One on One: Olmert's Diaspora matchmaker

PM's Diaspora affairs adviser praises Jewish groups' Israel support but laments their 'lack of synergy'.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
February 14, 2007 21:52
One on One: Olmert's Diaspora matchmaker

risby 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Anyone unfamiliar with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's popularity nosedive since the war in Lebanon last summer would think things were pretty hunky-dory in the Land of Milk and Honey after chatting with the cheerful and personable Rachael Risby-Raz, Olmert's Diaspora affairs adviser. It is not that the 32-year-old married mother-of-two - a convert to Judaism who officially made aliya from Australia in 2001 - is unaware of the criticism cast at her boss, both from within the confines of the country and from without. But her faith in the man for whom she has worked since the last stretch of his second term as Jerusalem mayor is as steadfast as ever. As is her personal admiration for him. "Anyone who's ever worked for him would die for the man," she says with utter conviction. But the purpose of our hour-long interview is not - as she makes clear at the outset - to talk about politics. Or at least not those involving internecine strife, electoral or otherwise. It is, rather, to discuss the role the Diaspora plays in Israeli affairs, and the role Risby-Raz plays in Diaspora affairs. "When we say 'the Diaspora,' we're really referring to America," Risby-Raz admits. "If you look at the map, you can see why." Risby-Raz - who has a BA and master's degree in Jewish history from the University of Melbourne, a BA in theology in Hebrew Bible studies from Whitney College (also in Melbourne) and a master's in religious affairs and politics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem - likens herself to a matchmaker, a function born of what she sees as a "sad lack of synergy among the [different Jewish] organizations." "A lot of people are doing the same things, and aren't necessarily in partnerships where they should be. This isn't in Israel's best interest," she says, asserting that the Israel-Diaspora connection is not one based on money alone. Though it is true, she acknowledges, that a large part of the relationship involves funding and fund-raising, "the whole donor thing has really matured over the last decade or so, in the sense that the donors are demanding a lot more feedback. They're not just sending money, but becoming involved in what that money is doing. It's much more of a partnership. A dialogue. It affects both the people here who are receiving the money and those over there who are giving it." Furthermore, she says, she "used to feel bad about how one-sided the relationship with the Diaspora was, [with] all the money coming into Israel from abroad," until someone pointed out to her that "we are the Diaspora's insurance policy. We're the ones who are safeguarding the land of Israel and the heritage of the Jewish people. We provide the place where they can come, if and when, God forbid, they need refuge." You've been working for Olmert since he was mayor of Jerusalem. How did that happen, and how did you end up in your current position? I got hired as foreign relations coordinator at City Hall in 2001 through a public tender. When I started working for Olmert, I had no idea who he was. I had recently made aliya and gotten married. In fact, it was three days after my wedding that I started working for Ehud, which turned out to be a very good decision in retrospect - even though it meant putting off my honeymoon, which I still haven't had, by the way. Then, when he went on to become minister of industry and trade - and vice premier - he appointed me foreign relations adviser. I was nine months pregnant with my first child at the time. That's unheard of in Israeli society - to appoint a woman nine months pregnant to an advisory position. He's very pro-family. There's some confusion about what your office does - as distinct from the Diaspora affairs ministry that used to exist. This confusion was heightened with the announcement last week of cutbacks in Diaspora-affairs personnel. This government hasn't yet appointed a minister for Diaspora affairs. What I do is represent the prime minister in the organizational world of the Diaspora. So calling me an adviser is slightly misleading. Liaison would be a better term. In contrast, the Diaspora affairs ministry that used to exist represented the government. It dealt with things like long-term projects and planning, mainly in relation to anti-Semitism. The Global Forum on Anti-Semitism has moved to the Foreign Ministry, because you can't leave something that important fatherless. [In the cabinet reshuffle that resulted from former justice minister Haim Ramon's having officially left the government, following the guilty verdict in his sexual harassment case, a new Diaspora affairs minister is going to be appointed - the third ever, following Labor-Meimad MK Michael Melchior and former MK Natan Sharansky.] Give an example of what you do as a liaison. For instance, the Orthodox Union, which is a very important organization in America, requested a meeting with the prime minister to ask that he speak at their convention. So I helped organize that. I helped write his speech, met with the heads of the organization, etc. What was the point of that? Why did you need to meet them? In order to be able to advise the prime minister on what's happening in the Diaspora. Only on what's happening with the Jews? As a side thing, I have my eye on the Christian situation. But my main role pertains to the Jewish organizations. When Olmert became prime minister, and you took this job, what was the first thing you did? I was on maternity leave with my second child. Then there was the war [against Hizbullah]. So, I entered the position without even having an office yet. But that was obviously an opportunity to delve into Israel-Diaspora relations, because the Jewish organizations rallied to Israel's side in an unbelievable way. So I did a lot of matchmaking. My position enables me to meet so many different people and see so many different needs being met. It also enables me to see the sad lack of synergy among the organizations. A lot of people are doing the same things, and aren't necessarily in partnerships where they should be. This isn't in Israel's best interest. Can you point to an instance of successful "matchmaking"? For example, Keren Avichai - a fantastic fund that does wonderful work - wants to get involved in campus programming. But there are many organizations, such as the Israel Campus Coalition, already doing this. Or Yavneh Olami - which has a wonderful program here with the people who come on birthright and Masa, to teach them how to advocate for Israel when they return to their campuses. So I suggested to Keren Avichai that they take a look at what Yavneh Olami was doing. Towards the end of the war, [cabinet secretary] Yisrael Maimon, who's very involved in Diaspora affairs, called together a forum of all the major organizations to discuss the problem of American college students returning to their campuses after the war and finding themselves in a lions' den. We discussed ways in which we could help prepare them for this - not necessarily that they were going to be able to win the PR battle on their campuses. But at least to enable them to know the facts and