Good for the Jews

Can Ze'ev Bielski, elected amidst controversy, turn the Jewish Agency's image around?

A new immigrant from America, a spunky kid of about eight in a jungle camouflage outfit, steps down onto the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and Ze'ev Bielski, the enthusiastic, genial new chairman of the Jewish Agency, sticks out his hand. The boy slaps him five, Bielski slaps him five back and lifts him up in his arms. "Welcome to Israel," he says, getting a name and putting the boy back down. After 17 years as mayor of Ra'anana, he's a natural at this. Another new immigrant, a little girl carrying a hamster or rodent in a cage, comes by and the lanky Bielski bends down and asks, "What's his name?" "Frank," the girl answers. "Welcome to Israel," he tells her warmly. After less than two weeks on the job, this is Bielski's first public outing, and it is a terribly exciting morning for anyone interested in aliya (Jewish immigration to Israel), particularly aliya from the West, which is the new Agency chairman's main brief. Five-hundred-and-twenty immigrants from the US and Canada are landing this morning in two planes filled by Nefesh B'Nefesh (Soul to Soul), the non-profit organization whose financial and practical assistance to immigrants from North America over the last three years has rejuvenated "aliya by choice." Greeting them on the ground behind police barricades are about 1,000 people mainly Nefesh B'Nefesh "graduates" cheering, waving little plastic Israeli flags, singing, blowing shofars. When the tired, hopeful new immigrants emerge from the planes into the Israeli sunshine and descend the staircases to be welcomed by this joyful Jewish noise, it is definitely an emotional moment. The show belongs to Nefesh B'Nefesh. It's an American-style pageant, but Bielski and the many Agency emissaries and functionaries present don't seem to mind their supporting role. "It doesn't matter who brought them, as long as they're here," says a group of Agency youth emissaries, swearing that nobody told them to say that to the press. Standing with his arm around the shoulder of Tony Gelbart, the cheerleading co-founder and chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh, Bielski says, "Nobody can do this but Tony." In one interview after another with foreign media, especially from Canada, Bielski explains how this is Israel's "answer" to the previous day's suicide bombing in Netanya, how there's no better place for a Jew to live than Israel, how the Jews have prayed "next year in Jerusalem" for thousands of years and now they're coming home. Besides the clich s, though, he also offers some candor: Asked to name the hardest problem for new olim (immigrants to Israel), he replies, "Everything is a problem you don't know the language, you don't have enough money, your old friends aren't around so love for Israel has to make up for everything. You have to know why you're here." A line-up of major Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon down, are making speeches at the ceremony inside the hangar. It's hot and humid, the 520 immigrants are tired, the welcoming crowd has been there for three hours, and the emotion of the mass arrival is being swamped by Zionist kitsch and sanctimony. Called to the podium, Bielski speaks for no more than 15 seconds, ending with, "...and if any of you want to live in Ra'anana, I still have a few connections there," before hustling back to his seat. It's been a good first day for him out in the field. In getting elected chairman of the Jewish Agency late last month, this former mayor of a mid-sized Israeli city suddenly finds himself a leader of the Jewish world. He becomes at least the titular chief executive of Israeli-Diaspora relations. Practically, he is in charge of aliya; as his predecessor, Sallai Meridor, told The Jerusalem Post early this year, the Agency's "bottom line is how many immigrants come to Israel." Because of his new title, Bielski has the potential to be an effective voice for aliya, for Diaspora Jewish tourism in Israel, for the enhancement of Israel's image abroad, and for Diaspora financial donations to Israel, which he insists on referring to by its hoary euphemism, "partnership." There is absolutely no doubt among people familiar with him and his record as mayor that he is thoroughly qualified for the job. Ra'anana, a sparkling, green, clean, efficiently-run, upper-middle-class burg in the Sharon region northeast of Tel Aviv, may be the most highly-reputed city in the country. It's a magnet for Western immigrants, notably South Africans, looking for the comforts and order of home. Winning award after award for city beautification and good government during his 17-year tenure, Bielski, 56, ranks as one of the most