Sitting down in a rolling office chair and folding his hands, Isaac Herzog confessed he was feeling a bit exhausted. He’d just arrived in Baltimore from Atlanta, and after a day here was scheduled to fly to Chicago. It was all part of a whirlwind 10-day, multi-city U.S. tour to talk to Jewish communities about the Jewish Agency for Israel, of which he serves as chairman.
But Herzog — or “Bougie” as he’s widely known throughout Israel — said he felt energized to be in Charm City shortly before the start of the yearlong centennial celebration of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore. His Dec. 10-11 visit included meetings with Associated lay and professional leadership, as well as catching up with a group of local rabbis and visiting Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.
A Tel Aviv native and resident, Herzog, 59, could be considered a member of Israeli aristocracy. His late father, Chaim Herzog, served as Israel’s president from 1983 to 1993. His paternal grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the Jewish state’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. And his uncle was the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban.
Jmore spoke with Herzog, a former Knesset member and ex-chairman of Israel’s Labor Party, during his visit here to discuss his organization, Israel-Diaspora relations and the rise of anti-Semitism, on the same day when a pair of gunmen killed a police detective and three civilians in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J.
Jmore: What brings you to our city?
Herzog: The Associated is an important strategic partner of the Jewish Agency, so I’m here to congratulate the Associated on turning 100. It’s an amazing story, and for me personally it’s a great honor to be in Baltimore.
May I add that, for me, this city also celebrates two great pillars of humanity. One is [Zionist leader and Hadassah founder] Henrietta Szold, who was born here and whose impact is alive today in Israel. She was a great woman. And the other great [Baltimore-born] leader is Thurgood Marshall, who was the first African-American Supreme Court justice, who I admire as a jurist and a lawyer. These two people epitomize what Baltimore is all about, as well as the story of this great Jewish community.
Describe the relationship between The Associated and the Jewish Agency.
We are the major overseas partner of the federation. On our board of governors, there are some very important Jewish leaders from this community such as Richie Pearlstone, who was our past chairman of the board of governors, and Bruce Sholk, a very active member of our board of governors, and many other distinguished people. Also, people in the past like the late Chuck Hoffberger, who was another chairman of our board of governors.
In the 90 years of the Jewish Agency, Baltimore has been a huge partner of ours and has impacted the lives of Jews all over the world.
What’s your role as chairman of the Jewish Agency?
I am working diligently to maintain and foster Jewish unity. We can have a dialogue and differences, but we must understand the main challenges of the era: combating anti-Semitism; bringing the voice of Jewish communities abroad – especially in North America — to Israeli society and the body politic; and connecting Jews all over the world with Israel at heart.
The Jewish Agency seems to have an identity problem. A lot of American Jews aren’t really familiar with the name of the organization.
Yeah, I know. But we are the biggest Jewish [nonprofit] organization in the world. We just celebrated 90 years — we were born 10 years after The Associated — as part of a worldwide Zionist decision to establish an agency that would lead to the establishment of the state of Israel. We achieved that goal. David Ben-Gurion was our leader, and he went from the office I sit in today to creating the state of Israel, and that inspires me every day.
Thereafter, we were commissioned to bring in four million olim [immigrants] to our country. This year alone, we brought in 35,000 from 40 countries. It’s an amazing story of almost a prophetic nature.
We are also the biggest advocates of Jewish connectivity and togetherness. Last October, our board of governors approved three main pillars of connectivity: aliyah [immigration to Israel] and global Jewish safety — security assistance, which literally saves hundreds of Jewish lives in communities around the world; Jewish togetherness and connectivity, with us bringing in tens of thousands of young Jews from around the world for immersive experiences in Israel, and bringing in about 4,000 emissaries from Israel to places like summer camps around North America; and finally, the partnerships like the relationships between Israeli and American cities, such as your own with Ashkelon.
Do you believe American Jews today suffer from Israel-fatigue?
It’s not fatigue, it’s simply sobering up. In the past, there was a major idolization of Israel. Now, Israel is a pulsating heart. People can have differences and arguments, but my call to duty is that we should love and respect each other as one big family amidst differences.
