Elkin: New Diaspora plan 'meaningless' if unfunded

PMO spokesman insists new initiative is sound, says that "the snowball we just launched can't be stopped."

Zeev Elkin 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Zeev Elkin 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Diaspora leaders gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting responded warmly on Sunday to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement that Israel would begin to invest in Diaspora communities. The basic idea - greater Israeli engagement with and funding for Diaspora Jewish education and identity - met with near-universal approval, though some questioned whether the new direction would enjoy the necessary funds and political stability to be viable. "This was an important speech that will be referred to many years from now," insisted John Ruskay, executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York. "It's a paradigm change, and the direction matters when you're making a collective effort." "Something definitely happened today," agreed Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, "but I'd want to see a formal decision of the cabinet that makes this policy." Calling the new commitment "an extraordinary step forward" and "exactly the right thing to do," Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffe nevertheless wondered if the Israeli government "is prepared to make it real in organizational and financial terms. This could easily get pushed aside." Indeed, though Olmert made "some good observations, does he mean what he said beyond a political statement?" wondered Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "Will he consult with the Jewish communities?" The initiative met with less optimism from Israeli leaders. "If it's not backed up by serious funds, the whole thing is meaningless," declared MK Ze'ev Elkin (Kadima), echoing the sentiments of other Israelis following Olmert's speech. "This will cost at least half a billion shekels in added budget," Elkin said of the proposed initiatives for strengthening the Israel-Diaspora connection, which may include Internet portals, Israeli cultural centers and increased funding for trips to Israel for Diaspora youth. "With the promises the government made to Holocaust survivors and other groups," and the Finance Ministry's resistance to breaking budgetary discipline, "I'm just not sure it can be done, even in 2009," he said. "And if they're talking about 2010, then they're just not serious," Elkin continued. "Will this government last till then? This is interesting ideologically, but meaningless practically." A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, however, insisted the new initiative was sound. "We won't have a billion shekels available in 2009," he acknowledged, "but that's not a bad thing, because we need to start with small pilot programs. We're not going to throw billions at something and then see what happens." But, he added, "the prime minister is committed to the process. He was very insistent and clear." Would the initiative continue with another prime minister or another ruling coalition? "The snowball we just launched can't be stopped. Now the Americans can say, 'You promised this,' and they'll be right," said the spokesman. Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, of the Labor party, echoed the PMO representative from Kadima in cautioning against rushing too quickly into programs. "It was appropriate for Israel to make itself felt in the Jewish world, but these are the seeds of a dialogue," he said. At the same time, the change in policy was necessary, Herzog said. "It's a different world from the one of David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein. There are more actors in the Jewish world. Whole communities have emptied and others have grown. You can't bury your head in the sand as if nothing has changed."