First posted on Times of Israel
Isaac “Bougie” Herzog never managed to become Israel’s prime minister, but this week he will begin his term in one of the Jewish people’s most important roles: President of the Jewish Agency. In this position, Herzog has an historic opportunity to serve as a true leader of the Jewish people at a critical juncture. Everything will depend on the mindset Herzog brings to the work.
When we examine the condition of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and not just Israeli society, we see this worrying phenomenon: The two largest Jewish centers in the world – Israel and North America – are divided by an ever-growing gap.
Each of these Jewish centers needs the other: Both have fashioned exceptional economic and cultural achievements, but both also face substantial challenges and hazards. Despite – or especially because of – current disputes, it is in the clear interest of each to cooperate with the other. As head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog will be in a position to serve as a bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and connect the distinct parts of the Jewish people.
Bougie, here are two suggestions to help you overcome the Israeli perspective and view things from the broader point of view of the entire Jewish people.
To succeed in bringing people closer together, you must forget momentary concerns and emphasize the positives. Speak less about crisis and the Jewish Agency and more about planting hope in the potential of collaboration and synergy between the two centers.
There is no need to tell American Jews how dangerous it is to live in Israel; they already know. There is also no need to review Israel’s technological prowess and successes; they know this, too.
Similarly, there is no need to tell Israelis that American Jewry is assimilating rapidly; we already know. There is also no need to tell us about liberal American Jewry’s concerns about the polarization of Israeli society – we know that as well.
For Israelis, you must be the ambassador of American Jewry, and for American Jewry, you must be the ambassador of Israel’s Jews.
Tell American Jews what the media do not emphasize. Tell them that Israel is not just the “Start-Up Nation” but also, and primarily, the “Jewish Values Nation.” Tell them about the solidarity that can be seen at every level of society, of the volunteer and pioneering spirit of youth movements, at pre-military gap-year programs, in the ranks of the IDF, and in the civic organizations that operate in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, in marginal areas, and in hospitals.
Speak about how Israeli civil society strives for justice, equality, and for rifts to be bridged. Recount the unprecedented cultural flowering of poetry, literature, theater, dance, and music among Jews, both religious and non-religious.
Tell Israeli Jews about the creativity and achievements of US Jewry, and about the moral values and commitments of US Jews within their country and with respect to the State of Israel. You must speak of the millions of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews who choose to remain Jews, even as minorities, and who work to promote Jewish values in the heart of a world superpower.
You must be a demanding ambassador on their behalf in Israel. You must make sure that when American Jews come to Israel for a visit, or when they make aliyah, they feel that the State of Israel reflects their Judaism too, that they have a place at the Kotel and that they have the religious freedom to continue building liberal Judaism, as they did in the US.
What you need to show both sides is how they can and should create together a Judaism that both will be able to share and will be proud of. If as Jewish Agency head you act as President of the Jewish People, you will be able to build this bridge of culture and values. This is how you can ensure a successful future for the Jewish people in these two centers and hundreds of other communities around the world.
Your success will be the success of the Jewish people and of Jewish tradition. May God be with you.