Avi Cohen Scali, the affable director-general of the Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Ministry, begins our interview on a friendly note, offering this writer home-baked pastries prepared by his mother. The positive tone of our conversation continued to its conclusion, even after the pastries were eaten.
The 44-year-old Scali is an experienced government administrator, having previously served as the director-general of the Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Tradition Ministry, as well as the Social Equality Ministry. He also held senior positions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Economy and Industry Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and other government bodies before assuming his current role, in which he oversees a staff of 65 professionals.
Once the coffee and cake have been accounted for, Cohen Scali delineates the current goals of the ministry. “Until the elections this past February, it was called the Diaspora Ministry, and its purpose was to connect Jewish communities to the Jewish people and the State of Israel and strengthen the Jewish identity of communities around the world, with an emphasis on the Jewish communities in North America.
“The government decided to delegate added responsibilities to us from the Foreign Ministry to deal with delegitimization of Israel, and the BDS movement. Before that, this unit used to be part of the Strategic Affairs Ministry,” he says.
Despite his extensive governmental and administrative experience, Cohen Scali says that the responsibilities of being director-general were somewhat unclear when he began. “For example, when I headed the Social Equality Ministry, I dealt with young people and veteran citizens, and there were other bodies that were familiar with these issues, such as the National Insurance Institute and the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry. When I started here, I found that the ministry is solely responsible for dealing with the issues. It’s just you and your office alone, with no other ministries.”
Cohen Scali asserts that although the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism is responsible for dealing with issues that are of significant national importance – preserving the heritage of the Jewish people and safeguarding Jews in the Diaspora – the tools and resources that are at its disposal are relatively modest.
“In effect, we have a double challenge,” he says. “We are confronted with a significant mission, but our capabilities are limited. Because our resources are limited, we have to use them accurately and carefully.”
HE DETAILS the three main issues that the ministry is addressing. The first issue, says Cohen Scali, is ensuring that the ministry can carry out its tasks efficiently and successfully, despite the fact that it is conducting its specific mission as the only government agency doing so, with little support from other sectors of the government.
Beyond that, he says, “The central task of the Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Ministry is to preserve the Jewish people and ensure its future. Every day, our numbers are decreasing due to assimilation, and this is a tremendous challenge.”
The ministry is investing much thought and resources into this issue. “The challenge,” he continues, “is increasing the number of people participating in Jewish education – both formal and informal – in North America.” Research has shown that the percentage of students attending Jewish schools has gone down in recent years, says Cohen Scali. Students who have had a Jewish education, he adds, have a greater likelihood of retaining their association with the Jewish people.
Although over the years, various Israeli organizations – such as The Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization – have focused on the importance of Jewish education in the Diaspora, Cohen Scali says that the government’s intentions in this matter, through the Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Ministry, have never been expressed as clearly as they have been stated now.
As a result, many Jewish organizations in the United States, such as the Tikvah Fund and the Prizmah Center for Jewish Day Schools, are interested in the ministry’s plans. “The Israeli government wants to get to a point where every family that wants to send their child to Jewish education will be able to afford the cost, and that we will have enough qualified teachers,” says Cohen Scali.
The ministry has been involved in intense negotiations with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella organization for the Jewish Federations system, representing more than 350 independent Jewish communities across North America, to arrange these educational improvements. Cohen Scali says the partnership will ensure a sufficient supply of qualified teachers of Hebrew, Israel education, and Jewish subjects in Diaspora schools, as well as quality pedagogical material.
The ministry is currently working with UnitEd, an organization that develops and empowers Jewish educators in teacher training and preparation of pedagogical materials. Partnering with Jewish organizations in the Diaspora is crucial, he says, because “what you don’t do together, doesn’t get done.”
Cohen Scali’s third goal is to ensure the Jewish people’s physical security in the Diaspora. To that end, the ministry has set up a fund in conjunction with The Jewish Agency to assist Jewish organizations in protecting and securing their buildings.
In addition, as part of its mission in combating antisemitism, delegitimization of Israel, and BDS, he adds, the ministry is working with other governments to explain the dangers of antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israeli behavior.
Cohen Scali and his team have hosted delegations in Israel to show them Jewish and Israeli life so that they can gain a better understanding of day-to-day life in Israel. It has brought thought leaders from the United States from the Black and Hispanic communities, among others, as well as US security personnel, to present a more balanced picture to these influencers and future leaders.
The Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Ministry, adds Cohen Scali, is conducting extensive research into anti-Israel organizations and their capabilities. Additionally, he says, the ministry is working together with the Accountant General’s office and other ministries to protect Israeli economic interests.
MAINTAINING THE connection between pro-Israel organizations is also essential, and the Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Ministry works with numerous pro-Israel organizations to strengthen the relationships between these groups.
“We are establishing a type of ‘war room’ for these organizations so that in times of crisis, we will be able to present data and information and combat the incidence of fake news,” he says. He adds that the office has organized a team of social media staff, both in Israel and abroad, that monitors goings-on in this area.
Cohen Scali adds that the ministry has been active in arranging for a formal recognition of Jews outside of Israel who were murdered in terrorist attacks. “Three months ago, together with the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, we initiated a government committee to recognize Jewish victims of terror in the Diaspora and commemorate them.”
He is referring to attacks such as the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994, in which 85 people were killed. Israelis killed in terror attacks are memorialized, Cohen Scali says, but there is no such provision for Jews in the Diaspora, something which he hopes his committee will remedy.
What has Cohen Scali learned from his previous jobs that he has been able to incorporate into his current position? His answer is a combination of the practical and the poetic. On the practical side, he says that due to his experience and familiarity with government, together with Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, they were able to more than double the ministry’s budget.
Beyond that, he says, “You must present a vision for the organization at the outset.” And last, but not least, he adds, “If you set high goals, you can achieve them.”
Avi Cohen Scali has indeed set lofty goals for Diaspora Jewry in Jewish education, security, and countering the delegitimization of Israel. With his many years of organizational experience, these goals are within reach.