Isaac (Bougie) Herzog, Chairperson of the Jewish Agency, will be 60 this year. In the past twenty years, he has filled almost every position in public life: candidate for prime minister, minister, government secretary, chairperson of the Labor party and more. We meet in the Jewish Agency Chairperson’s office in Jerusalem, which was David Ben Gurion’s office 85 years ago. 

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“This is a picture of my father with Ben Gurion at the Western Wall,” Herzog points to a picture hanging on the wall in his office. “And this is the Prayer for the Welfare of the State in my grandfather’s handwriting.” Nowadays this prayer is recited in all the synagogues in the world on the Sabbath and the holidays.

David Ben Gurion and Haim Herzog at the Western Wall. The picture hangs in the Jewish Agency Chairpersons’ office (Photograph: Jonathan Bloom)

It seems that you were intended to be the “President of the Jewish People.”

“I never thought I would be here. After the primaries in the party (in 2018) I traveled with Michal abroad, and I remember that intermarriage concerned me a great deal. Coincidentally, several days after that, I received a telephone call and was offered the position of Chairperson of the Jewish Agency”. 

“The Rome community is experiencing a deep crisis”

What does it mean to be “the President of the Jewish people” these days? 

“The Jewish people have been hard-hit by the corona crisis. They make up a large percentage of the dead. Thousands of Jews have died throughout the world, and there is a great sense of pain that has not yet found its way to general awareness. But this pain  exists in very many communities. 

“Our historical community life is based on synagogues, the community center and social welfare; mutual help, donations, anonymous charity-giving, and of course – kindergartens and schools. All these are incapacitated now.”

Tell us about one community.

“The Rome community, that competes with the Athens community for the title of the most ancient community in the history of the Jewish people, is experiencing a deep crisis. Last night one of the members sent me a picture of the supply of food in their community, and she wrote on the side of the picture: ‘The shipments of food continue to arrive during the crisis as well. I sent a request for assistance from your fund, Shabbat Shalom.’ I asked her if anything was improving, and she responded: ‘In terms of health, yes, all the rest a tragedy.’ Just like that. They are in shock.”

The Jewish People has been hard-hit by the corona crisis… hundreds of Jews have died throughout the world, and there is a great sense of pain that has still not found its way to general awareness”

How is the Jewish Agency helping?

“We set up a fund of ten million dollars together with Keren haYesod – United Israel Appeal, and also a non-interest loan fund for Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Jewish Agency emissaries (shlichim) throughout the world have become ‘social workers’ in the communities. We will soon have to make a decision about the 1,500 counselors that have to leave for the summer camps, and it appears that it will not take place this year.” 

 

The community in Brooklyn has been very hard-hit, does it receive special assistance? 

“The enormous pain in Brooklyn hovers over the entire Jewish world. The Federation of New York is the largest in the Jewish world, with a budget of about 300 million dollars. The Federation immediately opened the gates and issued a check for 25 million dollars to all the social and welfare institutions in New York, among them to what I understand to be the largest charity in the world, MetLife, that operates within Brooklyn. Besides our emissaries in the field, we cannot offer more help than that.”

“We will see a huge immigration wave”

There have been news reports that Jews have died more than their relative share of the population.

“Because of the Purim parties and events, the corona was more widespread among the Jews. In England, the percentage of Jews who died was higher than others, even though they make up a thousandth of the entire population, also in France. However, the rate has decreased since then. Despite thatit has become fertile ground for Anti-Semitism”.

Should we worry about a wave of Anti-Semitism?

“We are already seeing on the internet that blame is being placed on the Jews. This time the Chinese were the first, but soon the Chinese will be forgotten and the Jews will rise to the top of the list. We saw serious events in synagogues in Los Angeles, Alabama, the Ukraine, and more. And unfortunately we will see many more such events.”

“I see everything from an historical perspective. We have a wonderful people who have withstood enormous challenges” (photograph: Jonathan Bloom)

How do you think things will develop?

“I expect two movements after this crisis. On the one hand, we will have a large wave of immigration. Our cautious estimate is that we will reach a wave of 100 thousand Jews, in the range of the next two years. Many Jews see the country as a stable state with a good health system. If there is a message that should reach the government these days, it is that we must prepare for a large immigration wave that will have to receive serious consideration.” 

And the other movement? 

“The second expected movement is a drastic decline in the amount of donations and revenues from abroad. Because the donations will go mainly to the community inwards – to rehabilitate the community. The Jewish Agency, which is also dependent on many donations from abroad, will suffer, and so will many of its projects, organizations and nonprofits. 

Will the third sector in Israel also be impacted? 

