Israel may establish a new body to encourage Jewish immigration from the Diaspora that will operate alongside the Jewish Agency, according to a report in the Hebrew press.
According to Yediot Aharonot, the government is working on an “emergency plan” to coax European Jews to come here in light of rising anti-Semitism on the continent.
Families escaping “high-risk areas,” Yediot reported, would be eligible for a NIS 15,000 grant and vocational aid, a reference to Jews fleeing the brewing civil war in eastern Ukraine. Jewish residents of Donetsk, the center of the insurgency, recently told The Jerusalem Post that while they are not fearful of anti-Semitism, rising violence and communal insolvency pose a significant threat.
The new government body, with a budgetary allocation of NIS 100 million, will of necessity be a non-government company, as many countries prohibit foreign governments from making direct pleas to their citizens to emigrate. The Jewish Agency has traditionally held this role since before the establishment of the state and would seemingly be sidelined to a degree by the as yet unnamed corporation.
However, while the Jewish Agency would still maintain representation within the new body, alongside the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the World Zionist Organization, its monopoly over immigration may no longer be intact.
Several sources familiar with the matter who spoke with the Post affirmed the accuracy of the Yediot report, which they said cited a draft document that is expected to be brought before the cabinet shortly.
Last Sunday, the cabinet approved the government’s World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program backed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, which intends to finance Jewish identity programs around the world to the tune of billions of dollars over the next two decades.
The agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, has lauded the program as the government’s acceptance of the Jewish identity agenda that he has pushed since unveiling his new strategic plan for the body in 2009. Like with the new aliya organization, the Jewish Agency will be represented within the leadership of the World Jewry Joint Initiative.
The formation of these independent bodies with significant budgets serve to create powerful outside channels for reaching Diaspora Jewry, and it is unclear how this development will affect the agency’s long-term operations.
During its 2009 overhaul, the Jewish Agency closed down the Aliya Department, consolidating its functions together with other shuttered bureaus.
One insider with knowledge of Israel’s immigration policy pointed to the new government initiative as the result of an ongoing feud between Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Sharansky, both of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and who have represented that sector on the national stage.
The establishment of this new body is a “major victory” for Liberman over Sharansky, the source said, calling the news a “bombshell.”
Last year, Dmitry Aparzev, then director- general of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, made waves when he gave an interview in Ma’ariv calling for the Jewish Agency to “return the keys” of aliya, an attack later repudiated by Immigration Minister Sofa Landver, a member of Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu.
Several weeks ago the Foreign Ministry criticized the agency for allegedly leaking plans for a mass evacuation of Jews from Ukraine.
Earlier this year, Liberman expressed his intent to enter into the aliya game, telling leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Israel should sink hundreds of millions of dollars into establishing an international network of Jewish schools.
In addition, Liberman said he had a goal of bringing 3.5 million Jews from the Diaspora on aliya in the next decade to boost the Jewish population here to more than 10 million.
Veteran Jewish Agency watcher Dan Brown, the editor of the eJewishPhilanthropy website, wrote that internal Israeli politics, including the upcoming election for a new president, are deeply involved in this decision.
“Several months back, the Yisrael Beytenu- controlled Ministry of Absorption was rebranded as the Ministry of Aliya and Absorption, with no meaningful pushback from the [Jewish] Agency. Also, as many of our readers know, during the last several years the agency’s very public-focus has been on identity, with aliya taking a significantly less-visible role.
“With this new initiative currently focused on Ukraine, this new company is a clear win not only for the ministry but for the foreign minister’s Yisrael Beytenu party. One can only speculate why the prime minister has allowed this to move forward.”
While Israeli news outlets have portrayed the initiative as a threat to the Jewish Agency’s traditional role, JAFI and the Absorption Ministry touted their “Joint Effort” to “promote aliyah” in a joint statement issued late Sunday evening.
According to the release, the Joint Operation for Aliyah Promotion will run until the end of 2015 and will spearheaded by both groups, which are the “central bodies tasked with responsibility for Aliyah and immigrant absorption.”
“It is significant that The Jewish Agency's efforts will be receiving increased support from the Government of Israel,” Sharansky said. “The dramatic increase in Aliyah from France demonstrates that the partnership between The Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption can produce real results, and we look forward to further enhancing our cooperation by partnering with the National Institutions to significantly increase the resources dedicated to Aliyah promotion and immigrant absorption.”
Landver was likewise enthusiastic in her public statements, saying that “This is a special partnership that underscores the centrality of Aliyah promotion to the agenda of the ministry and the National Institutions, and we welcome it wholeheartedly."