Anger at Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein simmered during the Jewish Agency’s triannual Board of Governors meeting in Ashkelon on Monday, with members of the governing body expressing outrage over the conflict brewing between the agency and Eckstein’s charitable organization the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi, agency board member and IFCJ founder, has been a major donor to the organization, but recently he said he intends to withdraw his funding in order to create his own aliya apparatus.
Framing the split as a response to Christian donors wishing to see their contributions used to bring poor and oppressed Jews to Israel, as opposed to the agency’s focus on Jewish identity, especially in North America, Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post that allegations that the split was motivated by egotistical concerns are incorrect and that he is concerned with obtaining adequate public acknowledgment of the role that Christian donors play in supporting the Jewish people.
On Sunday Haaretz reported that the IFCJ had presented the agency with a list of 22 conditions for continuing financial support, mostly revolving around adding the organization’s branding alongside that of the agency at events and promoting the role of the IFCJ in agency activities.
According to Eckstein, his negotiators did not demand that all their specific requests be conceded; rather, the requests are suggestions for potential methods of promoting the contributions of his donors.
While the agency budget has continued to shrink, IFCJ’s coffers have expanded due to the growing support of Israel among American Evangelicals.
Among the IFCJ’s recommendations is the screening of a film featuring Eckstein, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on aliya flights sponsored by the IFCJ.
Attendees of the meeting who agreed to speak with the Post declined to be quoted or to go on the record but were critical of Eckstein for voting for the agency’s strategic restructuring and later criticizing it.
The series of negative comments highlighted rising tensions with, and resentment of, Eckstein, who still sits on the board and was sighted in the hotel in which the meeting took place, although he does not seem to have taken part.
Eckstein, one member stated, does not play well with others.
He was also described as seeking honors and recognition.
Speaking with the Post earlier this month, Eckstein said he sees the agency’s strategic shift as coming at the expense of aliya, and the agency is “going through a difficult period” due to shrinking contributions from the Jewish Federation system.
In a subsequent interview this week, Eckstein explained that his support for the agency’s new direction is genuine, and that servicing his donors rather than any personal issues are the ultimate cause of the split.
“I don’t have my name on anything,” he said, stating that he “wanted to stand up for” his Christian supporters.
The agency has been uncooperative and difficult, he asserted.
“We waited for two months and they didn’t get back to us, and finally we asked what’s going on, and they said their leadership would not agree with that... Our response was to say, ‘Well, tell us where the problem lies,’ because those were suggested things. If they have a problem with [one], okay so we don’t do [that one]… But they never got back to us on that.”
Despite the resentment by many within the agency, however, Eli Cohen, the agency’s former head of aliya recruited by Eckstein to run the IFCJ’s new aliya initiative, believes that there is no irreparable rift.
“The whole intention is cooperation,” Cohen, echoing Eckstein, said several weeks ago.
Speaking to the Post on Tuesday, Eckstein lashed out at what he described as a small group of agency staffers who he said had leaked the list to Haaretz in an attempt to present it as though “this is all a problem of Yechiel Eckstein and his ego and wanting the attention.”
Most members of the board of governors, he asserted, have no problem with him and his organization.
His aim, he reiterated, is to increase aliya as the agency puts less money into that field.
Despite the large amounts given to various organizations over the years, Eckstein said, his name does not appear on any buildings and the list of recommendations was intended only to “honor our donors.”
“If you take a look at the items developed by the staff, not one of them is related to Yechiel Eckstein aggrandizement,” he continued, saying that he did not intend to get “bogged down by this kind of petty stuff.”
“What kind of organization” waits two months to respond to a list of ideas from donors and refuses to clarify their objections after panning it and being asked for an explanation? he asked.
“It’s very clear they don’t value the relationship; all they care about is our giving them money,” he stated, accusing the agency of not having the “foggiest idea” about donor relations.
Groups like JDC and Chabad which also receive IFCJ money, he said, have not entered into any fights with him.