Can Jewish Agency head Doron Almog handle the Kotel crisis?

Written by on July 16, 2022

Doron Almog has taken over as the Jewish Agency’s chairman at a time fraught with tension between non-Orthodox Jewish leadership in the US and the Israeli religious establishment.

The latest touchpoint occurred this past Rosh Hodesh at the egalitarian prayer section of the Western Wall – “Ezrat Yisrael” – where haredi youth were physically violent toward Reform and Conservative Jews at a bar mitzvah service.

One of the haredi youths blew his nose on a page torn from a Conservative siddur seconds before the clash.

The incident led to an onslaught of condemnations by many organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America and United Israel Appeal.

Leaders of the JFNA, UIA, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the agency sent a letter to Prime Minister Yair Lapid asking him to respond and “accept responsibility” for the violence at the Wall.

(R-L) Maj. Gen. (ret.) Doron Almog and Mark Wilf. (credit: OLIVIA FITOUSI/JAFI)

“At this uniquely important and special day for the young boy, surrounded by his friends and family who had traveled from the United States to the most holy site for the Jewish people, his bar mitzvah celebration was viciously attacked by protesters who apparently object to the manner of prayer at the site,” said the letter. “The determined young man bravely attempted to continue with his bar mitzvah while protesters screamed curses at him, including ‘christian’ and ‘Nazi,’ and even tore up siddurim.”

Heads of the Conservative and Reform movements also sent a letter to Lapid to bitterly complain about ongoing violence and disruption of egalitarian prayer at the Wall.

As The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this week, senior officials of American Jewish organizations have even gone so far as to express their willingness to deploy security guards at Ezrat Israel.

In one of his first moves, Almog led a board of governors meeting this week that voted for a resolution on Tuesday that stated: “The Jewish Agency will promptly develop, approve and implement a detailed work plan for the abovementioned actions.”

Among other things, they have seen the need to call upon the “Jewish Agency’s appropriate committees and professionals to promptly report to the board of governors on the actions that can be taken to ensure that all Jews are welcomed to Ezrat Yisrael, as they are all members of the Jewish people’s family.”

In addition, it was stated that the board of governors “endorses the vision of the newly elected executive chair Doron Almog, and the newly elected chair of the board of governors, Mark Wilf, to strive for the right of every Jew to pray at Ezrat Yisrael according to his/her belief, as part of their vision to advance love and fellowship among the Jewish people family.”

THE 71-YEAR-old Almog has many challenges ahead of him, while trying to be, as his predecessor, Isaac Herzog was, “prime minister of Diaspora Jewry.”

The first obstacle he will need to overcome is that even though he is very well known in Israel, nobody ever heard of him in the Diaspora, especially in the US, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. The American Jewish community needs to be on Almog’s radar not only because of its size, but also because representatives of this community are running the agency’s board, and the JFNA is the agency’s largest donor.

Almog is the founder and chairman of ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village (formerly ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran), which provides residential, medical and social services to the disabled. He previously served in the IDF as OC Southern Command, and was in charge of securing the border with the Gaza Strip.

In his first speech after being approved by the agency’s board, Almog mentioned on Sunday that he was “the first soldier to land in Entebbe, where we rescued 105 hostages in Operation Entebbe.”

For many Diaspora Jews, Almog’s personal story can be fascinating and can connect them to Israel. For years he worked in the field of tikkun olam, a topic that is popular and important for many young progressive Diaspora Jews. For the older millennials and the older generations, participating in Operation Entebbe is considered heroic and exciting, but the younger generation doesn’t know as much about this operation, if they even heard of it. For tens of years, agency emissaries would love showing the Raid on Entebbe film that was filmed in 1977 and portrayed as one of Israel’s most successful military operations overseas. This may not be enough for the younger generations of Diaspora Jewry.

From the second that Almog was elected a few weeks ago, he’s been on a metaphoric marathon, trying to learn as much as he can about the national institutions and about the Jewish world. Up until a few weeks ago, Almog never really had the chance to get to know Jewish communities abroad, and the agency wasn’t on his radar.

His view of American Jewry was pretty much related to successfully fundraising in the US for ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village and connections with JNF-USA.

Many heads of Jewish organizations said that they were impressed by the fact that Almog, even though he hasn’t officially begun his role (he will become chairman at the end of August), has been running from meeting to meeting, with a notebook and a pencil, trying to learn as much as possible.

Even though his English is much less impressive than Herzog’s or even Natan Sharansky’s, who served as chairman beforehand, Almog is lucky that he has a magical personality and charm that affects anyone who has ever met him.

No background in Diaspora relations

He is probably the first chairman in many years who had no background at all in Diaspora relations and no understanding of the national institutions. Herzog had a basic understanding, but because he was very close to becoming an Israeli prime minister, is from a well-known family and is a people person and a politician, this quickly enabled him to run the organization. Sharansky, too, had a very deep understanding of Diaspora Jewry and of the institutions. As a minister in different Israeli governments, he was in touch with these organizations.

What Almog can do, a bit different from Sharansky but similar to Herzog, is to try to influence Israelis to learn and care more about Diaspora Jews. He isn’t a new oleh or a former politician, but someone whom almost any Israeli can identify with, and most Israelis also appreciate him.

Another issue that Almog had a small taste of was the issue of the Western Wall compromise that has been stuck for five years since the government approved and then canceled it.

Yet it would be a mistake for Almog to now make the issue of the Wall one of the main agendas promoted while he’s chairman. Many of the Reform and Conservative leaders are trying to utilize this issue of security and revive the focus on the compromise, which basically determined a more substantial egalitarian prayer section and one entrance for all of the prayer sections at the Wall.

It would be a mistake since both Israel and Diaspora Jews aren’t interested in promoting this deal or even know that it was once on the table.

In addition, five years after this compromise was canceled, there are shifts in the national institutions which have made it more difficult to promote issues that are important only for the progressive side of the map. The board of governors probably has more Orthodox Jews than ever before representing Diaspora Jewry. Heads of organizations like the Orthodox Union and Eretz Hakodesh, the American haredi slate in the World Zionist Congress, weren’t members of the board five years ago. Chabad also has a representative. The WZO has two departments whose heads are representatives of haredi political parties in Israel and the US.

Moreover, the Israeli political system will probably be a lot more right-wing and conservative in the next government, and there are very slim chances of this deal actually becoming a reality.
That said, Almog cannot ignore the recent violence that occurred at the Kotel. Until now, he has done a good job at supporting and spearheading the campaign of Jewish organizations for security in Ezrat Yisrael, but he needs to remember that security is one thing and implementing the original Western Wall compromise is another.

He needs to strengthen the agency and strengthen certain aspects that have been a bit neglected. There used to be many aliyah emissaries around the world, but now they barely exist. In past years, the agency reduced the number of its employees and emissaries. Every emissary is supposed to also deal with aliyah, and what we see nowadays is that there aren’t enough people promoting aliyah in Jewish communities.

The agency has performed in a beautiful and effective way during the Russian-Ukrainian war, and this just strengthens the assumption that it needs to return to promoting aliyah in a more aggressive and broad way.

In his speech this week, Almog stated that he will work with the agency’s employees and partner organizations to “increase aliyah and absorption, to build stronger connections with world Jewry and to reinforce the weaker sections in Israeli society.”

It seems that these will be the three pillars that Almog expects to promote as chairman, but in order for this to happen he still needs to learn a lot more and try to truly connect with millions of Jews outside of Israel.

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