Bennett at Presidents Conference in Jerusalem, Febraury 17 2014.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the April 8th edition of The Jerusalem Post, two news articles pointed out the absurdity of the current relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. The front-page article, “Comptroller: Hundreds of thousands of kids underfed,” made it very clear that the problem of child poverty and hunger continues to plague Israel society. Yet, the government is set to approve a project to spend NIS 1 billion a year on strengthening Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews, as reported in another article, “Cabinet to approve World Jewry Joint Initiative after Passover.”
Despite the social protests and demonstrations that took place several summers ago that pointed out the inequities in Israel society, there has been no major change in the government’s approach to the rising level of poverty – particularly among children, who suffer from food insecurity and nutritional deficiencies as a result. Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen claims that allocated funds have been “unrealized due to legal bureaucracy.” Yet the same government that has been unable to provide food to hungry children is about to approve the World Jewry Joint Initiative (WJJI), a multi-billion shekel program aimed at instilling Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews.
Ministers of the government of Israel, shame on you! How do you contemplate approving such a budget for Jewish identity in the Diaspora when there are children in Israel who do not have sufficient caloric intake on a daily basis? What message are you giving to the Israeli people and to others who understand the crisis Israel is facing in regard to social inequality? Your actions are particularly deserving of shame at this time of year when we are approaching Passover and we invite all those who are hungry to come and eat.
Leaders of Jewish organizations in the Diaspora who are welcoming this WJJI, shame on you as well.
Over the past seven decades you have raised funds to support and strengthen Israeli society. You have created organizations and frameworks to ensure a strong social fabric through partnerships such as Project Renewal focused on poor neighborhoods, Eshel for the elderly, Ashalim for children at risk, and Elka to provide professional leadership in the government ministries and nonprofit organizations. Now, when food insecurity among children warrants that the government direct its efforts to respond to basic needs, you are encouraging it to channel its funding to your communities and to respond to your need to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
This only reflects part of the absurdity of the current Israel-Diaspora relationship. At the same time that the Israeli government is about to allocate this obscene sum of money for Jewish identity programming outside of Israel, Israeli NGOs are appealing to donors in Diaspora communities for contributions to provide food to Israelis who do not have the necessary funds to provide their families with a healthy, balanced diet.
Especially at this Passover season dozens of Israeli non-profits have initiated mail and telemarketing campaigns to reach out to people who identify with Israel and want to provide food for Israeli citizens who may be falling between the cracks in the social services system due, as the welfare minister says, “to legal bureaucracy.”
Does this situation make sense? The government cannot provide food to Israeli children so organizations outside the country raise money to alleviate the nutritional deficiencies the children face, and at the same time the government is sending funds to the Diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity.
If the government of Israel does not understand that it needs to address its own basic needs such as food insufficiency before it exports Jewish identity, then the Diaspora Jewish communities should be prepared to say thanks but no thanks to the WJJI. Diaspora leadership should suggest that Israel first solve its own pressing issues and only after they are addressed should it focus on Jewish identity outside of the country.
However, the organized Jewish communities would also like to take advantage of the WJJI to meet their own needs. The Jewish Federations of North America and the Keren Hayesod have been struggling for more over 10 years to meet their financial commitments to the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Even after undergoing strategic planning processes and rebranding efforts in an attempt to appeal to the new generation of leaders of Diaspora communities, foundations and funds, JAFI continues to suffer from severe underfunding and the inability of the international organizations to guarantee its financial sustainability. This new initiative will provide JAFI with a new source of funding.
When Israel was founded, JAFI’s role was to participate in the building and strengthening of the state by supporting kibbutzim, moshavim, educational institutions and immigrant absorption, among other programs.
Throughout the years, although JAFI’s role changed and expanded, immigration and absorption were at the core of its mission. With the end of aliya from countries of distress JAFI had to search for new purposes to maintain its position in Israel and the Jewish world. Over the past 20 years it has lost standing and support, and the purpose of the most recent strategic planning process was to define its mission in the 21st century.
Unfortunately it was not successful in re-engineering itself to appeal to up-and-coming Jewish philanthropists and community leaders. JAFI will be the implementer of the WJJI, which may be its last chance to prove its relevance to the world Jewish community today; certainly it will receive guaranteed funding over the next several years.
The WJJI needs to be discussed by a broader group of people in the Diaspora and in Israel. There must be greater clarity about its mission, objectives and goals, given the reality of the social needs of Israeli citizens and the responsibility of the Diaspora for Jewish identity in its communities. Simultaneously, Israeli leaders and Diaspora leaders have to examine the continued support of JAFI in its present form and whether valuable resources have to be used to guarantee its continued sustainability.
Until this is done, shame on both of you, Israeli and Diaspora leadership, for supporting this initiative without doing due diligence in meeting Israel’s basic social needs.
The author is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. He was director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.