Jewish Agency Chair Isaac Herzog Talks Shades of Gray

Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog spoke Aug. 8 about how things in Israel have more subtlety than commonly portrayed. | Photo provided

Things are not always what they seem.

That was a key message from former Knesset member Isaac Herzog when he visited Philadelphia last week as part of his inaugural U.S. tour as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit.

Herzog spoke wide-rangingly to a packed house at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City on Aug. 8 at a meeting arranged by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

The visit was his second stop as chairman, a position he assumed after the departure of Natan Sharansky at the beginning of August. His years of experience in the Knesset shaped his responses to audience questions, even as he returned to the same theme: The situation in Israel is more complex than outsiders know.

His speech began with plaudits for Philadelphia’s Jewish Federation.

“Isn’t she great?” he said of Jewish Federation CEO and President Naomi Adler. “Naomi is regarded as one of the most influential [Jewish] Federation execs in the country.”

It was Adler who tenaciously worked to facilitate Herzog’s appearance in Philadelphia, a city he first visited as a child with his late father, Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel.

“He took me to the Liberty Bell to learn about American history, and I fell in love with American history,” Herzog said. “There’s something special in this city that goes way beyond just another metropolis.”

Now, all these years after being moved by the sight of Independence Hall, Herzog was back to give a speech a few blocks from a building named for his wife’s cousin, Sidney Hillman.

But Herzog didn’t speechify for long. Instead, he opened it up to audience questions. The first was about pluralism in Israel.

“This is the question, actually,” Herzog said.

Herzog dove into a history of Israeli society, noting that for decades most Israelis didn’t practice religion and, when they did go to synagogue, it was to the Orthodox shul in their neighborhood.

“Nobody ever offered them an alternative. I kept on saying for years to the streams, ‘Instead of fighting, start competing in the market.’ Israelis are yearning for a new type of Jewish identity.”

Now that Conservative and Reform streams are viewed, Herzog said, quite favorably, there are inevitable tensions with the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate. Such tensions cause big, splashy news stories, like that of the Conservative rabbi who was arrested for performing a wedding.

This particular story, Herzog said, was just one example of how news from Israel gets distorted in the Diaspora. Generations of American Jews, he said, don’t know what’s going on Israel.

“Not what you get with 10 days of Birthright,” he said, “but what’s really going on in daily life in Israel.”

He went on to talk about high-profile cases like the Conservative rabbi, the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and the Nation-State Law, with behind-the-scenes information that only one of the country’s political leaders could know. Individual personalities, political grandstanding and even unwitting incompetence all played a role in how such events developed. Yet by the time Jews in the Diaspora get wind of something, years of context get lost in attention-grabbing headlines.

Regarding the Conservative rabbi, the arrest stemmed from a Keystone Kops-type situation that was quickly addressed by Israel’s attorney general, said Herzog.

“The underlying result is positive because the supreme legal authority in Israel declares that Reform and Conservative rabbis will not be prohibited from holding their weddings,” Herzog said. He didn’t like the arrest itself, of course, “but none of you have gotten this perspective that I just said now.”

He went into greater detail about the struggle at the Kotel because, he said, he was the person who made the prayer space at Robinson’s Arch a reality. He told of late-night phone calls, secret meetings and bridge-building, including ongoing dealings with Philadelphia native Rabbi Andy Sacks. The actions of two very disparate groups — the Women of the Wall and an extremist haredi contingent — Herzog said, caused the arrangement he so carefully put into place to fall apart. But the Israeli majority supports the egalitarian prayer space.

Two audience members asked about the Nation-State Law, which Herzog has long opposed. While acknowledging the law’s failings, Herzog identified what led up to its passage: the internecine political drama that started in the 1990s, the years of debate and legal wrangling pitting the liberal Supreme Court against right-wing legislators.

Herzog also noted that some of the issues American Jews have with the law — the clause about settlements, for instance — are a function of things getting lost in translation, a problem he sees all the time.

“There are lot of language issues,” Herzog said. “Things that are said in Israel — I said things in the parliament that if they were interpreted literally in English would be horrendous to the image of Israel.”

Herzog pointed to the word translated as “settlements,” a loaded, political word in English. But in Hebrew, “it doesn’t mean anything with settlements in the context of settlement activity in the West Bank,” Herzog said.

Similarly, Herzog said the bill’s language about the Diaspora has been misconstrued, which he knew would happen and warned haredi leadership about.

The language in the bill about Arabic, however, took Herzog and many of his colleagues in government aback.

“The whole parliament went to Netanyahu,” Herzog said of the effort to strike that part of the bill. “It’s not correct, it doesn’t radiate equality and it only hurts the good name of Israel. [But Netanyahu] insisted. The damage that came, the mind boggling of Jews all over the world, and Israelis, for that matter, has been enormous. And I think it’s part of Bibi’s campaign. It’s clear to me he wants to talk to his base.”

It was the only time Herzog, the onetime leader of the opposition in the Knesset, said anything negative about the prime minister, as he endeavored to strike a tone that was balanced and optimistic. Overall, he encouraged the audience to think positive, learn more and engage.

“You are worried, I’m worried, many Israelis are worried,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s over. On the contrary, I’m much more hopeful … because I know what’s going on in many quarters of Israeli society.”

He pointed especially to “enormous change” in the haredi community.

“All human beings are affected by this machine,” he said, holding up his smartphone. “It’s inevitable. You no longer see the hegemony of one rabbi. My wife works a lot in the haredi community. … She calls it ‘50 shades of black.’ You cannot say, ‘I see a black hat and I think I know what he is.’

“So let’s get over all the categorizations and let’s understand that there’s a lot of work to be done. And I tell all my brothers and sisters in the United States: Pick up your head and fight.”

Adler was pleased with Herzog’s visit.

“It was an immense honor for Philadelphia to host JAFI Chairman Isaac Herzog at one of his very first stops since taking on his new role,” she said. “Mr. Herzog has dedicated his life and career to the service of the state of Israel, and it is our hope this new position will allow him to further connect communities across the globe to our Jewish homeland. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has always had a strong relationship with JAFI, and we look forward to using the meaningful dialogue we started today with Mr. Herzog to build greater impact.”

[email protected]215-832-0747


  1. Reform is a new religion out of Judaism just like Christianity is. In fact, the similarity doesn’t end there: Both were created by Jews. I was once lured into a Reform church (that is what it felt like (choir, organ playing) Nothing of the warmth, the reassuring rituals of old they detest. I am a survivor of the Shoah who stopped believing in Shomer Israel as a result of having lost both my parents at the age of 7. A justification for a religion to exist is that some will get a mystical experience as a result. Nothing of the sort can be expected from the theater of Reform.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here