Analysis: Pity the poor new Diaspora Affairs minister

Yuli Edelstein may be taking on the least-desirable political position.

March 27, 2009 00:18
3 minute read.
Analysis: Pity the poor new Diaspora Affairs minister

Yuli Edelstein 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])

Finally, Israel is likely to have a government next week. Those involved in the coalition negotiations are forbidden from speaking publicly on probable cabinet appointments until they are officially announced in a few days. Fortunately for us journalists, this is Israel and the leaks are plentiful. Thus, The Jerusalem Post has learned from more than one political source the likely identity of Israel's next minister to deal with the Diaspora: Likud MK Yuli Edelstein. When - if - he enters the post next week, Edelstein will be taking on what may be the least-desirable position in the country's political hierarchy. As it stands today, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry is an empty title used as a consolation prize for disappointed junior politicians. It's not because Israeli politicians think the Diaspora is unimportant - many do, but that's not why the job is so unloved. Rather, it's because the "ministry" is nothing more than a small post in the Prime Minister's Office with a total annual budget under NIS 3 million, which is roughly equivalent in government budgetary terms to zero. It does not even have its own staff. Even the ministry's official name shows it is little more than a hodgepodge of whatever government bureaucrats associate with "Jewish issues" that somebody, somewhere should be dealing with. The name: The Ministry for Society, Diaspora Affairs and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism - a mouthful for what may be the smallest job in government. The reason for this is that the various duties in government that interact intimately with the Diaspora are scattered among a large number of agencies that attach to them varying degrees of importance. Holocaust restitution, commemoration and survivor welfare issues are handled by the Pensioners Affairs Ministry. Anti-Semitism, inasmuch as it exists at all as an issue in government, is the purview of a small department in the Foreign Ministry. Encouraging and absorbing aliya is, of course, handled in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and partially funded by the Prime Minister's Office. Educating Israelis about their brethren abroad is a duty that the Education Ministry has so far managed to completely avoid. Similarly, none of the constellation of governmental or private agencies dealing with Diaspora communities - whether the aliya-focused Jewish Agency, Nativ, Nefesh B'Nefesh or Ami, or research institutes such as the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute or those that study anti-Semitism - has any noticeable dealings with the ministry that supposedly coordinates their activities. Senior government officials such as the prime minister or the head of the opposition have their own advisers on Diaspora affairs who coordinate their relationships with Diaspora donors and communities. The Diaspora affairs minister is not even considered - and does not consider himself - part of the debate in Israeli society over questions that lie at the heart of Israel's relationship with the wider Jewish people, such as Jewish identity, conversion and religion-and-state. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is left with a minor role coordinating the activities of government bureaucrats and politicians who don't want or need coordination. And lacking a forum or political post charged with handling questions of Diaspora policy, Israel finds itself without any consistent, comprehensive policy. This is a shame. Israel is a country that enjoys the most organized and committed Diaspora among all the world's nation-states. The Indian and Russian governments, among others, are examining Israel's relationship to its Diaspora as a model for policy aimed at their own far-flung diasporas. In an age of unprecedented worldwide migration, diasporas are becoming an important part of international affairs. They are a source of investment, tourism, influence and support, and no one does it better than the Jews. But while India is looking to organize its prosperous and educated diaspora, Israel barely realizes, in institutional terms, that it has one. If Edelstein gets the job, it will likely include other sweeteners to soften the blow, such as the position of minister responsible for Knesset-government coordination, and perhaps responsibility for some government agency or another. Instead, he should demand that the Diaspora Ministry's size and responsibilities reflect the immense importance of the Jewish Diaspora to Israel's economic, strategic and cultural strength. The ministry should become the state's representative in the myriad connections the country maintains with the most self-aware and devoted Diaspora in the world, and bring order and purpose to that bond. A minister who takes the job seriously could find himself at the axis of one of history's most dramatic relationships.

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