(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A special session of the Knesset’s immigration and Diaspora Affairs Committee that was requested by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni in order to question the relevance of the Jewish Agency turned into a love fest for Diaspora Jewry on Tuesday.
After Gafni questioned why the Agency was still needed 70 years after Israel’s establishment and suggested its sole remaining purpose was “preventing budgets from reaching Arabs and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), 16 MKs took turns lecturing Gafni about the importance of liberal Jews around the world.
Agency deputy director-general Josh Schwartz explained to Gafni that it was needed because one country cannot encourage emigration in another. He also said the Agency helps Beduin, Druse, Arabs and Haredim, and listed projects intended for the Haredi sector, including for distressed youth.
When Gafni said Haredim do not come on Taglit and Masa, Schwartz corrected him and pointed out a Haredi doctor from Ukraine he had purposely brought with him to the meeting who came on Masa and then made aliya.
“The Agency serves Jews all over the world, which during a time of assimilation, it’s more important than ever,” Schwartz told Gafni.
Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin, who immigrated from Argentina, said there were 450,000 Jews there when he moved 40 years ago and there are now just 150,000. He questioned, rhetorically, where the rest went if only 60,000 Argentinians came to Israel.
“They assimilated, and no one cares in Israel except the Agency,” he said. “In the Diaspora, most Jews go to synagogue in a car, and Gafni has to internalize that. If we take politics out of religion, a whole world can be saved.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog told Gafni he was glad the UTJ MK initiated the meeting because the Haredi population neglects the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
Herzog, who has been wooed by North American Jewish leaders to be the next Agency head, said it was “the right place to deal with issues that matter to Jewish people.”
“You aren’t ready to recognize that the Jewish world is vibrant and has other streams,” Herzog told Gafni. “Your party should enter the Zionist organizations and trips abroad to see how Diaspora communities live. The only way to go forward is for everyone to be under the tent.”
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai warned: “If we don’t have millions of Jews abroad, we won’t have an Israel, so we have to work on preventing assimilation in America.”
Michael Oren (Kulanu), deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, who did not attend the meeting because he was sick in bed, sent a message saying Gafni belongs in the Joint List, because they both don’t want Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
“Gafni attacks the Agency because it helps liberal Jewish communities in the Diaspora who are essential to our economy and our security,” Oren said. “Any attack on the Agency harms Israel’s standing as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”