Fundamentally Freund: A Zionist earthquake

After nearly 80 years the Jewish Agency monopoly on immigration has been broken.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
If you listened carefully on Sunday, you could hear the ground shake under the corner of King George Avenue and Rehov Keren Kayemet in Jerusalem. It was there, at the headquarters of the Jewish Agency, that a revolution took place, one that could prove to be a milestone in the history of aliya and absorption. After years of dispute, the Agency finally agreed to cede control over the promotion of aliya from the United States and Canada to the wildly-successful private organization Nefesh B'Nefesh. The group, headed by a dynamic young rabbi named Yehoshua Fass, has single-handedly transformed the aliya experience for thousands of North Americans in recent years, making it more accessible, user friendly and comprehensible. Harnessing the Internet, advanced marketing techniques and some good, old fashioned Zionist enthusiasm, Nefesh B'Nefesh long ago outstripped the aliya bureaucracy, making much of it painfully obsolete. As a result, after nearly 80 years in which the Jewish Agency has essentially been the one and only address for Jewish immigration, the monopoly has now been broken. If there were a Richter scale to measure earthquakes in the Jewish world, this one would surely have sent the needle flying off the seismograph. Under the new arrangement, the Jewish Agency will still retain control over determining the eligibility of prospective new immigrants and the opening of files with the relevant government ministries. But nearly all other aspects of the process will be handled by Nefesh B'Nefesh, making it the main interface for American and Canadian Jews interested in moving to the Jewish state. This constitutes a remarkable blow to the Jewish Agency and signifies that the body is fast undergoing a historic makeover, one that will forever change the face of the "national institutions" of the Jewish people. INTERESTINGLY, THE deal was publicized precisely one year to the day since the cabinet approved a precedent-setting decision granting funds to private, independently-run organizations that promote aliya. In retrospect, that decision, which benefited groups such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and its French equivalent, AMI, signified the beginning of the end for the traditional role of the Jewish Agency, a process that gained further steam with the latest announcement. But it would be wrong to think that we are necessarily witnessing the demise of the Agency or its degeneration into irrelevance. It is simply undergoing major changes as priorities shift and funds become tighter, and it will have to reinvent itself to endure. No doubt there are those who cringe at the thought that the Agency will lose its exclusivity in the realm of aliya, and in the days to come we are likely to see much hand-wringing over this development. But times have changed, and bureaucracies are notoriously bad at keeping up. And that is what has enabled Nefesh B'Nefesh to be so successful at what it does, because it is an ideologically-motivated entrepreneur rather than a staid branch of the establishment. Like any private sector initiative, its newness and freshness is its strength, as it is not burdened by mounds of red tape, political infighting or any of the other elements so common at long-standing institutions. This latest earthquake may have shaken the Jewish Agency building, but it didn't knock it down. Out of adversity comes opportunity, and this tremor is no different. With its brand name and decades of experience, the Jewish Agency is perfectly positioned to serve as the umbrella body uniting all aliya-oriented groups while continuing to provide a range of critical services. If the Agency seizes upon this niche and embraces it, forging additional arrangements and working hand-in-hand with private Jewish groups across a range of fields, it could emerge as a leaner, more focused and more effective force. INDEED, WHAT makes this development so exciting is that it could prove to be a test case for other key fields of government responsibility. Just consider the possibilities. Areas from hasbara abroad to promoting road safety at home would benefit immensely if they too were semi- or fully-privatized while continuing to operate under official direction and guidance. This would bring new savings, and new energy, to a range of moribund efforts and boost their effectiveness beyond recognition. As Ronald Reagan once pointed out, "Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, 'What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.' But the truth is that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector." That is true of trade and industry, and it is no less true for aliya or Jewish education. So let's hope that the Zionist earthquake now under way will continue to shake things up, and that in its wake will come a new, more exciting order.