Jewish Agency leaves government Diaspora initiative

Sharansky tells PM ’Meaningful dialogue’ with organized Jewry has been eliminated

Natan Sharansky (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Natan Sharansky
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
The Jewish Agency can no longer consider itself a part of the government’s multi-billion shekel effort to bolster Jewish identity in the Diaspora, chairman Natan Sharansky told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.
The program, as currently implemented, violates various agreements between the Jewish Agency and the government, Sharansky wrote in a Thursday letter to the premier that was obtained by The Jerusalem Post.
“Any and all meaningful dialogue with the organized Jewish community, as represented by the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been eliminated. Rather, this undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework for programs to be conducted by a single government ministry,” Sharansky alleged, referring to increasing control of the government undertaking by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry headed by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett.
“Under these circumstances, we regret to inform you, in consultation and agreement with our constituent partners, that until the program is returned to its original conception and direction, we no longer see this as the joint initiative between the Government of Israel and World Jewry and therefore can no longer see ourselves part of it.”
First announced at a Jewish Agency-convened summit of international Jewish leaders in Jerusalem in November 2013, the initiative was touted by proponents as overturning the old Israeli-Diaspora paradigm, in which Israelis negated the legitimacy of Diaspora life and the rest of the Jewish world viewed the Jewish state as a poor relation in need of aid.
It was centered around a non-governmental corporation to be composed of representatives of the philanthropic world, the Israeli government and Diaspora communities who would oversee funding and identity- strengthening programs around the world.
In June 2014, the cabinet approved a NIS 187 million- budget for the program, to be matched two-to-one by Diaspora organizations.
The World Zionist Organization seemed to endorse Sharansky’s letter, with a spokeswoman telling the Post that “a major part” of it was written after consultations between her organization.
Given attempts to de-legitimize Israel abroad and their deleterious effect on young Jews abroad, the initiative is even more necessary now than it was two years ago, World Zionist Organization vice chairman Dr. David Breakstone told the Post.
Breakstone blamed the collapse of the initiative on what he called a “hugely unfortunate” change in government policy that has caused “great disappointment” not only to Israelis but to Diaspora Jews “around the world who enthusiastically embraced the idea of launching a truly cooperative venture of equals that would seriously address fundamental issues of Jewish continuity.”
The initiative would have been a paradigm shift that would have reorganized Diaspora-Israel relations but “apparently we are not there yet, leaving the Jewish Agency and WZO with no choice but to put the entire undertaking on hold,” he bemoaned.
According to media reports, the entity was officially incorporated three months ago, although no projects have yet been announced.
While initially a committee made up of the directors-general of several ministries and chaired by the prime minister was going to oversee and determine government policy toward the new body, the role of the Prime Minister’s Office was diminished by the coalition agreement between the Bayit Yehudi and the Likud.
According to Haaretz, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry will now chair the body, further cementing its growing influence over the undertaking.
Rifts began to appear between the Jewish Agency and Diaspora Affairs Ministry last August when the ministry’s director-general, Dvir Kahana, sent a letter to Diaspora organizations stating that the government was “continuing [its] dialogue with the [Jewish] Agency with the aim of finding the best way for it to fit into a role within the initiative.”
“Like with all our potential partners, we will work with the Jewish Agency to create a formidable and long-lasting partnership within the initiative,” Kahana wrote, asserting that his ministry was “overseeing the establishment of the initiative and is currently serving as [its] convener.”
At the time, a source close to the project told the Post that the Jewish Agency “does not have the legitimacy and credibility to oversee a long-term and strategic plan for the Jewish people while partnering with many other players.”
The Jewish Agency immediately shot back, accusing Kahana of misrepresenting the position of the government and asserting that his organization was in fact supposed to serve as the convener for Diaspora Jewish organizations involved in the initiative.
The two groups later sought to bridge the widening gap through a memorandum of understanding outlining the relationship between the actors involved in the project, an effort that seems to have failed.
“Over the past two years, the Government of Israel invested considerable time and effort to form a partnership with the Jewish Agency in the matter of the joint initiative, despite the fact that it distanced many donors and collaborators,” the Diaspora Affairs Ministry said.
“We regret that the Jewish Agency has once again failed to align itself with the Government of Israel and the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency’s actions today can only remind us of their objections to the ‘Taglit’ [Birthright] program which they rejected because it wasn’t being executed by them. In the weeks to come, we and our partners in the Jewish world will implement an innovative plan which will give birth to the next 10 ‘Taglits,’ once again, apparently, without the Jewish Agency.”
Some observers have questioned the viability of the project, asserting that the public spats between Sharansky and Kahana would turn indeed off Diaspora philanthropists.
“The fact that Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora has been made into a political issue by the parties involved will doom this initiative to failure,” said Jay Ruderman, an American-Israeli philanthropist who has long been critical of the initiative.
“Israel’s relationship with Jewish communities worldwide is too important to the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to be subject to the petty politics of Israeli politicians jockeying for power. No Diaspora organization or philanthropist with any sense will commit serious funding to an initiative tainted by an Israeli political tug of war,” he added.