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Damage to Diaspora ties
Amiram Birkat
Haaretz
November 15, 2006

Isaac Herzog speaking to Haaretz at his Jerusalem office. (Tomer Appelbaum / BauBau)

In the last months, the public image of Israeli politicians seems to have sunk to new and unprecedented depths, with investigations against the prime minister and other top government officials, and allegations of sexual harassment on the part of the president, against a backdrop of frequent elections. Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) sees a direct link between the bad reputation of Israeli politics and the Diaspora Jewry's weakening solidarity with Israel.

In an interview with Haaretz on the eve of his departure for the GA, Herzog says that Israel "pays a price, especially with the younger generations of Jewish communities around the world, for the ugly phenomena exposed in our public life, for the tarnished image of the state's leadership, for the instability and violence in our midst. We fail to understand that in our irresponsible domestic politics, in the wheeling and dealing, in what we project outwardly, we damage Israel's standing in the Diaspora, and damage the solidarity between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel."

Herzog, 46, was a partner in one of Israel's largest law firms. He became acquainted with Jewish life in the Diaspora as a boy, when his father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. Herzog calls his years at the prestigious Ramaz school "the formative period of my life." He defines himself as a "fifth-generation polemicist and speaker in the Jewish communities" - a definition strongly influenced by his

family's past: His father was the sixth president of Israel, and his grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, was the chief rabbi of Ireland and later the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel. If there is such a thing as an Israeli aristocracy, then surely Herzog is an honorary member of it.

A record number of Israeli cabinet ministers will be attending the GA this year. It is no secret that most ministers in general know little about the structure of the Jewish establishment in the United States. Many of them still can't tell the UJA from the UJC, don't really understand what the Jewish federations do, and try to evade questions about pluralism and the attitude toward non-Orthodox Jewish groups.

Herzog, by contrast, has clear-cut views on these issues. He believes that the 2000 merger that led to the establishment of the UJC has proved its merit in recent months.

"It created one center of gravity with which to deal. The voice of United States Jewry is now heard very clearly in the joint government-Jewish Agency committee and in other forums. The plan for rehabilitating the North demonstrates our cooperation."

Herzog is one of the few Israeli politicians today who proudly supports non-Orthodox Judaism. He takes full credit for the arrangement that allows egalitarian prayers to be held at the southern side of the Western Wall. Efforts to reach this agreement began in 2000, during Herzog's two years as government secretary under then prime minister Ehud Barak. Four years later, during his short tenure as housing minister in Ariel Sharon's government, Herzog had arranged for state funding to be channeled to the construction of Reform and Conservative synagogues.

His open support of pluralism, however, brings into sharp relief his recent, unequivocal support of Avigdor Lieberman's entry into the government. About a month ago, Herzog went to considerable lengths to keep the Labor Party from leaving the coalition in protest when the radical right-wing politician, whose reputation bears the taint of racism, joined the government. When asked about his position in this matter, Herzog's answer suggests that practical concerns outweighed values in this case.

"Lieberman is a stomachache and [there is] a deep sense of nausea where his views are concerned," he says, "but, on the other hand, I consider our vital interests: first, ensuring the stability of the State of Israel. We paid heavily in the last war for the lack of direction and for our inability to oversee anything during a period of a few years. Second, the Labor Party will be erased if it leaves the government, whereas today it is in charge of such crucial matters as infrastructure, education and the Israeli Arab population. And third, I actually see a reverse process: Lieberman joins the center, loses his identity and is erased - and we have a chance to form various kinds of connections to a million Russian voters and to bring them into the mainstream."