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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
No one doubts that these are difficult times for Israel's leadership. Whatever the government's political and policy troubles, one issue can't be put on the back burner: Israel must appoint a minister for Diaspora Affairs.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs to act quickly to delegate a cabinet-level official to serve as our official link to the Jewish people worldwide.
In thinking about such an appointment, it is essential that the individual selected surround him- or herself with a professional and experienced team. And there needs to be a careful delineation of responsibility so there is no overlap with the work of the Jewish Agency.
But the fundamental necessity is for an appointment to be made.
Last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism conference in Jerusalem. This event embodied the kind of cooperation between the Diaspora and Israel needed to address the deadly serious challenge of Jew-hatred in a coherent and systematic manner.
We saw an even greater and more tangible level of cooperation during last summer's Lebanon War, when Diaspora communities were there for us yet again. The United Jewish Communities, the largest of all Jewish organizations, raised over $350 million; Keren Hayesod collected additional tens of millions from other countries; and various independent groups pitched in, gathering further significant sums for various special projects.
The Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as well as Israeli-based philanthropists have helped countless organizations to carry out their work in ongoing efforts to aid the northern communities. During the war itself, tens of thousands of children were evacuated to respite sites, public shelters were re-equipped for a prolonged stay, food was distributed to families in need, and people with special needs were given the required care.
In short, immediate needs were taken care of.
After the war, the help kept coming.
Assistance was provided to college students who took part in the fighting, small businesses which had suffered were bolstered; indeed, some aid programs were even extended to include areas in the south which had also come under attack. Support was provided to Sderot and to other communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip.
WE KNOW that official Israel genuinely values Diaspora support and feels at one with world Jewry. That's one reason why the GA - the annual assembly of the Jewish communities in North America - was attended by the prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister, education minister, tourism minister, minister for public security and the minister for trade, industry and labor.
The prime minister has rightly taken every available opportunity to express his gratitude for the help that was given during the war.
Incidentally an emergency campaign was announced twice in the past five years, not only during last summer's war, but also during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. At that time as well, millions of dollars were directed to Israel in order to help the population to cope with terrorism.
Needless to say, philanthropic support is just one of the myriad ways the Diaspora assists the Jewish state.
All this underscores the symbiotic connection between the Jewish communities of the world and Israel. It's a compelling, courageous and vital relationship, based not just on history but on our shared future.
Therefore it is vital that the Olmert government appoint a minister to the position of Israel's liaison to the Jewish people worldwide. The fact that such a portfolio is not seen by leading politicians as a prestigious and desirable position, is a sad commentary.
We cannot let this position remain vacant another day. Failure to do make this appointment sends a negative message - intentional or not - to world Jewry.
Nurturing relations between the Jewish people and the State of Israel should be considered a national duty of the utmost importance. We don't have another Jewish people, and we can't let ourselves neglect this relationship,
The time to appoint a minister of Diaspora Affairs is now. What are we waiting for?
The writer is senior vice-president and director-general of United Jewish Communities' Israel Office.