Jewish Agency head: ‘Jews must not drift away from Israel’

Jewish Agency head calls for unity despite imminent polarizing policy changes • Outlines Agency’s goals, future plans

 Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Until a bit more than a half year ago, Doron Almog was a national hero with whom every sector in Israel could identify. He was a major-general who had served in the IDF’s most elite units and later founded ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village – named for his late son, Eran – which provides residential, medical and social services to people with disabilities.

Since August he has been serving as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body that connects Diaspora Jews to Israel and vice versa.

“My wife, Didi, said that our life before [the Jewish Agency] was like a blender, and now it’s like a Ninja blender – the rotation speed is so much greater,” he joked in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

Before the interview, Almog outlined his vision for the organization, specifying three goals that were referred to repeatedly throughout the conversation.

The first is “to bring people together and create outreach to everyone,” he said. “The idea is to connect all the parts of the Jewish people, to strengthen the connection of the people living in Zion with the world. I’ll be there, and we’ll be there for every family, for every Jew.

Doron Almog attends an Internal Affairs committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2013. (credit: FLASH90)Doron Almog attends an Internal Affairs committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2013. (credit: FLASH90)

“Jews must not drift away from us because they think differently

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog

“Jews must not drift away from us because they think differently. In my opinion, the discourse needs mutual respect and to be held between diverse groups, between all streams and sectors. Diversity is a source of strength and power, not the opposite.”

The second goal concerns immigration, one of the agency’s mandates from the government.

“Our goal is to promote aliyah, the ingathering of the exiles here, during this time of redemption,” Almog said.

The third goal relates to social issues in Israel, particularly for immigrants.

“A large part of the immigrants feel that they are not connected enough [to Israeli society],” he said.

Almog said one of the things he hopes to promote as chairman is a conference with the heads of local authorities on immigrant absorption in their municipalities. He wanted to hold the conference with “Haim Bibas, the head of The Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, and Shay Hajaj, chairman of the Regional Council Center,” he said. “A mayor conveys leadership messages to their citizens, especially relating to these new immigrants.”

Almog wants to see a system of family mentoring, such as “a veteran immigrant family from Morocco adopting a new olim [immigrant] family from Morocco. I would also like to see high-school students volunteering in absorption centers or even in playgrounds.”

Challenges facing Israel-Diaspora ties

Almog said he never imagined “the intensity of emotions that come with the job on a day-to-day basis.” He said he learned a lot about other institutions navigating ties between Israel and Diaspora communities, such as the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

“There is indeed a great concern [among Jewish leaders] about the statements made during the establishment of the current government,” he said. “I find how there is, and there always has been, polarization.”

“The political discourse has undergone sharp polarization in Israel, as well as around the world,” he added. “Everything has become concise and even violent at times. There is a pressing need to promote outreach and create dialogue.”

Almog said he hopes to “become a bridge in an era of great turmoil. I wish to bring people’s hearts closer to each other. The Jewish Agency will be that body that brings compromise, which can make it possible for us all to live together.”

Almog recently visited the Nativ course, which prepares young Israelis for the national conversion process during their army service.

“I was introduced to the teachers at Nativ, and I think that it’s amazing that there are teachers from all backgrounds, such as secular, Reform, Conservative and even ultra-Orthodox,” he said. “Even though there is such a mix, they participate in a discourse that respects agreed formulas. They promote a process that is in many ways a breakthrough.”

Asked why he does not address statements made by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s on issues of religion and state, as well as the Law of Return, Almog said his “media policy does not include” those types of statements.

Regarding the Grandchild Clause, “There was a coalition negotiation, and there will possibly be a committee that will discuss” the clause, he said. Therefore, he does not feel that addressing the subject is necessary.

“A lot of statements are made on the Law of Return almost every day,” Almog said, adding that he did not want to add to them when it is not known whether this committee will even convene.

This was the reason he signed a letter along with other heads of Zionist institutions and the heads of the JFNA, he said.

“We shared with Netanyahu that a change in this law may lead to a battle and that the issue of this law and its implications on the Jewish world need to be learned and internalized before moving forward,” he added. “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel is above religion. Why? Because nationality is a sense of belonging.”

Asked what message he would like to pass on to American Jews or any Jews in the Diaspora who are nervous about the current government, Almog said: “In a time of polarization, we must keep the Jewish people united while respecting the different [religious] streams and the differences between groups. We need to understand that these differences between us are a source of strength. This element of bringing people together, in this era, is a necessity.”

The agency would “increase the activity of our emissaries and broaden their activity,” he added.