successful, best-liked municipal leaders in Israel's history. The late Post columnist Sam Orbaum opened a 1998 column about Bielski by writing, "Pinch me is this guy for real?" From there, Orbaum went on to marvel at how Bielski cut expenses, kept municipal taxes (arnona) low, shunned self-aggrandizement and, in general, ran the city "like a family business, sensible but visionary, humble yet dynamic." Appearing shortly before municipal elections, the column noted that polls showed Bielski leading his closest rival 70 percent to 4%. "What did I tell him once 'It's a pleasure to pay arnona here,'" says Netta Ben-Bassat, 43, a customer in Fistok's House, a candy store/caf a block from the old City Hall on downtown Ahuza Street. A mural on the wall of the shop shows a row of local luminaries, starting with Bielski, who is holding an ice cream cone in one hand and a giant lollypop in the other. "His personality is amazing," adds Orit, Fistok's wife, sitting behind the counter. "Everybody will tell you he's been an excellent mayor," says Shai, 51, a customer in the Blue Lagoon pet shop off Ahuza. "He never had to campaign, he won automatically. He was a great fundraiser, he brought all the South Africans here, all the millionaires." (Born in Jerusalem, Bielski spent 1977 through 1980 as Jewish Agency shaliah, or emissary, to South Africa, where he met his wife, Caron. "I chose her, and she chose Ra'anana," he says in an interview.) Not only do people in downtown Ra'anana think the Jewish Agency is lucky to get Bielski, so does Avraham Burg, who was Agency chairman from 1995 to 1999. "Zevik Bielski is the perfect selection for the organization. Without him, you can close it down," he says. Burg maintains that since Diaspora donors give their money to specific Israeli projects, it would be more useful for them to start dealing with local Israeli leaders instead of national politicians, and Bielski is just the man to steer relations in that direction. "Nobody is better than Zevik Bielski to build a bridge between Israeli municipalities and Jewish communities abroad. He knows both sides of that bridge, and he can walk from one end of the Jewish river to the other easily and eloquently," says Burg, a Labor Party star now in private business. ON BIELSKI'S fourth day in his new job, he sits for an interview in his office in the old Jewish Agency building on King George Street in downtown Jerusalem. He's wearing rolled-up white shirtsleeves, as he would at the airport. During the interview, press spokesman Yarden Vatikay and foreign press liaison Michael Jankelowitz sit off to the side, backing up the new boss with the occasional point of information. This is the office where David Ben-Gurion worked from 1935 until Independence, when the Jewish Agency was Israel's government-in-waiting. It has been preserved in its "classic" Israeli style, simple and brown. Outside in the hallway are framed photographs of the old Agency chairmen Ben-Gurion, Pinchas Sapir, Moshe Sharett, Zalman Shazar and the others who followed. I ask Bielski if Sharon's goal of one million olim in the next 15 years is realistic. He replies: "You see, we have to have a vision. This building I'm sitting in people with vision created it. Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann when I came here, I looked at the pictures of all these people, and I thought about the vision they had. People laughed at them. But look at all that's happened in this country since then." On other occasions, Bielski says he will ask Diaspora donors to "come share the dream" of building this country. He knows all the platitudes of high-level Israeli-Diaspora relations; aside from having been the shaliah to South Africa, he's logged plenty of hours hitting up rich Diaspora Jews, especially in New Jersey, for educational and civic projects in Ra'anana. He did our nearly 90-minute interview in fluent, if not flawless, English, illustrating his prospective pitches to American Jews by using the phrase, "Look, guys..." or "Okay, guys..." He knows his audience. If anybody is suited to lead the Jewish Agency, Bielski is. The question, however, is whether anybody can succeed in leading the Jewish Agency toward its "bottom-line" goal raising the number of olim coming to Israel, a number that's been falling steadily as the mass aliya from the former Soviet Union has ebbed. Suffering from the image of an anachronism, a relic from the days of floppy collars and Yiddish-accented Hebrew, a ridiculously bloated bureaucracy of political hacks with no reason left to exist, the Jewish Agency has been embarrassed in recent years by two North American Jewish start-ups. At a time when Israeli buses were being blown up and tourism had evaporated, Nefesh B'Nefesh flew in planeloads of Jewish immigrants