ANALYSIS: How Israel’s president-elect seeks better ties with diaspora Jews

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ANALYSIS: How Israel’s president-elect seeks better ties with diaspora Jews

Nathan Jeffay examines President-elect Isaac Herzog’s bid to unite Jewish people in Israel and around the world

As Israel’s next president, Isaac Herzog is expected to redefine the post to give huge emphasis to diaspora Jewry.

The one-time politician, who beat social activist Miriam Peretz in Wednesday’s Knesset vote, currently heads the Jewish Agency, the world’s biggest organisation involved in promoting Israel-diaspora ties.

“He has a very, very high level of familiarity with the diaspora Jewry, and it will be higher up in his agenda than it has been for a very long time in the President’s office,” Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, told Jewish News.

Mr Herzog’s father Chaim, also Irish-born, fought in the British army in the Second World War, and was proud of his Irish-British identity throughout his life in Israel, including during this decade as president from 1983.

“Not only does the new president-elect speak mother tongue English, but he knows the world of Jewish leadership extremely well, and knows the culture too,”  Rynhold said.

Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, reacted to the election by saying that Herzog is “singularly well suited for the two main tasks currently facing the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

They are, he said, “promoting cohesion between the different sectors of Israeli society and strengthening the relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities of the diaspora.”

Statement after statement congratulating Herzog — often called Bougie — referenced his interest in the wider Jewish world.

In New York, the CEO of the Jewish Federation Eric S. Goldstein said: “With his years of experience in Knesset and profound understanding of global Jewry, Bougie is uniquely positioned to fulfil his role as president of the State of Israel, and more broadly as convener of the entire Jewish people.”

Goldstein spoke about disunity in the Jewish world, and appeared to reference US-Israel schisms, which often relate to a perceived lack of respect by Israel for non-Orthodox Judaism.

“As world Jewry faces ever growing challenges,” he said, “I have no doubt that Bougie will work and succeed in building stronger bridges between all members of the Jewish community.”

Leaders like Goldstein have Herzog’s own words to go on — he has, after all, said that addressing Israel-diaspora fractions must be a top priority.

“If Israel and the Jews of the diaspora do not seek common ground in order to courageously confront together the challenges of this new age, we are in danger of losing a significant part of the Jewish people,” Herzog told a Jewish-American audience three years ago.

The current president, Reuven Rivlin, has forged strong connections with diaspora Jewry, including non-Orthodox communities, but it was a learning curve.

He comes from a family of very traditional Jerusalemites and initially found some of the ways of the American community very strange.

The former Likud legislator is on record from 1989 disparaging Reform observance as “not Judaism,” and has refused to refer to Reform rabbis as rabbis.

By contrast Herzog, a former Labour Party leader, has long advocated for religious pluralism, and is known to feel comfortable in Reform synagogues.

At the same time, he is proud of the heritage of his grandfather and namesake Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel. He had been a community rabbi in Belfast, Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and nearly Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth.

But instead he took the Chief Rabbi post in British Mandate Palestine, which became Israel in 1948.

Herzog attends, and lectures at, Orthodox events to commemorate his grandfather, and has worked for the benefit of many Orthodox communities.

One synagogue in the heavily Charedi city of Beit Shemesh has grand furniture from Ireland — which he arranged to import after the community closed.

Even immediately after the election, his mind was on diaspora affairs.

“I intend to be the president of all Israelis, to lend an attentive ear to every position and respect every person,’ he said, “to join the connecting lines and build bridges of consensus, in order to bring in even the most distant among us, as well as our brothers and sisters in the diaspora.”

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