One on One: Of clouds and silver linings

Netanyahu's former Diaspora affairs adviser says answer to slippery slope is to go down very carefully.

bobby brown 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bobby brown 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bobby Brown has only positive things to say about everybody - including controversial figures or institutions overhung with clouds of contention. Whether this is due to Brown's adherence, as an Orthodox Jew, to the prohibition of lashon hara - malicious gossip - or to the diplomacy that comes from years of operating within Jewish-world frameworks and local politics is not clear. Nevertheless, his assertions do not come off as calculated, which means they might actually stem from genuine appreciation and admiration for the movers and shakers who have helped him further causes he holds dear. That all these causes involve ensuring Jewish continuity, strengthening the Jewish state and cultivating the connection between them may have something to do with Brown's bird's-eye view of the players on the board - and in the boardroom. Take Avraham Hirchson, for example. He may be on trial for embezzlement, but Brown - who "grew up in the Jewish Agency" and served as, among other positions, senior adviser on issues of restitution of Jewish property - comes to the former finance minister's defense for his dedication to Holocaust victims, reparations, and educational programs such as the March of the Living. Then there's the World Jewish Congress, where Brown worked for a number of years, heading its Israel office and its international affairs department. Even on this subject - delicate by all accounts, due to monumental leadership battles within the organization - Brown is careful not to launch any personal attacks. Rather, he stresses his own accomplishments. "I am proud to have fought for my ideals against many of the scandals that caused the downfall of that once-glorious organization," he says. Brown, who recently swapped organizational Jewish life for the private philanthropic sector (he is now COO for Leor Energy cofounder Guma Aguiar), is equally upbeat about two other newsmakers whose paths his career crossed - Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. Brown, 57, who made aliya from New York in 1978 and resides in the Judean settlement of Tekoa, was appointed Diaspora affairs adviser by the former (and perhaps next) prime minister in 1996. The director-general of the Prime Minister's Office at that time was Lieberman. In an hour-long interview this week in a Jerusalem cafe facing the Jewish Agency building that has been a second home to him, Brown explained the importance of the Israel-Diaspora partnership, and expressed hope that the new government will give it the attention it deserves. You worked for Netanyahu when he was prime minister in 1996. How did that come to be? I met Mr. Netanyahu when he was the ambassador to the United Nations and I was deputy director of the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization's Israel Aliyah Center of North America. Every time I had a group of kids interested in Israel or in making aliya, I knew I could call on the ambassador to address them, and that he would give doing so the highest priority. From that, we became friends. And when he was at the very beginning of his climb to the top of Likud, he asked me if I could help. I agreed, not for any position or reward, but because I saw him as the hope of the future. But once he was elected prime minister, he asked if I would become his Diaspora affairs adviser - a position that had existed under [former prime ministers] Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, but was discontinued under [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin. Why had Rabin discontinued it? At that time, many Israelis, especially those born in Israel, had a misunderstanding of the value of the Diaspora. They saw Jews outside of the country as people who would fund various projects in Israel and no more. Rabin also came out heavily against AIPAC. Nor did he see the importance of Jewish life, or of having a Diaspora that works hand-in-hand with Israel. How significant - actually - is the job of Diaspora affairs adviser? It can be very important or very minor. One of my jobs was to answer the thousands of letters that came to the prime minister from abroad. Had that been my only job, it would have been of minor significance. But I had decided that the Lord above put me in that office to accomplish something. I tried to make sure, then, that projects I felt were important for Israel and the Diaspora be put on my agenda. So, for example, I am the father of the Israeli government's involvement in [the] birthright [program]. I also brought it in to all the negotiations on Jewish property confiscated during the Holocaust. And I increased dramatically the connection between the state and Christian friends of Israel. In addition, I helped found - and was the coordinator of - the Ne'eman Commission, established to find a solution to the conversion issue that was tearing apart the Jewish people. It was when I ended my job that, for the first time in the state's history, a Diaspora affairs minister was appointed - and the parameters of his job were exactly those I had carved out. The first of these was Rabbi Michael Melchior, and the next was Natan Sharansky. When you worked for Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman was the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). What was your relationship with him? He was the most efficient public servant I had ever met. He understood how to