“It’s a huge mistake, and even under these difficult circumstances, I won’t give up,” the Jewish Agency leader told the SA Jewish Report in an exclusive interview.
This is Isaac Herzog’s third visit to South Africa, this time to attend the South African Zionist Federation’s conference last month.
Herzog – a soft-spoken, no-nonsense leader – is passionate about the South African-Israeli connection and its long-term importance. However, he is even more dedicated to the longevity of the Jewish people and ensuring we have a solid future.
Formerly the chairman of the Israeli Labour Party, Herzog served as the opposition leader from 2013 until 2018. He served as a member of the Knesset between 2003 and 2018, having held several ministerial posts. He is the son of General Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel, and his grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first chief rabbi of Ireland, and later the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.
Herzog reiterated what many other South African Jewish and Israeli leaders have said about the short-sightedness of the potential downgrade. “This government can contribute hugely toward the advancement of peace in the region if it wants to, but not if it cuts ties,” Herzog said. “I had a long meeting with our Israeli ambassador, Lior Keinan, and exchanged some ideas on what we can do to move forward.”
In his opinion, this community is “hugely impressive”, but it is “being challenged dramatically with an unclear future”. He’s referring to the “strong anti-Israel line from the ANC [African National Congress], which has put a certain cloud over the ability of Jews and Zionists to express themselves in the future, and be able to thrive as Jews”.
Dealing with this, he says, is part of the Jewish Agency’s role. “We do our best to strengthen Jewish communities, and enable each and every Jew to feel free as Jews, and to express their Zionism with no fear or harassment.”
Herzog clarified that South Africa is the world leader of the so-called “new anti-Semitism”, which is classic anti-Semitism intertwined with the delegitimisation of Israel. This problem, he says, stems from within the ANC.
“Its position is due to historical relations with the Palestinian national movement,” Herzog says. “The problem is that it hasn’t acknowledged that the region has changed, and many of those countries that called for our annihilation 50 years ago are now some of our best allies. Meanwhile, it is trying to pursue a whole set of resolutions against Israel worldwide.”
And then you have a situation in which “the average South African is brainwashed by a machine that tells it false lies about Israeli democracy”.
Herzog believes “Israel-hatred” needs to be dealt with on three fronts.
First, “We have made sure Jews are well protected and defended. This is clear from the impressive organisation that deals with this in South Africa.”
Second, he speaks of fighting anti-Semitism in the courts, and trying to get governments around the world to adopt the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) resolution on anti-Semitism.
As for education, “this is complex in a political climate that doesn’t want to hear”, he says. “There are modern day tools we use, like social networks, and we can try and do our best to show the true story of Israel.”
He cites as an example the fact that people aren’t aware that the extreme Muslim Brotherhood movement is represented by a political party, the Ra’am Tal Party, in Israel. “They say whatever they want without limitation, even if it’s the most harsh and difficult things for us to hear, but I take pride in this, as it proves the incredible democracy we have.”
However, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complicated. “What haven’t we tried? We tried peace agreements, unilateral withdrawals, economic packages, and other measures. There is an overwhelming majority in Israel who want peace, but there is a total lack of trust in the Palestinians to deliver,” he says.
“In 2005, Israelis were out there supporting unilateral pull-out from Gaza. We uprooted Jewish settlements in the process. We promised it would be the Hong Kong of Middle East, but instead, we got 10 000 missiles fired at us.
“Israelis are wary of trying this again. We have to find new ideas. A major development between 2005 and today is that there is a strong political coalition of moderate nations with Israel confronting Iran in the region. These nations, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others, once wanted to throw us into the sea, but are now working with us.”
While dealing with Israel-hatred is a major issue for the Jewish Agency, it also focuses on maintaining and strengthening Jewish identity, the future of the Jewish generations, and the centrality of Israel in their lives, says Herzog. “It’s fascinating for me to see the different challenges facing Jews around the world,” he says.
But the biggest issue he faces is the rift between Israel and Jews, and the loss of Jewish people for whatever reason.
“Apart from the well-being of the Jewish world – which fulfils my being and runs in my veins – my aim is to save the Jewish people from the split,” Herzog says. “The historical divide which will enable young Jewish millennials to fade into the horizon, without feeling Jewish or loyal to Israel. This is the negative side of things, but let me tell you the positive side.
Herzog cites a report commissioned by the Israeli government that “counted 60 million human beings around the globe who feel Jewish, and are connected to Judaism”. These people aren’t from reform or conservative movements, but rather tribes in Africa, people in Central America, and northern Brazil. Some are descendants from Marranos in Spain, and others, like a tribe in Uganda, converted to Judaism more than 100 years ago.
“The Jewish community is always interesting and challenging. We have to find ways of building the Jewish people 100 years down the road,” he says. “This is how I’m working to restructure the Jewish Agency, and upgrade its activities to meet future challenges.”
When questioned about the Israeli rabbinate’s views on this, he says, “I do my best to meet the most extreme poles of the Jewish world, and discuss in depth where we are going from here. In close quarters, I find much more common denominators than are spoken of.” In these meetings, it helps that he has a name with historic significance in the Jewish world. “I tell them everybody is our brother and sister. Many have learnt.”
He tells of how Education Minister Rafi Peretz recently sent him a letter of apology after equating intermarriage to a modern holocaust. After a heart-to-heart discussion, Herzog said, “He apologised for his comments, announcing he loves and respects all brothers and sisters in the Jewish world.” Though Herzog understands Peretz’s worry about losing Jewish people through intermarriage, he says there are some things best left unsaid.
And so, he continues to try to smooth the path for the Jewish world going forward.