Like a proper Bay Area tourist, Isaac Herzog got himself a snazzy steel-gray Warriors cap to take home to Israel last week. But unlike most tourists, Herzog spent his time here visiting JCCs and meeting with Jewish community leaders as part of his effort to deepen ties among Jews around the world.
It’s all in a day’s work for the new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Herzog liked what he saw during his visit, including the Gvanim program at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, which serves the huge Israeli expat population in Silicon Valley. He gushed that the Bay Area Jewish community “is known for its incredible institutions and its historic and current leadership. I’m here to say, now is your chance to leave your major mark.”
Herzog, 59, has been making his mark over a long and distinguished career. He describes his agency as “the biggest Jewish organization in the world that focuses mainly on the entire Jewish people’s challenges, their connectivity to each other, and the centrality of Israel.” Its marquee programs bring young Jews to Israel, promote aliyah, provide social services to needy Jews in Israel, fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campus, and help beef up physical security at Jewish institutions.
The Herzog name should ring a bell: Isaac’s father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president of Israel; his uncle was the great Israeli diplomat Abba Eban.
In 2015, Herzog came within a whisker of unseating Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister while leading a center-left alliance of the Labor and Hatnua parties. He also has served in several cabinet-level roles, including in the ministries of tourism, housing, welfare and diaspora relations.
In 2018 he accepted the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, a venerable quasi-governmental institution headed by David Ben-Gurion in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s a post he believes he is well qualified to hold. “I grew up in New York when my father was ambassador to the U.N.,” Herzog said in an interview with J. “I know the Jewish world inside out. I’m very pleased for the opportunity to serve my nation, and it fills my heart.”
Herzog had a tough act to follow. Former refusenik and human rights activist Natan Sharansky served as chair for nine years. The Jewish Agency was established in 1929, just as Zionism was becoming an unstoppable force in world Jewry. Herzog admits the 91-year-old institution, with an annual budget exceeding $333 million, has built up its own culture, but he says he is shaking things up.
I’m looking to create good for the common Jewish collective.
“The Jewish Agency was a conservative organization in the way it does business,” he said. “But I’m a true believer in diversity. We believe in convening, and we have unique advantages. Spread over six continents, we have the ability to amass numbers. I’m looking to create good for the common Jewish collective, and the only way Jewish life continues from generation to generation is by having what Winston Churchill called ‘a strong corporate Jewish life,’ meaning the established institutions that serve the community.”
That explains why the agency partners with organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America (the umbrella entity that includes the three Northern California Jewish Federations). It also partners with the World Zionist Organization, Birthright Israel, MASA Israel Journey and other youth-oriented projects, and it sends thousands of young Israeli emissaries (known as shlichim) to college campuses every year to promote a more positive view of Israel.
Coming from the political opposition to Israel’s longstanding Likud government, Herzog embraces the rough-and-tumble of democratic debate. He believes governments, including Israel’s, are fair game for criticism. He draws a line, however, when it comes to delegitimizing the Jewish state. One of his agency’s central objectives is to fight anti-Semitism from the left and the right.
After the shocking 2018 murder of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Herzog went to the city to attend funerals for the victims. He lit a memorial candle alongside Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. His agency also sent a team of post-trauma grief specialists from the Israel Trauma Coalition.
He attributes the worldwide spasm of anti-Jewish violence to “unfiltered hate and fear on social networks. The lowest common denominator is emerging above. And that is why you see extreme right-wing, fascist, racist, white supremacist rhetoric and action, and extreme left-wing hate rhetoric against the State of Israel. And you see terrible consequences. That requires that we take necessary steps in law enforcement, legislation and, predominantly, education, working for more love than hate.”
Herzog said he misses the arena of party politics. His new job imposes limits on his public comments, but regarding the recently released Trump Middle East peace plan, he offered a few observations.
“It accepts the Israeli narrative completely,” he said, “and it’s the first time [Netanyahu] himself is presenting a map, something we never saw before. It also recognizes the need for a two-state solution. But it is also clear [the plan] can only serve as an opening position, because in the future there will have to be negotiations with the Palestinians.”
He emphasized the importance of protecting Israeli security in in any final peace plan.
Herzog doesn’t have to grapple daily with the angst of solving the Middle East conflict. He is focused for now on expanding the positive impact of the Jewish Agency. “We are an organization run and controlled by the Jewish world,” he said. “We deliver the voice of pluralism to Israeli society, and we are creating unity amidst differences.”