from the US and Canada and birthright israel brought tens of thousands of young Jews from all over the world to Israel for 10-day "Israel experiences." To the public, the Jewish Agency, with incomparably greater human and financial resources, not to mention experience, looked tired, old and clueless by comparison. Another embarrassment was the fact that in the last two years, more Jews from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Germany than to Israel. Meanwhile, the Agency's main new project has been the aliya of the Falash Mura from Ethiopia, a mission that has not captured the imaginations of many Diaspora Jews or Israelis, least of all the Ethiopian Jewish community, which holds old communal resentments against their Christianized countrymen. Bielski's challenge, says Burg, is to redefine the Agency's purpose, because its traditional one has, for the most part, been achieved. "Until the end of the Nineties, the single most important job of the Jewish Agency was mass immigration, most recently from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. But since the start of the 21st century, the Agency hasn't updated itself to the post-mass immigration, post-rescue era. Therefore the last couple of years have seen a decline in the Agency's image, and its support," Burg says. THESE ARE the institutional problems that Bielski inherits, but on his way into office, another problem arose: the Sharansky affair. It's unfortunate he built up the most stellar reputation as mayor of Ra'anana, but he starts his new job with a heavy cloud over his head because of the way he was elected, and the way Sharansky was squeezed out of running. In brief, Bielski was Sharon's pick for the job, and the Agency leadership which traditionally confirms the prime minister's choice for chairman was all for him. But the Likud faction in the Agency, World Likud, being dominated by anti-disengagement forces, convinced Natan Sharansky, who resigned from Sharon's cabinet over disengagement, to go after the job. The Agency leadership, being lobbied heavily by Sharon's son Omri, effectively blocked Sharansky's candidacy. Carole Solomon, chairwoman of the Agency's board of directors, explained at the time: "No one could deny the stature of a Natan Sharansky and his value to the Jewish people. But at a very critical time of challenge for the Jewish Agency, the relations with the prime minister, which are always critical, were even more of an important factor." In an interview with the Post's Gil Hoffman, Sharansky vented his spleen. Bielski got the job, he said, because Sharon "wanted a yes-man at the helm of the Agency." He described the Agency's blue-ribbon Advise and Consent Committee, which voted against his candidacy, as an "instrument of political corruption." What happened not only offended him, Sharansky said, it offended Diaspora Jewry. "Jews in America were shocked and embarrassed about what happened because I am the most invited person to speak abroad at events of the Jewish Agency. Everyone was trying to convince me for years that I was the best man for the job, so I thought I had a moral obligation to run and to make an effort to strengthen the agency when it is in a crisis," Sharansky said. The right-wing Orthodox, whose ranks are far and away the leading source of American aliya over the last generation, were outraged. MK Effi Eitam, head of the hardline breakaway movement from the National Religious Party, called for an international Jewish boycott of the Agency. Naomi Liebler, president of World Emunah, the Orthodox Zionist women's movement in the Agency, said the episode, "brought shame to the Zionist movement around the world and it will have a negative impact on the movement's future." In the face of all this ill will, though, Bielski does not lose his cool. To Sharansky's charge that he was chosen as a yes-man, he quotes back to me some of the things Ra'anana residents said about him, and suggests: "To say that a man like this will be someone's puppet doesn't really make sense." He says Sharansky "got pulled into" the fight over the Jewish Agency chairmanship by anti-Sharon, anti-disengagement forces not only in World Likud, but in the cabinet and Knesset as well. "Knesset members, ministers, all of a sudden they're interested in the Jewish people. Believe me, from them to the Jewish Agency is like from Tiberias to the Negev." He won't say a word to tarnish Sharansky's luster, calling him an "honest man" and a "hero," noting that he demonstrated in Washington 30 years ago for Sharansky's release from Soviet prison, and says he looks forward to working with Sharansky for Jewish causes and "putting this behind us." But at the same time, Bielski says he wishes the way would have been cleared for him to run against