The story of Israel goes way beyond the immediate political circumstances. We should be mature enough to know that we don’t know enough about each other. Israelis don’t know enough about life in Jewish communities abroad and are unaware of pluralistic Jewish life. On the other hand, Jews in North America lack an understanding of the evolutionary state of Israeli life, which is always fascinating and interesting. We should get to know each other. We have a huge duty to our people. We must face our challenges together.
How does the Jewish Agency help Israel and the Diaspora face those challenges?
We are here to deal with all constituencies – haredim [fervently Orthodox Jews], Israelis abroad, unaffiliated Jews, interfaith couples, everyone under the tent. We respect and love everyone, and we have a duty to care for and foster this great nation.
You were once quoted in the Israeli media as describing intermarriage in the Diaspora as a ‘plague.’ Were you misquoted?
Indeed, I was misquoted. I do apologize, but I used a very Israeli terminology that when translated doesn’t reflect my true respect for world Jewry. [Intermarriage is] a challenging issue that nobody cannot shy away from. That’s why Jewish education and dealing with Jewish continuity are all issues of the day.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing world Jewry?
My fear is a split between what I call ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Babylon.’ There are six or seven million Jews in Eretz Yisroel and seven million Jews in North America. I think we’re moving in the right direction but we may lose many due to fatigue and lack of interest [in Israel] or how they interpret the political situation in Israel. But it shouldn’t impact their love of Israel because we have political battles in Israel just like you do in the United States.
What about the rise of anti-Semitism around the world?
Since World War II, we’ve never encountered such a frightening anti-Semitic climate. The numbers speak for themselves. It’s all over the world, including North America. We can’t shy away, we can’t be ostriches. There are people out there who hate, from the extreme right to the extreme left.
We’re seeing that the lessons of the Shoah are fading away and people are behaving more and more aggressively. It always starts with Jews. That’s why we must align with all of our allies and governments and adjudicate and protect and defend and legislate and prosecute — and most importantly, educate.
Generally speaking, why are Israelis and American Jews on different pages about President Trump?
I don’t want to go too much into politics. … Anything to do with Israel’s security is fine with me, and the president of the United States is the most important person in the world for Israel’s security. So in that respect, I truly do respect the general feeling of Israelis [in admiring Trump]. Having said that, previous presidents from the Democratic camp contributed nicely to Israeli security as well.
It’s not our role to say what we think about American politics, and it’s the same for people in America not to say what’s best in Israeli politics.
How would you characterize Israeli politics right now, especially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current legal woes?
We’re in a deadlock. In our system, we’re going to third elections because the prime minister, by law, enjoys the ability to stay in office until a decision in his appeal is made. This was legislated to prevent the intervention of the legal system in deciding political decisions.
On the other hand, the only solution for Israel in my mind is national unity. We’re in a limbo right now. A third election may lead to an outcome. The Israeli body politic will realize one way or another that there must be a government. At least, we’re doing all of this in a democratic process, and I hope there will not be any violence.
What about Israel’s current security situation?
We are in a war between the wars, as we call it. We are in direct confrontation with the desire of the Iranians to set foot on our doorstep and borders. It’s a major challenge. They’re trying to create fog-like situations on our north and our south. We depend greatly on our defense forces. But bear in mind the coalition that emerges between Israel and its Sunni neighbors, who have become our allies, is a unique development.
Shifting gears, what’s it like to come from such an illustrious family?
I’m very proud. I’m very proud of my mom, who turns 95 next week and is the Lady Bird Johnson of Israel and was the first environmental leader in the country. I’m proud of all my family.
Was it tough to live in the shadow of your well-known family members?
It always was. My wife, Michal, and I decided not to expose our kids. Nobody [in the media] knows their names or has seen their pictures, which is rare with politicians. But we decided not to do it because I know how difficult it was for me as a kid. [His children] want to live their own lives and succeed on their own merits.
Overall, how do you like being chairman of the Jewish Agency? It’s a tough job?
I’m enjoying every minute of serving my people. It’s what I wanted to do all my life. It’s in my blood.