Several senior American Jewish leaders castigated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over Israel’s immigration policy on Monday, writing that the government’s plans for a new body to promote European aliya “will have dire consequences.”
The cabinet is slated to approve the establishment of a new private corporation dealing with bringing as many European Jews to Israel as possible, especially those living in conflict zones such as Eastern Ukraine. It will offer financial inducements, including a NIS 15,000 grant and vocational aid, for those leaving such high-risk areas.
The body will be overseen by a steering committee led by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and, according to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, will be a “wholly owned subsidiary company of the national institutions,” a reference to Keren Hayesod, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency (JAFI) and the World Zionist Organization.
The JNF denied statements from the Ministry of Aliya and Absorption, and the Jewish Agency that it had offered one hundred million shekels to fund the initiative.
There has been speculation in the press that internal Israeli politics, including Tuesday’s Presidential election, were deeply involved in this decision, which seemingly ends JAFI’s exclusive role in promoting aliya on the continent.
Writing on his website eJewishPhilanthropy.com, veteran agency watcher Dan Brown noted that “this new company is a clear win not only for the [immigrant absorption] ministry but for the foreign minister’s [Avigdor Liberman] Yisrael Beytenu party” over Sharansky.
The senior leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America wrote to Netanyahu and expressed their disappointment with the new plan, alleging that it puts current efforts to raise money for aliya at risk.
“Aliya is a central part of our fundraising mission in support of Israel and the Jewish Agency. It is a cornerstone of the Diaspora- Israel relationship and the efforts of building global Jewish identity with Israel at its center,” wrote JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman and United Israel Appeal chair Richard Bernstein, along with other senior figures within the national organization.
According to the Federations, its “efforts to support Israel, the Jewish Agency in particular and the programs of aliya are in jeopardy if the agreement with your Ministry of Aliya and Absorption, and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael comes to pass.”
Since the story came to light, many local Federations have contacted them, asking why they should continue financially supporting the Jewish Agency, they said.
The agency, “must continue to be the exclusive body to deal with aliya” and any changes to that status “will have dire consequences for our collective efforts to support our work,” they added.
In a letter to members of the agency’s board of governors this week, Sharansky stated that the new plan “will not affect any of our current aliya responsibilities or the government’s relationship with us, as responsible for aliya worldwide.”
Several American Jewish leaders who spoke with The Jerusalem Post said that not only did they agree with Silverman’s statement but that they were troubled by the lack of coordination with community leaders in the Diaspora.
“We hope that the Government of Israel will reflect on our decades of commitment and hundreds of millions of dollars of support and not make any unnecessary changes in this essential partnership,” Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Federation President Jay Sanderson told the Post.
Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago Steven Nasatir agreed, stating that his Federation was of the opinion that “the proposed new relationship with the Ministry of Aliya and Karen Kayemet L’Yisrael is a bad idea on many levels.”
Going even further than his colleagues, Barry Shrage of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, said that it was “not clear” what the new program was about and that details were hazy.
“Why are we doing this? What’s it for? What is the hidden agenda here on somebody’s part?” he asked. “There has got to be a story here but we are not party to the story. [There are] issues plaguing some of these organizations and all of a sudden they have a new role. You [have] got to believe that there is some kind of government, inter-party politics going on here.”
Shrage, who said that he is optimistic regarding the future of the Jewish Agency, added that “confusion always harms fundraising efforts.”
The lack of coordination with American Jewish leaders is “sort of indicative of the problems that are present in the relationship between Israel and the worldwide Jewish community,” American-Israeli philanthropist Jay Ruderman commented.
“I think it’s a communications problem. Israel goes forward and takes steps without full communication with their partners… I think what happened here is the American Jewish community just sort of saying ‘hey you can’t take us for granted. You can’t switch horses midstream and think we are going to be okay with that.’” Both the Ministry of Aliya and Absorption and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.