“The goal we have set for ourselves is to bring to challenges of the Diaspora to the government,” says Diaspora Affairs Ministry director-general Dvir Kahana.
Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post in his ministry’s small office suite in the technology park across the road from the capital’s Malha Mall, Kahana said he believes that the government must assume responsibility for communities abroad, because Israel is the “center of Jewish life.”
“It is our job to connect the Diaspora to Israel,” he said, adding that his office is “thinking a lot about Israelis and their relationship with the Diaspora,” and the concept of mutual responsibility.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu transferred responsibility for Jerusalem affairs from the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to his own office – meaning that for the first time there was a functioning government ministry dealing solely with the Diaspora.
“This has absolutely had an impact” on the ministry’s work, Kahana said, explaining that the ministry is now looking to involve itself in educational issues; Education Minister Naftali Bennett is Kahana’s boss.
“The education system, both formal and informal, is very narrow [in focus],” he said, noting that there is a dearth of pedagogic material on the Diaspora beyond issues relating to anti-Semitism, immigration and Zionism. “Israel has a very significant mission” to fulfill.
Echoing previous statements by Bennett, he repudiated the old Zionist concept of the “negation of the Diaspora.” Calling such an approach neo-Zionist, he said that the next generation of Israelis will face the challenge of building bridges with their co-religionists abroad and forging a sense of peoplehood that is often lacking here.
“This is also critical for Israelis,” Kahana continued, stating that the ministry is looking into creating educational content for the school system, youth groups and the IDF to further this goal. The ministry would look into using the mass media in this cause and would begin bringing “VIP opinion leaders” on Diaspora tours, he said.
In late 2013, Bennett and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky announced the formation of a government-Jewish Agency- Diaspora program to be called the World Jewry Joint Initiative in which Jerusalem, matched by donor money from abroad, would fund Jewish identity programs in the Diaspora. As part of that initiative, Kahana told the Post, he is exploring the possibility of sponsoring Jewish camps abroad in order to triple the number of children attending Jewish summer camps.
However, the Jewish Agency recently pulled out of the initiative.
It has been trading shots with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry for over a year, each accusing the other of trying to take over.
“Any and all meaningful dialogue with the organized Jewish community, as represented by the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been eliminated. Rather, this undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework for programs to be conducted by a single government ministry,” Sharansky recently alleged, referring to increasing control of the government undertaking by the Kahana and Bennett.
While initially a committee made up of the directors-general of several ministries and chaired by the prime minister was going to oversee and determine government policy toward the new body, the role of the Prime Minister’s Office was diminished by the coalition agreement between Bayit Yehudi and the Likud, pushing the Jewish Agency further out of the core of the project.
The ministry subsequently announced that it had convened the first meeting of the initiative’s steering committee “after successfully completing the internal bureaucratic government approval process.” In response, a senior Jewish Agency official blasted the decision in an email to the Post.
“The joint initiative was meant to constitute a full and equal partnership between the Government of Israel and the Jewish world as represented by the Jewish Agency and by the Jewish communal institutions in each country. This bears no resemblance to that original vision. By sidelining not only the organized Jewish world, but even the Prime Minister’s Office, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry has drained the initiative of its original purpose, transforming it into a funding mechanism for projects deemed kosher by the ministry’s senior people. This is not a partnership, it’s a fiefdom, and we will have no part of it,” the official wrote.
Asked about the acrimony surrounding the initiative, Kahana said that he “really admires Sharansky,” calling him “a Jewish hero” and praising the Jewish Agency’s work.
The fight between them, which at one point descended into name calling in the media, was over a “professional disagreement and was nothing personal,” Kahana said, explaining that while the agency could be a partner it could not be the leader.
The Jewish Agency would not be able to fully convene all of the disparate philanthropic, communal, religious and organizational interests who would be involved in the project, he asserted.
“Unfortunately, they can’t be the convener that will bring to the table all of the Jewish world and independent philanthropy” because their role in running projects could be a “conflict of interest,” Kahana said. “We wanted a small professional body.”
The next step, aside from formulating programming, is the creation of an overarching digital infrastructure in which the details of all of the clients using Jewish services from organizations participating in the initiative would be gathered. He indicated that the use of so-called big data would have a revolutionary impact on Jewish community organizing.
Such an undertaking would allow for organizations to offer continuing services to Diaspora Jews, and allow for groups with innovative services and no client base to connect with those with interest in their wares.
Anticipating worries over the government’s access to the information belonging to large numbers of Diaspora Jews, Kahana said that the data would not be owned by the government, but by the independent corporation running the initiative and that the “Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) will not be checking it.”
“We will also be focusing on Russian speakers,” as there is a “great importance” to giving them a “community system,” he said.