Isaac Herzog may have been disappointed that Labor Party politics forced him out of his post as Minister of Tourism. World Jewry, on the other hand, have welcomed his appointment as minister of Diaspora Affairs, though displeased that he will direct the ministry only on a parttime basis as he is also taking over the Social Affairs portfolio.
Herzog is endowed with unique qualifications for the Diaspora Affairs post. Scion of a notable family, the son of the late president of Israel Chaim Herzog, nephew of the late Yaakov Herzog, diplomat and adviser to prime ministers, and grandson of the revered first chief rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, whose name he carries, the newly-appointed minister was nurtured in a family where Zionism and Judaism were daily fare.
When his father was UN ambassador, Isaac spent some of his formative years in New York, attending the prestigious Ramaz day school and absorbing the chemistry of Diaspora Jews. His father’s role at the UN coincided with the despicable United Nations resolution bracketing Zionism with racism. The father’s speeches on this issue were outstanding and have special resonance in our time.
Even before being elected to the Knesset, Isaac displayed a special interest in Israel-Diaspora relations and became personally acquainted with Jewish leaders and their issues.
Today with the emergence of post-Zionism and the concerted efforts by highly vocal, if marginal, Jews to obfuscate delegitimization and demonization of Israel with legitimate criticism, it is advantageous for the Diaspora role to be occupied by a Labor Party leader who cannot be dismissed as just another right-winger.
Herzog faces a daunting challenge because Israel-Diaspora relations are unquestionably at an alltime low. This is partially a byproduct of the indifference of successive Israeli governments who, since the 1993 Oslo deal, have consciously distanced themselves from Diaspora Jewish organizations.
Yitzhak Rabin even went so far as to instruct AIPAC to tone down their activities, because with an irreversible peace process was in the making and he regarded interventions by Diaspora bodies on behalf of the Jewish state as superfluous and counterproductive.
World Jewry is also experiencing a general decline. Despite a revival among the Orthodox, the vast majority of Diaspora Jews are undergoing unprecedented levels of assimilation and snowballing intermarriage. Anti-Jewish prejudice in the media and in society at large continues to escalate. More and more assimilated younger Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, some even becoming part of the anti-Zionist chic.
These trends are paralleled by a general decline in Zionism’s fortunes. Thirty years ago Jewish communal bodies all accepted the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and a strong commitment to Israel was a prerequisite for anyone with Jewish leadership aspirations. There was also a consensus that Diaspora Jews, whose lives were not on the line, were obliged to exercise restraint in relation to criticism of Israel’s security policies.
Today, that no longer applies. The influence of Israeli diplomats on Jewish communities has drastically receded. The Jewish Agency and its international Zionist affiliates have, with few notable exceptions, withdrawn from the political arena and concentrate almost exclusively on fundraising. The beneficiaries of these changes are the major American donors, who today dominate the agenda.
In recent years the situation has further deteriorated. Jews previously relegated to the margins of Jewish life are emerging from the closet to attack Israel with unprecedented hutzpa. When disowned by mainstream groups, they shriek that they are being denied freedom of expression.
The situation in the United States is particularly disconcerting. The New York Times has begun castigating mainstream Jewish activists who rightly claim that those delegitimizing Israel are a peripheral minority speaking only for themselves. Jewish leaders such as Abe Foxman from the ADL and David Harris from the AJCommittee are being referred to as “Jewish conservatives,” while anti-Zionists like Tony Judt, who would see the Jewish state dismantled and substituted by a bi-national Palestinian state are described as “Jewish liberals.”
In the United Kingdom the situation is even worse. Anglo Jewry’s only Jewish think tank is currently headed by Antony Lerman, a Jew on public record as favoring the dismantling of the Jewish state.
Indeed, if one follows the UK media one may be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that marginal anti- Israel Jewish groups and personalities have become more effective than the mainstream Jewish organizations. THEN THERE is the question of alliances. Alas, most of our former supporters have forsaken us. We rely heavily on the backing of Christian evangelicals, without whom, especially in the United States, Israel would be in dire straits.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day we only have one permanent and reliable ally: our fellow Jews. Despite the fact that for many of the younger generation recollections of the Holocaust and the struggle to create a Jewish state have become dim memories, the vast majority of Jews unquestionably still remain our most fervent supporters.
In addition, aside from being a source of future immigration, Diaspora Jewry has vast reservoirs of potential human resources that could make all the difference in our battle in the war of ideas – if properly led.
If Herzog is to provide leadership in this area he must coordinate closely with other government ministries dealing with Diaspora-related matters. He should develop a modus vivendi with the foreign minister in relation to the Global Forum against Anti-Semitism now headed by the Foreign Ministry’s Aviva Schechter. He must also liaison closely with Minister for Pensioners Affairs Rafi Eitan, who is responsible for issues of restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property. That in time will unquestionably emerge as one of the key issues facing Diaspora Jews.
Since its inception seven years ago, the Diaspora Ministry has failed to make a real impact on Israel-Diaspora relations. Yet even now, our internal problems notwithstanding, Israel still provides morale and strength to most Jewish communities. Despite the limitations of this government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does appreciate the significance of the Diaspora far better than his predecessor.
Hopefully he will arrange for Isaac Herzog, the third Minister for Diaspora Affairs, to assume a full-time role and enable the government to allocate the budget needed to allow him to take up the challenge to rebuild bridges. Otherwise he will simply become one more band-aid, like his predecessors.
Isaac’s uncle, Yaakov Herzog, once said: “Heaven forbid that the historian of the future will have to write that Israel in our time built a state and lost a people.”
That’s worth remembering.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel Relations Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader.