Isaac Herzog at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federation of North America
Photo by: Dudi Salem, Zoog Production

General Assembly of the Jewish Federation of North America | Address by Isaac Herzog, Chairman of the Jewish Agency | October 23rd, 2018

 
This is a very moving moment for me. Thank you all for your warm wishes and congratulations. This is a huge task and I took it humbly upon myself. First, because Michal my wife and me were told by everyone it is an opportunity to get out of politics, oh yeah…
 
Secondly, because I follow in the footsteps of a great Jewish Israeli hero – Natan Sharansky. I thank him for leading the Jewish Agency. I recently found out that back in 1978, my late father, Chaim Herzog, as Israel's Ambassador to the UN at that time, being part of the huge Jewish and Israeli campaign to save Natan, managed to seize information from a top Russian source at the UN, advising him that Natan's death sentence will be converted to a jail sentence. My father immediately advised Avital, Natan's wife, and the government,  of the positive development. Nine years later he received Natan at Ben Gurion Airport as President of Israel. And I think to myself - what an incredible coincidence that I, the Ambassador and President's son, am now following Natan in leading the Jewish Agency, the organization that gave birth to the state of Israel. 
 
Dear Friends,
 
As someone who was born here, lives here and is very proud of this nation, I can tell you without a doubt that Israel is indeed a marvel. When President Harry Truman recognised the tiny State of Israel, founded by David Ben Gurion, only 11 minutes after its Declaration of Independence, no one could have imagined that only 70 years later its population would increase more than ten-fold, its GDP would grow 50-fold, its share within the world's Jewish population would rise from 6 to 45 per cent(!) and that Israel will become the great country it is today!
 
But Israel is not the only Jewish marvel of the last 70 years. You, too, North American Jewry are a marvel. The saga of North American Jewry is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring success stories of the modern era. And your success is evident not only in your high level of education and income, and in the fact that the number of Nobel prizes you’ve garnered, nearly 120, is the highest in the world. Your success is palpable in the fact that you are organised, committed and energetic. You donate more for the benefit of all others — both locally and globally — than any other population group. Your success is manifest in the fact that with more than 3,500 congregations, 150 federations, 350 JCCs, and countless organizations and foundations you have created a unique civic society, based on voluntary values, that can serve as a shining light for every minority group in the world. The fact that you’re here this morning — in these numbers, with such spirit and enthusiasm — is a glorious testament to the energy and vitality of the civilisation you have created and cultivated throughout North America. 
 
As I stand here before you, ladies and gentlemen, addressing this great General Assembly for the first time as Chairman of the Jewish Agency, I ask every one of you not to forget: the Jewish-Israeli marvel and the Jewish-American marvel are deeply entwined. You nourished us ever since we were little more than a helpless newborn, while our success helped you to hold your heads high up and provided you with a meaningful narrative that played a critical role in shaping your identity and building your community. We were, we are, and we shall always be reliant on one another. Our alliance is profound, heroic — and eternal.
 
But I did not come here this morning only to talk about remarkable achievements of the Jewish people. Remember, despite all of the marvels we have achieved in recent generations, we are still a small and vulnerable people — only 14.5 million among the approximately 7.5 billion around the globe. That is why the duty of our current Jewish leadership is to do what Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Weiss did so well— to see reality as it is, look forward to the future, and offer a vision that will lead to the right kind of action. So, please allow me to speak to you now candidly about the difficult issues and the formidable challenges we face — as well as the unique opportunities knocking at our doors.
 
The central challenge facing Israel is how to ensure its long-term existence as a Jewish-democratic state. This challenge has three dimensions: the first is to reach a two-state solution and prevent a one-state disaster. The second is to address the internal strife that has riven the one people of Israel into the famous four tribes. And the third is to define anew an enlightened Zionist identity, that will endow us with both the spirit and the ethos of a thriving open democracy, together with an open, robust, and meaningful Judaism.
 
The central challenge facing North American Jewry is to find the proper balance between our singularity as a people and the universalism that binds us to humanity as a whole. This challenge also has three dimensions. The first is to capture the hearts and minds of a younger generation who feels increasingly alienated and disconnected. The second is to revitalize and direct the Jewish organizations and institutions of North America, in a manner that will befit the values and way of life of the 21st century. The third is to devise a new narrative that will address the great thirst we see everywhere for intellectual and spiritual content —— while preserving the  kinship with the historical and moral Jewish collective.
 
But beyond these two, there is a crucial third challenge with which we must attend to: and that is how to maintain the invaluable link that binds the two pillars of the contemporary Jewish world: The two main communities each having 6 million Jews, on both sides of the ocean which I have termed as Jerusalem and Babylon. How to face the existential threat — yes, existential threat — of the diaspora distancing itself from Israel — and Israel distancing itself from the diaspora.
 
Dear friends, let me speak candidly, even emotionally, from the bottom of my heart: I am worried. I see the demography of the Holy Land and I understand that if Israel does not change course, it will endanger itself. I see the identity crisis of many North American millennials and I understand that if American Jewry does not redefine itself, its phenomenal success story might be jeopardized. I see the growing rift between our communities, and I am shaken to my core. In Israel there are those who shamingly refuse to recognize the the great non-orthodox Judaism of North America. In North America there are those who disavow the centrality of Israel to Jewish life. In Jerusalem there are those who seem to have become indifferent to Babylon, while in Babylon there are those who seem to have become indifferent to Jerusalem. This is wrong! This is not the right way forward. 
 