feel comfortable as Jews while explaining why Israel had fought that war. We also made a hasbara kit on the Internet which we sent out to the birthright list. We did all this very late in the war, and we learned from that experience. But I think we made a small difference. What about the lack of synergy among different countries in the Diaspora? It's definitely there. But when we say "the Diaspora," we're really referring to America. If you look at the map of the Diaspora, you can see why. Why did you make aliya? I'm actually a convert. Olmert loves telling stories about my conversion. I'd been interested in Judaism since I was a young teenager. Where did that interest come from? There's a midrash that says that when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, there were goyim among the crowd. So, to this day, there are goyim in the world who have a nefesh yehudit [Jewish soul]. I must have been one of those. I underwent my Orthodox conversion in Israel. How did your family feel about your conversion and aliya? My mother said, "It's lucky, then, that I gave you such a good Jewish name." But I don't discuss my conversion with her so much, because she's a Bible-believing Christian. My father passed away when I was on the one-year program at Hebrew U., and that helped her get through it. To discuss this would mean destroying all she believes in. What about Israel and Zionism? Is she pro-Israel? Fairly. She doesn't know much about Israel, but obviously she's learned a lot through me. She also finds my being so far away difficult. She's been here during terrorist attacks. I got married in the year 2000, and I remember fearing no one would come because it was the middle of the intifada. I went to the Western Wall before my wedding and prayed that there would be a week without terrorism before my wedding. Then, sure enough, there was then a whole week without a terrorist attack. But the day many people arrived there was a high alert, and they were stuck at the airport for about six hours. Does having made aliya contribute to your understanding of the Diaspora, or the opposite? If you use what you said about your mother and Christianity - that you don't like to discuss your conversion so as not to contradict her faith - as a metaphor, how can you talk honestly about Israel to Jews who didn't make aliya? There has been an evolution in Israeli thinking about the Diaspora and about Jews making aliya. Over the last few years in particular, Israel realizes that the Diaspora is here to stay and that the dream of every Jew living in Israel isn't a realistic one. On the other hand, I will always advocate aliya. When asked why Jews should make aliya, I always say that it's because Jews should live in their homeland. At the United Jewish Communities General Assembly this year, when Jewish Agency head Ze'ev Bielski said something along those lines, he got attacked for it and had to apologize. I think that was a "lost in translation" thing. He didn't advocate getting rid of the Diaspora. But this kind of thing is why one of my visions for the future of Israel-Diaspora relations is that the partnership and dialogue aspect will be more pronounced. Isn't that really a euphemism for the transfer of money from the Diaspora to Israel? No. I'm not saying Israel doesn't depend a lot on Diaspora donations, but there are many aspects of the relationship that aren't about money. Look, my neighborhood, Pisgat Ze'ev [in northern Jerusalem] is "twinned" with Staten Island in the framework of Partnership 2000. They have similar demographics: Lots of young people, lots of Russian immigrants. One of their projects is a late bar mitzva program for both communities. And they worked together on this project to give bar mitzva lessons in both communities and then celebrate the bar mitzvas. It's a beautiful example of Israel-Diaspora relations that don't have anything to do with money. I used to feel bad about how one-sided the relationship with the Diaspora was: all the money coming into Israel from abroad. But then, I remember talking to someone in City Hall who said he didn't feel bad about it at all, because we are the Diaspora's insurance policy. We're the ones who are safeguarding the land of Israel and the heritage of the Jewish people. We provide the place where they can come, if and when, God forbid, they need refuge. Also, I think that the whole donor thing has really matured over the last decade or so, in the sense that the donors are demanding a lot more feedback. They're not just sending money, but becoming involved in what that money is doing. It's much more of a partnership. A dialogue. It affects both the people here who are receiving the money and those over there who are giving it. You describe having to provide students with the tools to defend Israel on campus, because of their being bombarded by negative claims about the country. Using this as an analogy to your own situation in the Prime Minister's Office at a time when the prime minister is under constant attack for his performance - and even under possible criminal investigation - how do you handle all the negative press? Personally, I see Ehud Olmert as a father figure. He's such a wonderful person, anyone who's ever worked for him would die for the man. He's the warmest, most intelligent, most caring person one could meet. He's brilliant. He loves this country. And when they attack him, it hurts. Have you encountered criticism through your work that forces you to become his spokesperson? That's [foreign press and public affairs adviser to the prime minister] Miri Eisin's job. But I do receive e-mails from Olmert's many acquaintances overseas, asking how to defend him against all the negative press. I basically answer that they should ignore those things, and eventually [when they're proven false], we'll be able to get down to accomplishing all the things on the agenda. I personally will always defend the prime minister because I admire him so much. But there's no doubt that people overseas are worried and don't know what to believe. On the other hand, look at the economy. It's going through the roof! I see the amazing things Olmert did in the Industry and Trade Ministry. And we are now seeing the fruits of his labor. You don't hear about that in the press. What you also don't hear about in the press is the role former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu played in the economic boom. His reforms. Absolutely! Of course, credit is due there. How much has the Iranian threat become the focus of Israel-Diaspora relations? There's no doubt that it's an issue that's raised in every meeting between the prime minister and outside organizations. History will show that, at a time when there was an existential threat to the Jewish people, we had a prime minister who took that threat seriously and was very talented in his ability to express and use his connections in the world to mobilize against it. It will prove that Olmert is the right person at the right time. Are you one of the people who believes that what's most important is Israel's ability to excel at PR, or that anti-Semitism is something that cannot be counteracted through hasbara? I mean, you speak about Olmert's ability to express the threat, not about his ability to fight it. Anti-Semitism is hatred, and hatred is based on fear and ignorance. So PR definitely improves our situation.

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