A spat between the Jewish Agency and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry over the two bodies’ respective roles in a planned government Diaspora outreach initiative may “spell doom” for the ambitious project, one American philanthropist said on Sunday.
Known popularly as the World Jewry Joint Initiative and backed by both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the program is intended to finance Jewish identity programs around the world to the tune of billions of dollars over the next two decades in partnership with Diaspora communities and organizations.
At the center of the plan is a new, as yet unnamed non-governmental corporation to be composed of representatives of the philanthropic world, the Israeli government and Diaspora communities who will oversee funding and projects.
While the Jewish Agency has played a central role in the initiative since its announcement last November, Diaspora Affairs Minister director-general Dvir Kahana seemed to seek to minimize its role last week. Writing to heads of Jewish organizations in the United States, Kahana said that “the government through the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs is overseeing the establishment of the Initiative and is currently serving as the convener for the Initiative.”
The Ministry, he continued, was “continuing [its] dialogue with the Agency with the aim of finding the best way for it to fit into a role within the Initiative.”
Given the central role played by the agency over the past several months, chairman Natan Sharansky was quick to respond. Within hours of Kahana’s letter, Sharansky issued a statement explaining that the body’s executive committee, incorporating representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, the World Zionist Organization and other groups, had passed a resolution proposing the first set of pilot programs for the initiative “in accordance with the prime minister’s request.”
The Jewish Agency, he said, was supposed to serve as the convener for Diaspora Jewish organizations involved in the initiative.
Following Sharansky’s intervention, director-general Alan Hoffman, and other senior agency officials wrote to their board, countering that “some of the statements and the spirit in the letter contradict the position of the government of Israel.”
The Diaspora Affairs Ministry asserted that the vote had been taken without coordination, prompting Kahana’s letters. The bureaucratic structure intended for the implementation of the initiative has not yet gotten off the ground.
In an interview with the Times of Israel Sharansky called Kahana “merely a young man who doesn’t understand” and said that his letter constituted “an unprecedented effort to interfere in the Jewish Agency decision-making process.”
According to Sharansky, the current operation in Gaza necessitates an immediate government effort to bolster campus outreach through the pilots voted on by his executive.
“The Jewish Agency for Israel is fully committed to the Government of Israel-World Jewry Joint Initiative championed by the prime minister of Israel, and eagerly awaits the formation of the governing body of the initiative in accordance with the government decision of June 2014,” an agency spokesman told The Jerusalem Post.
Responding to Sharansky in an op-ed in eJewish- Philanthropy on Sunday, Kahana said that creating a new approach to Israeli-Diaspora relations takes time to map out.
While it is “tempting to put this aside and to, instead, take the new government money and dive straight into launching pilot programs,” he wrote, “this would be against the spirit of what the Initiative is supposed to be and would also do a disservice to the Jewish people. For this Initiative to have a chance at succeeding, it needs to be given the chance to evolve into something of a strategic nature. Not just more of the same.”
No new programs can be funded until the governance of the initiative gets off the ground, according to Kahana.
“In recent months, many different organizations have turned to us requesting that the ministry use the new government funds to help scale up their existing programs.
To all, we have said ‘no.’ Not because their programs were not worthy but rather because the Initiative is not about creating another fund. It is about creating a new plan of strategic proportions.”
Government funding for projects is dependent on Diaspora Jewry matching the Israeli outlay by a 2:1 ratio, necessitating a large fund-raising effort. Such an effort may be placed in jeopardy by the current infighting, according to philanthropist Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“Philanthropists are not naive and I don’t believe will be interested in investing large sums in this initiative without the confidence that it has a good chance in succeeding,” Ruderman told the Post.
“Philanthropists are looking for impact, not involvement in an initiative plagued by political infighting. I think the political maneuvering between JAFI and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs spells doom for this initiative. News of the political dispute surrounding the initiative will drive away any philanthropists who were seriously considering investing in it.”
“I don’t know why any serious philanthropic investor would choose to invest in an initiative built by people who don’t trust each other,” he added.
Professor Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College, an expert involved in the initial stages of the initiative said that although the issue was “only of concern to very informed elites right now,” that may change.
“American Jews in general, and philanthropists in particular, tend to dislike conflict especially conflict that seems based around bureaucratic infighting,” he said.
Sharansky may feel that he has to move on pushing pilot projects, one member of the agency’s Board of Governors said on condition of anonymity.
The Jewish Agency will have a smaller operating budget in 2015 than in 2014, “everyone is banking on this additional money and rushing to spend it before they have it and maybe that is pushing people to do things ahead of the process,” he explained, adding that the Jewish Agency may feel beholden to the needs of the Jewish Federations and other bodies interested in obtaining government funds.
The government and the Jewish Agency are “clearly not working in sync,” he said. “If you are a Jewish philanthropist that was not yet invested in this process then the whole unedifying public spat is just going to push you further away.
Right now its a pissing match between Sharansky and [Diaspora Minister Naftali] Bennett and the people who will lose out are the Jewish people.”