Israelis do not "do" royalty, to put it mildly. They are famously irreverent, deeply skeptical and distinctively if not scathingly critical of their leaders.
But if Israel recognized royal families, surely Isaac Herzog, known to Israelis as "Bougie," would qualify as a prince. His Irish-born father, Chaim Herzog, fought with the British Army during World War II before helping to found the Jewish state, ultimately serving for 10 years as its president. Bougie's grandfather, Ireland's chief rabbi, later became Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi. And his uncle, Abba Eban, was Israel's most famous diplomat and one of the best-respected international diplomats of the last century. "We carry a big lineage of serving the Jewish people," said Herzog recently, with some understatement. "We are a serving family."
Bougie Herzog has himself served in distinguished fashion. After several positions in Israel's government, he was elected to its Parliament in 2003. He rose to lead Israel's Labor Party and lost a close election to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015.
In 2018, Herzog was named chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, known simply as The Jewish Agency, the world's largest Jewish nonprofit and the most important Jewish organization many American Jews have never heard of. Established in 1929, 19 years before Israel was born, its mission is to "ensure that every Jewish person feels an unbreakable bond to one another and to Israel no matter where they live in the world, so that they can continue to play their critical role in our ongoing Jewish story." One measure of the Agency's historic significance is the role it played in bringing Holocaust survivors and Jews expelled from Arab lands to the safety of a Jewish homeland after World War II. It has continued to spearhead the rescue of Jews persecuted and pursued in their native lands — from Europe to the Soviet Union to Ethiopia — ever since.
Another measure may be found in the names of those asked to lead it. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, headed the Agency from 1935 until the Jewish state was established in 1948. Herzog himself succeeded the great Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident and human rights leader who spent nine years in Soviet prisons before he was freed and emigrated to Israel.
Herzog says that the Agency is focused on three major challenges. The first is what he describes as "the famous rift": the disconnect between Israel and North American Jewry, a disconnect marked by dramatically different life experiences. American Jews are generally comfortable. Israelis' lives, by contrast, are in certain fundamental respects uncomfortable, as a function of the threats posed by the neighborhood in which the Jewish state resides. Although Israel's vaccination program has in recent weeks become the envy of the world, COVID-19 has hit Israel particularly hard. "Tourism has been devastated," Herzog says, and the pandemic has shrunk Israel's 2020 gross national product by an estimated 6.5%.
The second challenge is a tsunami of anti-Semitism worldwide, including, quite clearly, in the United States. Herzog points to the poisonous spread of white supremacism here, well illustrated by the Charlottesville, Virginia, riot; the shooting sprees at synagogues in Pittsburgh and California; and the recent mob attack on the United States Capitol.
The third is the need to cope with millions of people around the globe who, claiming that they have Jewish heritage, assert that they are therefore entitled to Israeli citizenship. Meanwhile, the pandemic has inflicted real suffering on Jewish communities within Israel and elsewhere. In response, the Agency has created the COVID-19 Loan Fund for Communities in Crisis, set up to help at-risk communities bridge the financial gaps that would otherwise threaten their ability to meet important needs.
"There is a new energy to help others," says Herzog. It is an energy that, by dint not merely of lineage but also of passion and savvy, he is well positioned to inspire.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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