do things. He understood the meaning of things. I'll never forget something he did for me when I started out. You know, all the staff of the PMO care about is the prime minister, his chief of staff, the director-general and maybe the deputy director-general. Everyone else is meaningless. So I found that when I needed something connected to my work, nobody cared. Frustrated, I finally went to Lieberman, and I said, "Yvet [Lieberman's nickname], I'm terribly sorry to bother you with this, but I don't know what to do. I'm being stymied by clerks who have absolutely no interest in anything I'm doing or in helping me." To this, Lieberman responded, "Come with me." And then we took a walk around the PMO talking about other things. We circled like this for a while before returning to his office, and from then on, the problem was solved. He understood the dynamics of how organizations work better than any other human being I've ever encountered. One of the conditions for joining a Likud-led government is the introduction of civil marriage and an ease on conversions. Were these always issues he cared about? I think what drives Yvet is logic - not going with sacred cows that don't work. Today, from my understanding, at least half of the young couples in this country are getting married in ways other than the traditional path of going to the rabbinate, having a ketuba and going under a huppa. If half the young people are rejecting the existing requirements, there's something very wrong - particularly in a country with a million Russians, many not halachicly Jewish, and who want to become Jews, but not necessarily ultra-Orthodox. As an Orthodox Jew yourself, aren't you afraid of the slippery slope? Once you start easing up on traditional requirements and changing definitions, the next thing you know, anything goes - anyone can be a Jew; any type of rabbi can be ordained; and any type of marriage is acceptable, including between two partners of the same sex. Of course, this can be a slippery slope, which is why the models of the Diaspora don't always apply to Israel. Take, for instance, the government's involvement in kashrut supervision. Most Orthodox Jews do not trust the government certificate. That's a horrible situation. Imagine, for a minute, the Orthodox Union (OU) in America giving its certificate to food which turned out to be non-kosher. Immediately, people would stop buying food with an OU stamp. In Israel, because of the government monopoly, the supervisor gets paid only for the foods he stamps as kosher, and storekeepers are happy if he shows up only once a month. We've gone into private enterprise in so many areas in this country; why shouldn't kashrut supervision be strict and private? I'm not haredi, but when I see a haredi kashrut certificate, I immediately trust it. Why, then, would you trust a ketuba drawn up by a Reform rabbi? One of the directions of the Ne'eman Commission was that all conversions would be Orthodox, and that Conservative and Reform rabbis would be allowed to be masters of ceremony at weddings. According to Jewish law, you don't have to have a rabbi at a wedding, and if you don't have to have a rabbi, what difference does it make if he's Orthodox? The only thing that counts is whether the witnesses are Orthodox. Furthermore, according to Jewish law, a couple who lives together for a certain amount of time, even without being officially married, is recognized as a common-law couple. So by being a little innovative and a little open, we could have solved two problems simultaneously. But often the two sides don't want to be logical. They like their fights better than they like solutions. If so, how could Israel Beiteinu, headed by Lieberman, sit in a coalition with the religious parties? I once walked into Yvet's office and he was speaking Yiddish on the phone. When he finished the conversation, I asked him who he had been talking to, and he said it was [former Shas leader] Arye Deri. Lieberman grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, and Deri speaks Yiddish because he attended a Lithuanian yeshiva. Yvet believes strongly in Jewish tradition. But he wants national solutions to problems that have arisen. So, yes, it's a slippery slope. But the answer to a slippery slope is not to avoid going down it; it's to go down very carefully. In your work surrounding Holocaust reparations, your path crossed that of [former finance minister] Avraham Hirchson - initiator and president of the Jewish Heroes Quiz, from which arose the March of the Living, and on trial for embezzling NIS 2.5 million from the National Workers Organization (NWO). What is your view of that? I know it's fashionable in this country to kick someone when he's down, but I'm not going to join in. I don't know anything about his involvement with the NWO, but where our paths crossed, I will say the following: First of all, billions of dollars of Jewish money returned to victims of the Holocaust and for Jewish education, due to the work of Hirchson. I had unbelievable respect for him. He was an ally on every single program that we undertook, and he gave it the importance that others often did not. Then there's the March of the Living, which was his heartthrob, his life's work. Though I was not involved in any of the economic aspects of it, when I first heard about investigations into Hirchson's dealings, I said I would bet anything that not a single dollar went missing from March of the Living. And after a lot of noise, and a lot of damage to a wonderful program, the bottom line was that there had been no hanky-panky in, and no money was missing from, the March of the Living, which