“For the past several weeks I have been leading an effort to save the third sector and civil society organizations. I am amazed at the quiet and silence of the media on this issue. This is a sector that employs 16% of the labor force – from museums through mental health workers. A sector that makes up 15% of the GDP. And they have completely collapsed and reached absolute erosion. Take for example an organization such as Krembo Wings – they are in danger of closing.”

“Hopefully the money will come”

How do the Jews in the world view the State of Israel's management of the crisis? 

“With great respect. A halo has been created around Israel as a successful place that made the best and more fitting decisions from the outset.” 

At the economic level or the health level? 

“First in terms of health. I know that many in Israel are not willing to accept this, because every person has his or her crisis. But in terms of the big picture Israel is viewed as one of the best. Additionally, the world is familiar with the myriad original and beneficial initiatives that are identified with the way Israel is contending with the situation.”

A drastic decline is expected in the amount of donations and revenues from abroad. Because the donations will go mainly to the community inwards – to rehabilitate the community. The Jewish Agency, which is also dependent on many donations from abroad, will suffer.

And at the economic policy level? 

“We have to set up a fund, which is something that I am pressing hard on the government to do along with other entities. When I was Minister of Social Affairs and Social Services, during the great crisis of 2008-2009, I set up a fund to save the third sector, the non-profits and the associations.

“Last Friday the government ultimately decided to establish such a fund, something that got lost among the many news items. The fund is in the amount of NIS 200 million, but the criteria have not been published yet. Each day that goes by deepens the crisis.”

Is that sum sufficient? 

“As a start it is reasonable. Just let’s have it transferred.”

Many people are waiting for the money to be transferred,

“Israel’s assistance package will be reasonable, if the implementation is quick. If you compare it to the level of implementation in the U.S., there people received the money in the bank immediately, compared to what is happening in Israel – everything is slow. The sums that have to go through the National Insurance Institute are transferred, but it is not the only entity that has to transfer funds. Some of the payments are through the Tax Authority and then there are forms and a bureaucracy.”

“In 2016 I already tried to form a government with Netanyahu”

What are the challenges of Israel after 72 years since its founding? 

“Israel must be a lodestone for social justice, that is its mission. The basis for the existence of a functioning society is social justice and a sense of a purpose for living. A sense of purpose. We have this sense. It is changing today, and must encompass the entire Israeli mosaic. This mosaic is revealed in all its beauty in this crisis, because suddenly all people are human beings and everybody is contending with challenges.”

Is the mission being fulfilled today? 

“The mission suffers from very difficult political problems and serious disagreements. The disagreements are natural in our type of society, but then there has to be an agreed process for making decisions. We have reached a situation that for a year and a quarter we are in complete paralysis, at each other’s throats – this is very dangerous. Our nation must be the first to remember where this has led. In such situations, more agreement must be found.”

How do you view the government that is being formed?

“I must abstain from speaking about politics, but in terms of my outlook I was always in favor of reaching out between the groups in Israeli society, also the political groups. I did not hide this in 2016, when I tried to form a unity government with Netanyahu, which as known, was unsuccessful.” 

I love politics and public life, but here I received an opportunity to lead the Jewish People in one of our most challenging times, this is very challenging and fills my being”

Do you miss politics and the Knesset? 

“I really love politics and public life. I offered my skills to the members of the Labor party, to receive a continuing mandate, and they preferred someone else. But here I received the opportunity to lead the Jewish people at one of our most challenging times, this is very challenging and fulfills me. I persist in public life.”

You served as Minister of Social Affairs and Social Services, do you give  tips to Itzik Shmuli? 

“It is a ministry that I love very much and I am connected to it today from the depths of my soul. To this day, organizations and activists come to me to consult and talk. From my acquaintance with Itzik, I am sure he will be an excellent Minister of Social Affairs and Social Services”.

The Prayer for the Welfare of the State in the handwriting of Rabbi Itzhak Isaac HaLevi Herzog (photograph: Jonathan Bloom)

“Take everything in proportion”

Herzog recounts that throughout the days of the pandemic and the shelter-in-place he continues to work hard, but the corona has also impacted his home: “Last Saturday, my youngest son, who serves in the paratrooper reconnaissance unit, came home for the first time after 40 days, and this was a very moving experience.”

What does Independence Day mean to you? 

“I see everything in a historical perspective. My mother was injured right here, in this building, in the first terror attack in the history of the State. It was in March ‘48. There were countless dead. They tried to murder Ben Gurion. My father was here, and he rescued her from under the rubble. He would always say: ‘take everything in proportion.’"

“In 1958, my mother came up with the idea of the first Bible Contest, and now I am speaking at this contest. We have a wonderful people who have withstood enormous challenges, we must be very proud of what we have, see the glass half-full and do everything to fill the empty half.”