New Jewish Agency head walks back comment calling intermarriage a ‘plague’
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New Jewish Agency head walks back comment calling intermarriage a ‘plague’

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

(JTA) — The new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel said his remarks comparing intermarriage to a “plague” had been misunderstood.

On Sunday, Isaac Herzog had used the Hebrew word for “plague” to describe marriages in the Diaspora between Jews and those of other faiths and said there must be “a solution” to the issue.

But in an interview Wednesday with the Forward, Herzog said he was using it as a slang word and “didn’t mean it in any negative terms.”

Negative reactions to his original remarks had “distorted the meaning and intention of what I said. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter which stream he belongs to, if he wears a skullcap or not,” Herzog said.

On Sunday, the Israeli opposition leader was approved to succeed Natan Sharansky as the head of the quasi-governmental organization.

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

Part of that effort has been finding ways to engage interfaith families; 60 percent of American Jews aged 25-54 (not including Haredi Orthodox Jews) are currently married to people of other faiths. At the same time, some Jewish leaders and demographers argue that interfaith families are far less likely to engage with Judaism or Israel.

Ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry have been strained recently over issues like creating egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish marriage and conversion in Israel.

The agency receives more than $100 million annually in funds from the North American Jewish federation system largely earmarked for specific purposes and programs and 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.

Herzog, who will step down from the Knesset to assume the new position, will start his four-year term on Aug. 1.

He was approved despite the opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 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.