has given tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of young Jews the chance to learn about the Holocaust and its significance in Jewish history and the establishment of the State of Israel. Let's talk about the Jewish Agency (JAFI), where you have worked much of your adult life. There is a sense that once the state was established, the JAFI lost its reason for being and became a massive bureaucracy that spends most of its funds just keeping itself going. These same critics say that the way it has operated is largely responsible for the fact that new donors now want to see exactly where their money is going. Can you address that? Let me stress that I still believe in the Jewish Agency. But I also believe that, in some ways, it is not going in the right direction. Once the state was established, laws were enacted defining non-profit organizations, and the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod did not go under that category.Since then, they've been working hard trying to achieve that status. I think that's a big mistake on their part. Because, unlike regular NGOs, organizations like the Jewish Agency have to perform superhuman tasks. Bringing North African Jewry here is a superhuman project. Settling Galilee is a superhuman project. Bringing in a million Russians is a superhuman project. Stopping a civil war in Ethiopia for two days in order to fly out Ethiopian Jewry is a superhuman project. Those are not the jobs that a normal nonprofit does in the course of its work. Therefore, I think the JAFI is trying to downgrade itself, and is fighting to do so more efficiently, rather than leaving tasks like giving out air conditioners in Galilee to other kinds of organizations, which are in abundance. Instead of competing with those organizations, the JAFI could act as an umbrella and aid them. What the JAFI has been doing is cutting and cutting and cutting its major programs, in order to be able to engage in small ones, which get good temporary PR. Well, it's nice to cut a ribbon. But is that what the JAFI is there for? Today, every Jewish community in the world is a terror target. Who's going to be working with them? Who's going to be training young people? Who's going to be assessing what's going on? And when other groups come along, such as Nefesh B'Nefesh, the JAFI should welcome them and help them, because they free up the JAFI to do bigger things. Competing with NGOs is a slippery slope on the way to hell. Has this been the policy of outgoing chairman, newly elected Kadima MK Ze'ev Bielski? I'm not blaming this or that individual; it's the concept I'm talking about. Too many chairmen have taken on the job for a couple of years as a stepping stone. This is certainly true of the last three chairmen [Bielski, Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor and former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg]. It's become like, well, I've done that - now let me go on to something else. Is it liberating or disconcerting for you to now be working for a private foundation? I have always chosen where I work by where I thought I could be effective. In the JAFI, I began to see a situation - mostly because of economics - where I had very little ability to implement change of the kind I thought necessary. The time, therefore, had come for me to go. I had felt the same when I worked in the Barak government. I was treated very nicely, but I didn't feel I was able to do what had to be done, so I left on good terms and went back to work in the JAFI. I also worked for the World Jewish Congress, and loved the work they were doing, until they imploded. Since then, I have been working with a new breed of philanthropist - Guma Aguiar - someone new on the scene and very passionate about helping the Jewish people. It's an unbelievable opportunity, which I'm enjoying very much. Can you talk about the scandal that erupted at the World Jewish Congress, which gave it a bad name? I strongly believe in the human factor. And I believe that the people who were leading the World Jewish Congress considered their own positions more important than the positions that needed to be taken for the Jewish people. A scandal happened. It started feeding on itself. Then it brought in people to handle the scandal, and they did it with brutality and ugliness, which caused fights among the European, New York and Israeli branches, as well as between leaders who had given so much for the Jewish people and the secretary-general, who had no experience in this world, and who, I believe, handled it poorly. Will the WJC be able to get past that crisis and heal itself? Look, if you take an organization like the Jewish National Fund in America - it also had scandals. But it put them behind it, and it's doing a fantastic job. I consider the WJC to be one of the most important tools in the tool box of the Jewish people - its diplomatic arm. I haven't seen it return to where it was. I hope and pray that one day it will. Finally, do you think that, when the next government is formed, emphasis will be placed on Israel-Diaspora relations - or is there a sense that the relationship has become so solid that it is unnecessary to invest in it? In my day, the chief issue in the PMO was the negotiations with the Palestinians. That took an enormous amount of time and effort. As the new prime minister, Bibi enters office with that issue as open as it ever has been, as well as other issues of great importance - such as the storm clouds hovering over the economy and the threat of a nuclear Iran. Still, I hope that with all that, the prime minister will nevertheless devote attention to this issue.