Almog said he was in touch with Israeli companies, such as Elbit, that have many employees living abroad “to help connect more Jews to Israel and to Judaism. We need to bring the story of Israel to Diaspora Jews from a close and humane experience.”

He said he was “against changing the Law of Return. Israel is an insurance certificate for all Jews in the world, whether they are gay, lesbian, Reform, Conservative or secular. Any Jew, regardless of their background, should be given an equal opportunity to make aliyah.”

Other Jewish organizations in the Diaspora were less open in their criticisms of the new government.

About 500,000 Israelis are not considered Jewish according to Halacha, even though they identify and are treated as such.

“We brought these Jews to Israel in the ’90s, mainly from the former Soviet Union, because of their right of return,” he said. “A large number of them served in the IDF, are loyal to the State of Israel and contribute immensely to the economy. It is clear that a solution must be found, one that will empower them and strengthen their pride in their own Judaism.”

More needs to be done to promote immigration, Almog said.

“It’s a delicate situation because I don’t want our emissaries to be perceived as missionaries who arrive in these Jewish communities and appear to be criticizing or finding faults,” he said. “Aliyah should be encouraged for sure, yet it must be done in a way that doesn’t sound preachy. We are prepared for the fact that most Diaspora Jews won’t make aliyah. We need to encourage it through empathy, love of Israel, mutual visits, sympathy and participation in programming.”

The new government said it would invest NIS 350 million in promoting aliyah and absorbing immigrants from North America and France – the two largest Jewish communities outside of Israel. Nefesh B’Nefesh runs the operation in North America and has been doing so for the past 15 years since it was granted a mandate by the Israeli government.

Asked whether he thought there was room to expand Nefesh B’Nefesh’s authority – or that of Qualita, the umbrella aliyah organization in France – to other countries, such as the UK, South Africa and Australia, Almog said: “Indeed, we will increase such activities. We need to do more. We will consider [the issue] together with the government and the relevant ministries to see how the aliyah process can be better.

“Is Nefesh B’Nefesh a success? Yes, and we should learn from this success. Should the same type of mechanism be considered for each country or community? I don’t know, and we would need to consider it. The agency is the body with the mandate for aliyah from the Israeli government. There will be a joint discussion.”

A few weeks ago, a Russian court postponed the trial of the Jewish Agency by two months. The agency’s activities came under the scrutiny of the Russian government seven months ago, with a decision at the time to liquidate its presence in the country.

“Our activity in Russia continues as usual,” Almog said. “We have made all the adjustments [that were requested by the Russian Justice Ministry] and have established a new call center in Moscow that provides service to anyone interested. We responded to 100% of the requirements and our activity continues.”

A hearing is scheduled for February, he added.

Asked whether he expects any diplomatic or political interference in the trial, he said: “I am convinced that the Russian political and government [figures] are aware [of the content of the trial].”

Almog said there was a need for his organization to invest more in issues relating to the European Jewish community.

“There are 1.5 million Jews in Europe who are considering moving elsewhere,” he said. “We should be there, strengthening Jewish identity and Jewish pride.”

The agency does not have enough emissaries in Europe, Almog said.

“There is a need to intensify activity,” he said. “We need more emissaries, more research and marketing to get to as many people as possible.”

Asked how an employee of an Israeli tech firm in the US could actually be part of the Jewish Agency’s emissary program, Almog said: “You never know who will be more influential. Possibly an Israeli who is in a marketing position in an Israeli firm in the US will affect a DC Jewish family to visit Israel for the first time.”

There is a new project that hopefully will make a big difference in the Jewish world, he said.

“We are discussing how to attract the youth through Israel’s strengths: tech, cyber and space,” he added. “Jewish youth [from the Diaspora] will come to Israel with Israeli youth and together learn about these issues and also strengthen their connection. We are in a process of examining Israel’s very attractive Start-Up Nation strengths.”

Almog expressed interest in engaging with haredi Jews from around the world.

“We will probably soon launch an ultra-Orthodox Masa Israel program,” he said. “I think that will be an amazing project, where an ultra-Orthodox young Jew will visit Israel and meet, for example, an ultra-Orthodox scientist who works at the Weizmann Institute, or a hasidic Israeli medical doctor, such as Yehuda Sabiner. These young haredi Jews from the Diaspora will possibly also meet with a soldier from the ultra-Orthodox IDF regiment or the head of the Mossad.”

Almog extended good wishes to the ministers with whom he will be working in the new government: Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli and Aliyah and Integration Minister Ofir Sofer.

“I know Chikli,” he said. “He loves the Jewish people and the State of Israel. I’m happy I’ll be able to partner with them both to strengthen the Jewish people and to promote aliyah.”