Jewish Agency picks Isaac Herzog as new head, spurns Netanyahu pick
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Jewish Agency picks Isaac Herzog as new head, spurns Netanyahu pick

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaking to the foreign press in Jerusalem, Feb. 24, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

(JTA) — Isaac Herzog, Israel’s opposition leader, will replace Natan Sharansky as the head of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel.

Herzog, a rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has served in the Knesset since 2003, also serving in various ministerial posts, including Diaspora minister. The Jewish Agency rejected Netanyahu’s preferred choice, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz — the first time the agency has rejected a prime minister’s pick for the position in 23 years, according to Haaretz.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, founded in 1929, is the largest Jewish nonprofit in the world and is primarily known for fostering the aliyah of Diaspora Jews to Israel. Under Sharansky, however, the agency moved away from its traditional mission of bringing in and settling new immigrants to Israel and focused more squarely toward building global Jewish identity.

The agency, which receives more than $100 million annually in funds from the North American Jewish federation system largely earmarked for specific purposes and programs, partners with Birthright Israel, runs the MASA umbrella for longer-term stays in Israel, and other programs to strengthen Diaspora Jewish identity and connections between Israel and Jews worldwide.

The agency’s Board of Governors is convening in Jerusalem on Sunday and is expected to give Herzog’s nomination its final approval. If approved, he would start his four-year term on Aug. 1.

Herzog, the former chair of the Labor Party, is the current opposition leader in the 20th Knesset. Born in Tel Aviv, Herzog lived and studied in the United States when his father, Chaim Herzog, served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1970s, attending Manhattan’s elite Orthodox Ramaz School.

Netanyahu did not support Herzog’s nomination. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu called the committee on Thursday and was informed that it had chosen Herzog. Netanyahu reportedly stressed that his candidate was Steinitz and asked the agency to meet with him. The Agency did so and informed Netanyahu that its members were still backing Herzog.

At least one member of the prime minister’s Cabinet is praising the choice.

The Jewish Agency is picking a “man of values, who will contribute greatly to the consolidation between us and our brothers in the Diaspora,” Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said.

“Especially now, when the relationship between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry faces significant challenges, I am certain that Herzog will be able to create a true bridge between us and world Jewry,” he said. “Herzog, as a former Minister of Diaspora Affairs, is one of the few people who fully understand the importance of this connection to the future of the Jewish people.”

Bennett is alluding to strains between Diaspora Jews and the Israeli government over issues like creating egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish marriage and conversion in Israel. Sharansky, a national hero for his role as a Jewish dissident in the Soviet Union, often urged the government to heed the concerns of Diaspora Jews, although he was unable to significantly shift the domestic debate.

Herzog expressed gratitude for his nomination, echoing Bennett’s belief in the need to establish a firmer connection between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

“In light of an appeal by Jewish leaders in the Diaspora, I agreed to take on the role of chairman of the Jewish Agency,” Herzog tweeted after the nomination was publicized. “These are days of significant challenges concerning the relations between the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

The search committee, headed by Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, comprises 10 members. According to agency by-laws, the candidate must be approved by nine of the 10 members.