When the headquarters of the Jewish Agency were blown up by a car bomb in March 1948, the Arab bombers chose their target deliberately in order to strike a blow at the heart of the Jewish community in Palestine. Today, the Agency still occupies the same imposing stone-faced building on King George Street in the capital's green Rehavia neighborhood, but the centrality and purpose of the organization is no longer so clear.
"Why do we need it when we have a government to handle issues such as immigration and absorption?" asks a passerby, 40-year-old hairdresser Sami. Gesturing to the large veranda on pillars and oval courtyard, he says, "The sokhnut (agency in Hebrew) is a place where functionaries give jobs to their cronies and their relatives. Who needs it?"
Who needs it, indeed?
The Jewish Agency was created in 1929 to represent the Jewish people as a "working government" for the stateless nation after the British Mandate for Palestine called for the establishment of a Jewish national home. David Ben-Gurion served as the chair of the Agency's executive before becoming Israel's first prime minister.
But today, 80 years later, troubling questions have arisen over the Jewish Agency for Israel's (JAFI) continued existence: How much of JAFI's $340 million annual operational budget - which comes from the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group representing 155 Jewish Federations and 400 communities across North America, and private donations - is wasted on redundant self-perpetuation of the jobs of its roughly 400 full-time employees? And how much goes to realizing the organization's twin goals of building the State of Israel, mainly by bringing immigrants, and fostering the link between the state and the Jewish people in the Diaspora, principally through education? Does it matter that its budget, funded mainly by Jews outside Israel, is direly threatened by the world economic crisis? Would it make a difference to anyone if the organization was just swallowed up into the Israeli government?
In an interview with The Report, JAFI Director General Moshe Vigdor, 61, insists that the Agency has successfully reinvented itself and is "practical, leaner and more efficient than ever," focusing on a host of worthy projects regarding Jewish identity and education and helping needy and war-stricken Israelis who live on the periphery.
And Richard Pearlstone, the chairman of the organization's 120-member Board of Governors, says JAFI is "the last Jewish global organization," and acts as a unifying and historic bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. "Take away that and you destroy the link," says the 61-year-old Baltimore businessman, who was in Jerusalem for a Board meeting in early March. Indeed, the Agency operates in nearly 80 countries on five continents through a network of over 450 emissaries, including hundreds of educators.
Few, if any, responsible voices call for the total dissolution of JAFI but some, such as former JAFI chair Avraham Burg, do not think that the "reinvention" of the organization is sufficient and believe other solutions must be found. Burg thinks JAFI should be merged with other organizations, such as its longtime rival for funding, the American Joint Distribution Committee, saying there is duplication of tasks that neither Israel nor the Jewish world needs or can afford.
"On the one hand, they have the best, most dedicated manpower in the Jewish world, both lay and professional. But we are living in a post-rescue era when the concepts of aliya and settling the land - two major Agency missions - are practically obsolete and the organization's narrative is correctly being questioned. They have many beautiful projects going on. But these projects are not unique and it's not clear if these alone justify their mission," Burg, a former Knesset Speaker, JAFI chairman from 1995 to 1999, and now a private businessman, tells The Report.
Of all its activities, past and present, bringing Jews to live in Israel and helping them to settle in are the ones most associated with the Agency.
In the late 40s and early 50s, JAFI brought some 700,000 new immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe and helped in absorbing and settling many of them. Later, the Agency played a major role in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry - in Operation Moses (in 1984) and in Operation Solomon when 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought on a single day in May 1991 - and in facilitating the massive immigration of Soviet Jewry after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991.Some 15,000 immigrants came to Israel in 2008, including 5,000 from the Former Soviet Union; over 3,000 from North America, 2,900 from Western Europe and 1,500 Falas Mora from Ethiopia. It's a far cry from the pre-state glory days, when before and after the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Agency brought hundreds of thousands of Jews to Palestine, both with the permission of the British Mandatory authorities and in the illegal immigration effort. And after the establishment of the state in 1948, 700,000 Jews were brought in from Arab lands and Eastern Europe over four years.
While the overall numbers have nosedived since those grand days, the Agency still plays a key role in bringing particular groups of immigrants to Israel. When the Cabinet approved a program in early March to encourage aliya among potential immigrants still living in the former Soviet Union, it stipulated that the more than $7 million price tag will be funded equally by JAFI and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.Kadima Knesset Member Marina Solodkin, who immigrated here in 1991 from the FSU, tells The Report that " there are still about one million people eligible for aliya in the former Soviet Union who need the Agency to help them immigrate and there is no one else to do that."
There are other places where Jews are either at risk or may be so in the future, where the Agency may be called upon to operate. A trickle of Yemenite Jews arrives from time to time. There are also some 24,000 Jews in Iran and about 20,000 in Morocco. The majority of Ethiopian Jews are already in Israel, though a senior Agency official is currently in Ethiopia determining the fates of some 4,000 Falas Mora, who are not halakhically Jewish and want to come. Vigdor notes that Ben-Gurion declared that aliya was the responsibility of world Jewry and not just Israel, and that a proper government cannot be seen to be "poaching" foreign citizens from their native lands. Therefore, he says, the work has to be done by a "buffer organization," such as the Agency.
But part of JAFI's role in facilitating immigration has already been usurped by private associations, foremost among them, Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN), which helps Jews from North America and Great Britain move to Israel. The private American group, founded in 2001 by American businessman Tony Gelbart, has been receiving Israeli government assistance since 2005.
Similarly, in France, which has been the most active source of Western immigration in recent years, JAFI has an arrangement with AMI, which stands for Aliya et Meilleure Intégration, or Aliya and Better Integration, a private organization which has an operating budget of $2.5 million to 3 million, paid for by Pierre Besnainou, a wealthy businessman and former head of the European Jewish Congress.
Vigdor says he sees nothing wrong with these arrangements, noting that the partnership with NBN, signed in September 2008, grew out of "a realistic and flexible" approach to "aliya of choice," as immigration from countries where Jews are not threatened is known. The arrangment gives NBN primary operational responsibility for the marketing and promotion of North American and British aliya.
"Nefesh b'Nefesh simply had a different model and was doing the job better, so we partnered with it," says Vigdor who praises the current "more streamlined approach to aliya." He underscores that the Agency has retained exclusive responsibility for deciding who is eligible for aliya under the Law of Return, through its agreements on the subject with the Interior Ministry.
But two former senior Agency officials contest Vigdor's sanguine view of the NBN deal and see it as evidence of the decline of the organization. Bobby Brown, the recently retired adviser to the organization's chairman, says the collaborative effort was a blow to its "prestige and purpose." And former JAFI immigration and absorption department director Mike Rosenberg, who says he actually supported the partnering initially, asserts the negotiations and the outcome reflected the Agency's weakness.
As its role in immigration and absorption has declined, the Agency has been devoting its efforts and resources to a wide variety of other projects, some in the Diaspora and some in Israel. In the former category, a major project in fostering the link between Israel and world Jewry is Taglit-Birthright, which provides educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, aged 18 to 26, from around the world; the Agency is a one-third partner with the government and private donors in financing it.