I’ll be frank: 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. Ironically, in this, the first era in our history, when the external existential threats we face have greatly diminished, we ourselves are endangering our own existence. It is up to each and every one of us sitting in this hall today to look into the eyes of our young ones and ask ourselves where did we go wrong. The obligation we all share is to listen to their pain and their questions and their frustrations and ask ourselves what can we do as early as tomorrow that we did not do today. We must dare to think anew, dare to act differently, and dare to change course.
 
Where there is no vision, the people will perish. And the vision we need today is the vision of New Unity. This new unity cannot be the unity we so often spoke of in the past. We can no longer pretend we are all the same. We are not. We can no longer pretend that there are no major disagreements between us. There are. We cannot tell ourselves we are all angels. We are not. And we cannot tell our children we have no flaws. We do. What we can — and must — do is to create for our people a new ethos of a pluralistic union. To foster a new spirit of a loving critical discourse. Of growing closer all the while recognising and honouring our differences. We must remember and insist that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew — whatever he or she believes in , whatever he or she eats or wears, whatever synagogue he or she attends. Instead of raising walls of confrontation that will further divide us — it is time to build golden bridges that will reconnect us.
 
Vision, by itself, is not enough. We must take action — and we must take it now.
 
Our first act should be to find a common language. When I say common — I mean both literally and figuratively. We have a rare and sacred national treasure — the Hebrew language. The language of the bible and of Israel. In order for us to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another and to debate, discuss and delight one another — we must return to our national treasure. We must enable every young Jewish person in the world to learn Hebrew. Hence, I hereby call upon the State of Israel to honour its historic pledge to take care of the Jewish people in the diaspora by allocating a substantial share of its annual budget to a national enterprise of spreading and teaching Hebrew all over the Jewish world. From here on, it will be every young Jew’s birthright, where ever he or she may live, not only to visit this historic homeland but to learn the language of the Jewish people. Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews, from all streams of Judaism and of affiliated or nonaffiliated Jews. Our beautiful language can serve as a tool for unity. We at the Jewish Agency have had very successful distant learning Ulpans at the FSU countries. We will work together with all of the organizations and programs including the WZO and others  to promote Hebrew worldwide and develope an international Jewish coalition towards realizing this dream.
 
Second, we must launch a new Jewish dialogue. I heard you loud and clear at the Dialogue Den yesterday. In the coming year, I will reach out to all of you to advance hundreds of faction-crossing, stream-crossing and continent-crossing dialogues. Under one common tent, we will work together in every possible way so that  Israelis will learn to appreciate and know the magnificent civilisation of world Jewry, while world Jewry will learn to appreciate the achievements of Zionism and the beauty of Israeliness. Reform and Conservative Jews will learn to cherish Jewish Orthodoxy, while Orthodox Jews will learn to respect the Reform and Conservative. They will all partake in the internal debates of each of them. We shall learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another — and endeavour to resolve our internal divide — through a new Jewish dialogue. All that I ask all of you is not to despair and not to give up!
 Indeed – Let's talk!
 
There are other excellent ideas for additional national projects which we may consider together with you in the future. Some have suggested a Jewish-Peace-Corps that will allow young Jews of the diaspora, alongside young Israelis, to carry out the work of Tikkun Olam in the third world. 
 
Others have suggested inviting tens of thousands of young Jews from the diaspora to take part in the exciting enterprise of the Start-Up nation. And still others have suggested using innovative technology and social networks to create a global online Jewish community.  We will review them and other ideas, in due course, and decide upon them together with you.
 
Dear friends,
We, at the Jewish Agency are proud to be a strategic partner in meeting the challenges and needs of North American Jewry and the federation system. 
On numerous occasions we partner with you, at times with the Government of Israel, with Keren Hayesod and many times with other foundations, private donors and organizations for the common good. 
 
I truly believe that the Jewish agency with its excellent programs and its devoted employees is essential to our common objectives in these trying times. That is why we must stay strong and continue working together. I am grateful to all of you for your support of the Jewish Agency. I intend to hold a frank and open dialogue with you on how to forge our future coalitions and future partnerships and how to steer the Jewish Agency to be as effective as possible towards these objectives.
 
In conclusion – 
my brothers and sisters, as a young boy, living in New York, I had the privilege of studying for three years at Ramaz a Jewish day school in NY. I spent summers at Camp Massad in the Catskills, and Camp Ramah in Massachusetts. As a tzabar who came from Israel I was thrilled to discover the beauty and greatness of your communities. Later in decades of public service I witnessed again and again your spiritual and intellectual wealth all over North America and your love of Israel. That’s why I say to you that your life experience is also intertwined with my life experience. 
 
I am a believer. I believe in the people of Israel, the State of Israel, and the heritage of Israel. We must now confront the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The abilities and resources we have today are much, much greater than those available to our forefathers 70 years ago. That is why I believe that if we cultivate the right vision and forge the right spirit we can overcome any challenge and guarantee our next 70 years — and beyond. My brothers and sisters, today, more than at any other time in our history, everything, and I mean everything, is up to us. Let us vow, here and now, that when we leave this hall and return home, we shall all do everything in our power so that our prosperous present leads to a secure, blessed, and bright common Jewish future.

 

 

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24 Oct 2018 / 15 Heshvan 5779 0