JA dir.-gen.: 'Nefesh' delegitimizing non-US aliya

Nefesh BNefesh delegit

The years of acrimony between the Jewish Agency and the private aliya group Nefesh B'Nefesh reached a climax this week with the leak of an e-mail in which Jewish Agency director-general Moshe Vigdor suggested ways to improve the agency's image at Nefesh's expense. The e-mail, which was sent to department heads and senior officials in the agency, came in the wake of a study commissioned by Nefesh B'Nefesh claiming that American, Canadian and British olim who came to Israel with the organization represented a net gain to Israel's economy of some NIS 1 billion between 2002 and 2008. Agency officials were angered by the report, which failed to mention the agency's role in bringing the olim, including its aliya emissaries in these countries and its participation in the funding of the olim. In the e-mail, Vigdor praised Nefesh for being "far better than us at marketing," and called the report, conducted by the Israeli branch of Deloitte Touche, "a brilliant move and exceptional manipulation." He claimed the complimentary figures presented by the report were mistakenly credited to Nefesh, "since at least half the olim weren't even in touch with them [Nefesh]. About half applied directly through us [the Jewish Agency] and had no contact with them." Meanwhile, even more olim "just changed their status [while already in Israel], another process where Nefesh is not connected. But who's looking for facts?" he asked. Vigdor suggested that the Jewish Agency respond to the Nefesh "marketing" with some of its own: "Praise them and [thus create] awareness that aliya and olim are actually the Agency. We can do this with clever wordplay." Vigdor went on to suggest a similar strategy with the public relations campaign of Taglit-Birthright Israel: "We should have published congratulatory notices or something like that about Birthright…while mentioning in big letters: 'The Jewish Agency is proud to be a partner in this project and of its financial support for it.' That way, we can strengthen the perception among the public that [Birthright] belongs to us." The director-general also complained that Nefesh's campaign was elitist. Nefesh was bound to receive "an increase in government support when they bring a 'study' that shows this aliya [from North America and Britain] brings in billions of shekels [to the economy], while we're bringing olim that only cost money" - a reference to less-affluent olim from places like Ethiopia, former Soviet Union countries and Latin America. He urged agency officials to consider "how to turn the [Deloitte] study into something negative, because it delegitimizes aliya from places outside the United States." For its part, Nefesh B'Nefesh limited its public response to a statement by its vice chairman Erez Halfon: "If this is indeed true, then I view it with utmost severity." Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, meanwhile, was quick to distance the agency from the director-general's comments. "I have supported Nefesh B'Nefesh and birthright from the moment of their founding," he said in a statement, "and I see them as important allies of the agency. I have ordered a professional inquiry into this issue to confirm that there is no divergence from the policy I am leading of cooperation with Nefesh B'Nefesh and birthright, so that we can continue to work together in a positive and cooperative spirit." The statement also noted that Vigdor had "brought about" the agency's cooperation agreement with Nefesh, and that he would follow the policy determined by the agency's chairman. In a phone interview Tuesday Vigdor had said that he had "badly phrased" his concerns in the e-mail. "I was one of the initiators of the Jewish Agency-Nefesh B'Nefesh agreement," he added. Vigdor also sent letters to Halfon and birthright bead Gidi Mark expressing "total and unequivocal support" for the cooperation between the agency and the two organizations.