Jewish News meets… Isaac Herzog: ‘I’ll bridge the diaspora divide’
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Jewish News meets… Isaac Herzog: ‘I’ll bridge the diaspora divide’

New Jewish Agency chair reflects on his new role and the legacy of his father Chaim, amid a turbulent time for Israel-diaspora relations

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Isaac Herzog
Isaac Herzog

 New Jewish Agency chair Isaac Herzog says he “shares the frustration” of Jews around the world over recent Israeli laws and feels the “agony and separation” between Israel and the diaspora.

Herzog’s frank comments came as he flew into London to mark the 100-year anniversary of the birth of his father, former Israeli president Chaim Herzog.

Isaac, who until this summer led Israel’s parliamentary opposition, spoke to Jewish News about his father’s legacy and the state of Israel-diaspora relations today, acknowledging the problems new laws had caused.

“I fought against many of these new laws and I share the frustration of many of your readers,” he said. “But I also give credit to the Israeli
democratic system.”

He said the most controversial – the ‘Nation State Law’ – “came out of a 15-year debate about the influence of the Supreme Court and how the court should decide upon constitutional matters, but it’s not reported outside Israel so it came as a shock to the diaspora”. He added that analysis of the law’s impact had been found wanting.

His message to disillusioned diaspora Jews, he said, was to consider the logistics of Israeli politics and “understand the undercurrents of Israeli society, which are surprisingly interesting”, adding: “I have optimism for a more inclusive [Israeli] society, and believe we can have a new formula for the [Israel-diaspora] relationship, but it will be difficult.”

Speaking about his new role, he said: “It is my job to find the common denominator between Israel and the diaspora, to lower the agony and separation, and have an open and frank discussion.”

Herzog’s comments came ahead of a special ceremony with Lord Rothschild, the Israeli ambassador, Isaac and his brother Michael, a brigadier-general in the Israel Defence Forces, to mark their father’s birth in Belfast 100 years ago.

It is my job to find the common denominator between Israel and the diaspora, to lower the agony and separation, and have an open and frank discussion

In reflections that bode well for his tenure, he said he knows how Israeli actions can affect communities around the world.

Chaim Herzog in IDF uniform, 1954. Credit: Fritz Cohen via Wikimedia Commons

“I understand it [the vandalism] is a reaction to what Israel’s done, it absolutely impacts on the Jewish world and beyond,” he said. “That needs to be taken into account and it is, in the Security Cabinet, over the most difficult decisions, over war and peace.”

He acknowledged Israeli “mistakes”, but said he was reassured Israel had one of the strongest legal systems in the world.

One of four children, Isaac said his Dublin-raised father instilled in him a love of Israel and the Jewish people, but acknowledged his father’s complicated relationship with Britain “shows the dilemma in every human being”.

Although Chaim fought for the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary unit battling the British in Palestine, he also fought for the British Army against the Nazis, “a formative experience for his personality and world view,” Isaac explains.

“War changes everything. He saw it as a duty. His father [Ireland’s Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog] spoke with him and said he was very proud.”

Isaac recalled when Chaim knew his Army service was over, in 1946. “He walked into the officers’ mess and nobody would talk to him, incredible hostile looks. Irgun had just blown up the King David. Suddenly he knew he was an outcast and had to return home. There was sadness, but also an awakening.”

Chaim was knighted by the Queen in 1970, but it wasn’t a moment of public pride, Isaac said. “At that time, Britain was still a very complicated story in Israeli public life. He didn’t make a fuss about it because in Israel there were many who came out of the British Mandate with wounds.”

Difficulties with Britain were as nothing compared to post-war Israeli-German relations, yet Chaim broke ground in 1987 to become the first Israeli head of state to visit Germany, 40 years after he had identified a captured German soldier as Holocaust mastermind Heinrich Himmler.

“He explained to protesting Holocaust survivors how it was the ultimate victory, the flag of Israel flying as German soldiers saluted an Israeli president,”
says Isaac.

“But he still always refused to drive a German car.”

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