines who is eligible for Israeli citizenship.
Currently, that includes anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. But the religious parties in the incoming government are looking to revoke the “grandchild clause,” and limit immigration only to people who are Jewish according to Orthodox interpretations of religious law, or halacha, and to their children.
Almog sees these proposals as divisive, with the State of Israel closing its doors to people who feel connected to Judaism even if they are not Jewish according to halacha.
“The Jewish people are polarized today. That carries a threat that part of the people won’t be included,” Almog told The Times of Israel, sitting at a conference table in his office at the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem.
To Almog, it seems obvious that the offspring of Jews are part of the wider Jewish people, even if they do not match the religious criteria. Jews have been through so much in their history — pogroms, discrimination, persecution. If some of them married non-Jews along the way, that should not mean they get kicked out of the group, he argues, especially not if they feel a connection and are willing to cast their lot with the Jewish state.
“It would affect how people feel connected. It would be Israel turning a cold shoulder to them. It’s like the state telling them — by revoking the ‘grandchild clause’ or changing the Law of Return — that you are not part of us. Because you’re Reform, you’re not part of us. That has tremendous significance,” Almog said.
Last week, Almog and six other top leaders of international Zionist organizations sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning him that altering the Law of Return would sow division between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
“The Jewish Agency is the executive body of the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency is the voice of world Jewry. Our worldview is an expansive one that believes there is room for everyone,” Almog said. “That’s why we wrote to the prime minister asking him not to change the status quo, that a change can cause a rift between Israel and the Diaspora.
“We will do everything we can to prevent [the ‘grandchild clause’] from being revoked. But any decision that will be made should be done in collaboration with Diaspora Jewry. We should be a part of it. This shouldn’t be a unilateral decision. It touches on the connection between the State of Israel and world Jewry, so [the latter] must be part of the discussion.”
Almog said the agency “sees the government as a partner. We want to represent all of the denominations of Judaism to the government of Israel. If a committee is formed, we want to be there to express the voice of the Diaspora.”
For roughly an hour, Almog sat with The Times of Israel as part of his first round of in-depth interviews with the press since entering office this past summer. He laid out his plans for the Jewish Agency, his concerns about the incoming government, the centrality of the Law of Return and, briefly, the organization’s ongoing struggles in Russia, whose government has threatened to shut down its operations in the country.
“Our work in Russia continues. There were demands that we make our systems match Russian law. We’ve done it, 100 percent,” he said. “But I’d rather not discuss it because it’s very sensitive.”
His third journey
Almog was something of a dark horse candidate for the position of Jewish Agency chairman, receiving the appointment after nearly a year in which the nomination committee failed to choose a replacement for Isaac Herzog, the previous chairman who left to become Israel’s 11th president.
Almog is the first chairman in at least two decades to not come from the world of politics and one of the few heads of the 93-year-old organization who has not held elected office, though he has long been involved in public life. His lack of political affiliation made him something of a compromise candidate, one that exemplified a kind of platonic ideal of Israeliness.
Born in Israel to long-time Zionists in 1951, Almog attended Haifa’s Hebrew Reali School, which produced a host of IDF generals and notable Israelis, including conservative megadonor Miriam Adelson. His brother, Eran, was severely wounded and left for dead in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, instilling in Almog a conviction never to leave a soldier behind. He was the first person on the ground in the famed raid of Entebbe as a young officer in the Paratroopers Brigade in 1976 and took part in Operation Moses to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He went on to lead the Israel Defense Force’s Southern Command before retiring in 2003. Almog refers to his military career as his “first journey.”
His “second journey” was prompted by his son Eran — named for Almog’s brother — who was diagnosed as an infant with severe autism and other mental disabilities. He calls Eran his “greatest teacher,” crediting him with changing his life and teaching him about discrimination and about the importance of caring for the weakest in Israeli society. Almog speaks bitterly about the many Israeli leaders who refused to discuss their disabled children and grandchildren in public.
After retiring from the army, and being appalled by the conditions in most care facilities, Almog opened his own rehabilitation village for disabled children and adults, including for his son, one without the “walls of shame” that he says surrounded most of the others in Israel. When Eran died in 2007, Almog renamed the center in his honor. In 2016, he was awarded the Israel Prize for his life’s work.
Almog said he was “surprised” when he received the phone call last May that he was being nominated for the Jewish Agency chairmanship.
