Opinion: How can President Herzog enhance Israel-Diaspora relations?

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The inauguration of Israel’s 11th president, Isaac Herzog, sparked a public debate over the president’s function. One critical component of this discussion must be the president’s capacity to bring together disparate factions in a way that no other organisation or institution in Israel or the globe can. As a result, it elevates the president to the forefront of Israel’s ongoing efforts to enhance ties with Diaspora Jews.

Outgoing President Reuven Rivlin was concerned about Diaspora Jewry and launched a variety of programmes to link Israelis with Jews living across the world. (Full disclosure: I advised the President’s Office on Diaspora Affairs during Rivlin’s presidency.) Herzog now has the chance to build on those foundations. Here are five proposals Herzog can put into action as president of the world’s only Jewish country:

1. Lead the fight against antisemitism and racism.

There are numerous official organizations, government offices and NGOs dealing with issues of antisemitism. There is no activity coordination or resource optimization: The Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization are just a few examples.

We need a single body to spearhead the fight against antisemitism. Hundreds of organizations around the world, dozens of philanthropists and many corporations claim to lead the fight against this ugly age-old phenomena. Evidently, none really is. Only an apolitical body, such as the President’s Office, can gather all the partners and get them to work together. It is hard to think of another single actor who can both gather everyone physically and be seen as a confident with whom secret strategies and plans can be shared with. Herzog should initiate such a roundtable, and head a joint initiative with all relevant actors. In the future, he could also create interfaith working groups and task forces that would deal with antisemitism, hate crimes and racism. Working with communal and spiritual leaders from all over the world, the president would have countless options on this front.

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2. Connect Jewish communities to Israel.

Rivlin dedicated most of his efforts inward. He defined four tribes that make up the fabric of Israeli society, and was dedicated to connecting them. True, at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly he talked about the Diaspora as Israel’s fifth tribe, but his visits to Jewish communities grew less frequent as time passed, for varied (and justified) reasons.

Herzog is expected to visit dozens of countries. He views himself as a statesman, and is likely to continue his work as “head of the Jewish people,” a mission he undertook as head of the Jewish Agency. The impact an official visit by the president of Israel can have on Jews, young and old, when he comes to their community, school, JCC or synagogue – especially when he visits smaller, more distant ones – is immense. Every visit will strengthen the connection of many Jews with Israel, even if they felt distant.

3. Adopt the Fassberg-Kandel Report.

Designate the President’s Office as the office in charge of Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. The previous Israeli government adopted a “Strategic Framework to Secure Jewish Continuity in the Diaspora.” Headed by Maxine Fassberg and Prof. Eugene Kandel, the committee created a detailed roadmap for Israel-Diaspora relations. The paper suggested transferring the responsibility over Diaspora affairs to the President’s Office, but this component was left out of the government resolution for various political reasons. Behind closed doors, committee members claim it is a good way to centralize the field and make it effective. True, as Jewish Agency chairman, Herzog thought the national institutions should continue to lead the way, but a partial adoption of this recommendation would give the President’s Office a large and significant mandate.

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4. Collaborate with Jewish organizations and philanthropists.

During my time advising the President’s Office, I saw how the symbolism of Israel’s top citizen hosting or attending an event can take a small, modest event and turn it into one that everyone in the world wants to be part of. While the President’s Office doesn’t have a large budget, there are many organizations and individuals who would love to cooperate with Herzog on a broad range of issues in the fields of Judaism, Zionism and peoplehood, connecting Israelis and non-Israelis, dialogue among different streams of Judaism, combating antisemitism, and more. Rivlin used his soft power to launch “Israeli Hope” as a flagship program. Herzog could initiate a similar “Jewish Hope” plan and endorse programs in the field. Partners from around the world would quickly line up to join.

5. Hakhel – large (physical or virtual) Jewish gatherings.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, I found myself thinking: How can we set a new Guinness World Record and bring the largest number of Jews together for a show of solidarity and support on Zoom? My conclusion was that only the president – regardless of who that is – can gather the different backgrounds and denominations to the same “room.”

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Excluding extreme anti-Zionists, it is likely the president can create a meeting between every type of Jew in the world. Gal Gadot could bring almost everyone. The ultra-Orthodox communities and others might not relate as easily to the Jewish Wonder Woman, leaving the president alone in this category. Imagine a modern version of the biblical hakhel gathering, with hundreds of thousands of Jews, from around the world, gathering to celebrate the many things we have in common. It might not happen in one year or two, but Herzog has the ability to set things in motion now as he enters office, so that seven years from now the Israel-Diaspora relationship will be stronger and healthier.

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