After thanking the organizational leaders of American Jewry for their contributions to Israel over the years, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Tuesday it was time for Israel to open up its pocketbook to help keep Diaspora Jews from assimilating into oblivion.
“The annual budget of the State of Israel stands at over $100 billion,” Liberman told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations annual Israel mission in the capital. “I believe that the Israeli government should contribute $1 million for every day in the calendar year, making a total of $365m.”
In a speech focused on Jewish continuity, Liberman defied expectations that he would use the address – in English and open to the press – to discuss the Palestinian negotiations and further burnish his image as a national leader who is moderating his positions.
Saying Jewish education was the most pressing issue on the global Jewish agenda – more so than Iran or the negotiations with the PLO – he said the Diaspora should match Israeli government funds to create a global network of affordable Jewish schools that would teach Jewish history, values, traditions, Israel and Zionism.
Quoting the recent Pew Research Center survey’s findings, including an American intermarriage rate that has reached 58 percent, Liberman said, “These statistics demonstrate that the Jews of America are facing nothing less than a demographic catastrophe.”
It was time for Diaspora leadership to “concentrate on the challenges facing your own communities, especially those emanating from the dangerous trends in the Jewish community demonstrated in the recent survey,” he said.
Liberman said education was the antidote to rising assimilation, intermarriage and disengagement from the Jewish community.
He recounted that on a recent trip to New York, he had met a Russian Jewish family in Brooklyn who said they were not sending their three kids to Jewish schools, because to do so would cost $100,000 a year. That situation, Liberman said, is replicated in Jewish communities across the globe.
“If this situation persists, we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two,” he warned.
“Jewish children are being kept from the Jewish classrooms because of the exorbitant and prohibitive costs of Jewish education in the US,” he went on. “It cannot be, it should not be, that a Jewish child will not be able to receive a good Jewish education because of financial reasons. This should be unacceptable to all of us who care for the Jewish future.”
The foreign minister said this project “needs to be the central point of partnership between us,” and that the budget would be found: “It is just a matter of prioritizing Jewish education above all other issues.”
In addition to creating an international network of Jewish schools, 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.
“Education and aliya have to become the most important goals of the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora,” he said, receiving a standing ovation for his comments.
His proposal comes weeks before the cabinet is expected to approve a budget for the government’s World Jewry Joint Initiative, a joint project of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency.
Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett told The Jerusalem Post last week that the initiative would allocate NIS 1b. annually for programming intended to strengthen the identity of Diaspora Jews.
According to a source familiar with the matter, about half of the money Israel will distribute under the government initiative will come from the budgets of programs such as Taglit-Birthright and Masa, which will be considered part of the undertaking.
According to the government plan, every shekel coming from Israel for the project must be matched by two from the Diaspora.
As such, Diaspora Jews will be expected to provide NIS 2b. annually, or roughly $570m.
“[Liberman’s proposal] would be a part of the World Jewry Joint Initiative,” a spokesman for the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry told the Post following Liberman’s announcement. “The idea of $1m. a day, or $365m. a year, rounds out to about NIS 1b. a year.”
However, a source within Liberman’s office denied a connection between the two projects. Telling the Post that while they could conceivably be merged or connected in the future, the source indicated that Liberman had announced his proposal without coordination with the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry.
However, the source added, if Liberman’s proposed school network is going to be a government-backed project, it will need support of the entire cabinet.
The Jewish Federations of North America was quick to express support for the Liberman plan.
JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman, who called last year for his constituents to begin work on subsidizing a nationwide free preschool program, said that while the federations had already committed themselves to participating in the World Jewry Joint Initiative, they “look forward to explore, with the foreign minister, further ideas to enhance Diaspora Jewish education in partnership with the State of Israel.”
Silverman said “the grand task of maintaining a vibrant Jewish people around the world must be jointly shouldered by both the Israeli government and global Jewish communities.”
A Jewish Agency spokesman told the Post in response to Liberman’s speech that “the Jewish Agency views aliya and Jewish identity as being closely intertwined, and strengthening both lies at the very core of our work. We welcome any initiative to strengthen aliya and Jewish identity around the world and are pleased to see that these issues are being discussed at the highest levels of the Israeli government.”
The agency has been downplaying aliya in favor of Jewish identity programming in recent years.
Despite the warm reception that the government initiative and the Liberman plan have received, there is doubt in some quarters regarding the Diaspora’s ability to raise the money necessary to match Israel’s commitment, especially if it has to raise money for both initiatives.
“I think the federations are tapped out right now,” Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman told the Post.
“There are a myriad of needs within the Jewish communities in the Diaspora... and around the globe, and federations work very hard to raise the money to meet those basic needs.”
Senior federation figures have previously told the Post that giving programs the government’s stamp of approval will enable them to up their fund-raising significantly.
According to Ruderman, there is money that is “potentially available” from world Jewry, but the government would have been better off approaching Jewish philanthropists during the beginning stages of formulating its initiative, instead of coming and trying to “sell something to them that is already a project in the works.
“The main thing about developing a partnership is to establish trust, and trust is established by partners who sit down and are fully vested in the development of a project. It seems like what is happening here is that they are attempting to engage the entire Jewish community in developing a project, and then they are going to sell it,” he said.
The government is sponsoring an online jam session to give interested parties a chance to comment on proposed projects generated by working groups consisting of government officials and Jewish communal figures.
Ruderman said, however, that it was “great” that Israel intended to “invest serious shekels in the relationship with the Diaspora,” and he called both the Liberman plan and the World Jewry Joint Initiative “vital to the future of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Jewish educational activist and solar power magnate Yosef Abramowitz told the Post, “It’s definitely a revolutionary idea that Israel can partner with world Jewry to foster Jewish education and identity around the world. The notion, however, of taking money out of the Israeli government’s limited budget is going to be politically very tricky.”
Abramowitz, who recently held an online symposium with leading Jewish Agency and federation figures on the topic of Israeli funding for Jewish education abroad, recommended that the government instead leverage its high credit rating to “make nearly zero-interest loans available for Jewish education, for building of schools and for student loans.”
Israel could also underwrite Jewish education by providing investment opportunities in infrastructure projects for Jewish endowment funds, he said.