“I consulted with [my wife] Didi at home, and I agreed — we agreed,” Almog said.
“We were surprised to embark on the third journey for the good of the entire Jewish people. It is complicated and it touches on the most sensitive nerves of this thing called the Jewish people.”
‘Bringing hearts together’
Almog’s grand overarching vision for the Jewish Agency under his tenure does not easily translate into English: Kiruv levavot, literally meaning “bringing hearts together.”
His focus is on areas of broad consensus: sending more Israeli emissaries to communities around the world, convincing Israelis already abroad for one reason or another to connect with local Jews, and getting Israel’s local governments to offer greater benefits and incentives to new immigrants.
Coming into his position, Almog did not appear inclined to ruffle feathers. In his early speeches, he stressed unity and the shared history that connects Israel and Diaspora Jewry, rather than issuing condemnations and warnings.
Even as the incoming coalition laid out clear intentions to amend the Law of Return, Almog was wary of being combative, speaking instead in positive terms of the importance of Jewish immigration to Israel.
It was only after the government was sworn in and its coalition agreements included commitments to amend the law that Almog — along with six other top officials in the Jewish Agency, Jewish Federation of North America, World Zionist Organization, and Keren Hayesod — issued explicit criticism of the proposal.
Yet even then, the letter focused solely on the Law of Return, despite the fact that the incoming government has also taken aim at the Western Wall, an area of particular interest to the Jewish Agency. The organization, when led by Natan Sharansky in 2016, spearheaded the long-frozen Western Wall compromise, which would have granted official recognition to non-Orthodox denominations in the management of the holy site. This summer, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors also passed a resolution demanding action after Orthodox extremists overran bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies that were taking place at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section.
“There was a decision to leave it out,” Almog said.
“Is there a threat to change [the status of the egalitarian section]? Maybe, but it’s not on the same level as the Law of Return,” he said.
Another potential area of contention for Almog and the Jewish Agency is the issue of conversions to Judaism. For over 20 years, the Jewish Agency has run the Nativ program (not to be confused with the government office of the same name that approves immigration eligibility in the former Soviet Union) to facilitate conversion principally for IDF soldiers and other young Israelis. These fast-track conversions have in the past been fiercely criticized by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and are still not accepted by some of them.
“I think that a big part of the challenge facing us today is striking a compromise, creating an accepting conversion mechanism, that accepts everyone, that expresses even how I grew up, secularly,” Almog said. “Secularism is a form of Judaism, a form of Judaism that has values of self-sacrifice and national service and putting our lives at risk for the safety of the State of Israel.”
Israel’s current state conversion programs have routinely failed to attract interest, with just a few thousand people converting through them each year. This is considered a major problem as there are nearly half a million Israeli citizens who are not Jewish according to halacha.
“We need a more accepting conversion mechanism that accepts everyone so that we can be a bigger, stronger people,” he said.
Almog noted that there is a constant concern in Israel about demography, implying that this too made it worthwhile to encourage conversion to Judaism
“The number of Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is an important thing, right? Do we want to have a half-million more or half a million less?”
Don’t need to be a missionary
The Jewish Agency operates in Jewish communities around the world. In its initial decades, it was primarily focused on encouraging and facilitating Jewish immigration, or aliyah. Under former chairman Ze’ev Bielski, who served from 2005 to 2009, the organization shifted its attention toward education and strengthening Diaspora communities.
Almog said aliyah is ultimately still the ideal in theory, but he said he recognized that in some cases it is both unlikely and not necessarily the best thing for the State of Israel.
“I want as many people to make aliyah as possible. But I also don’t think I need to be a missionary in places where it’s good for Jews like America. Even on that point, you could argue, there’s rising antisemitism and whatnot. But I don’t need to be a missionary. I think aliyah needs to come from the feeling of ‘hineni,'” he said, using a concept from the Bible literally meaning “here I am,” which is generally used by people who feel they have a calling, who are ready and willing to act.
“For the US, I need to encourage them to come and visit. But in places where living standards are tougher, like in eastern Europe, in South America — there we need to speak more explicitly about aliyah,” Almog said.
“I’ll say something else. The strategic alliance with the United States is very important. If there isn’t a strong Jewish community there, I don’t know if the US will want to be a strategic ally like it is today,” he said.
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