Sharansky, because he had over 80% of the Agency's voting body committed to him the local hero of Ra'anana, buddy of the Diaspora and, incidentally, ball-carrier for the prime minister of Israel. It is not a secret that the right-wing Orthodox Jews who comprise the primary pool of olim from North America and France, the two main sources of "olim by choice," are against the disengagement plan. Might they not become disenchanted about immigrating to a country where "Jews expel Jews," in the words of the anti-disengagement slogan? And in the years after disengagement, when, in the view of both Right and Left, the internal national struggle over settlements and borders will move on from Gaza and into Gush Emunim territory in Judea and Samaria is Israel going to be the kind of country that large numbers of Western Jews, particularly the right-wing Orthodox, will choose to come live in? Bielski brushes these concerns off. He says the Orthodox immigrants he knows in Ra'anana, for instance, aren't extremists they care less about political ideology than about living in a Jewish country. And anyway, he assumes the upcoming withdrawals from Gaza and Northern Samaria will be the last for a while to come, given that the Palestinians will find it hard to meet Sharon's conditions disarming terrorist organizations, ending incitement, etc. for negotiating further withdrawals. Promoting "aliya by choice" among Western Jews has never been the Agency's strong suit. It's not the Agency's fault, seeing how the West is richer and safer than Israel, that Diaspora Jews live openly and freely notwithstanding strains of anti-Semitism, and that trans-hemispherical immigration of all world populations tends overwhelmingly to go from East to West. Still, many business-minded Zionists think more Western Jews would come to Israel if only Israelis knew how to market their "product" better, if they "rebranded" Israel, if they improved their hasbara the Hebrew word for "spin." Bielski doesn't agree. "I don't think we need to change the marketing approach, we don't need a new advertising campaign the name 'Israel' and 'Zion' and 'Jerusalem' is enough," he says. He knows it's hard to convince Western Jews to pull up stakes and start over in Israel, yet he believes this country can sell itself, so his aliya strategy is to convince North American and Western European Jews to simply visit Israel for a while, and let Israel do the rest. This is the idea behind philanthropists Michael Steinhardt's and Charles Bronfman's birthright, which pays for the plane ticket of every Jew coming on the program 80,000 since its inception, in 1999. This is also the idea behind the Jewish Agency's MASA-Israel Journey program, an enhanced version of birthright, giving scholarships based on financial need (unlike birthright's free plane ticket to all comers) to college-age students to study here for a semester to a year. So far, MASA has been very successful, bringing some 5,300 Jewish students here during the past school year, with 8,000 registered for the coming one. Bielski expects the program to strengthen both Israel and the Diaspora. "After the MASA students' stay in Israel is over, one of two things will happen: Either they will come on aliya in a year or two, or they will return to their Jewish communities and become the future leaders, with a strong feeling for Israel," he says. THIS NEW focus on "aliya by choice" isn't a pipe dream; while world aliya has been plummeting since the intifada ran wild in 2002, it's been climbing from North America and France. The gross numbers aren't huge a combined North American-French increase from just under 3,000 olim to an expected 7,500 this year but there are a lot more where they came from. And while world aliya is running equal to last year's pace, the Agency expects it to top last year's figure of just over 22,000 on the strength of the heavy traffic from the US, Canada and France. For all the Agency's enthusiasm, the rise in aliya from North America is directly attributable to Nefesh B'Nefesh. In its first three years, the organization brought in half of all the olim from North America, and this year it's expected to bring in upwards of 80% of them. In France, the rise in aliya is being spurred by the spread of violent Muslim anti-Semitism, but it is also being helped by AMI, a private organization that works similarly to Nefesh B'Nefesh. AMI's main donor, Pierre Besnainou, has told the Post: "The Jewish Agency is like a big boat. It is large and it is beautiful, but it is slow. AMI is like a speedboat. We can quickly bring people from the shore to the boat." Asked why Nefesh B'Nefesh succeeds with North American Jews while the Jewish Agency really hasn't since the glory years immediately following the Six Day War, Gelbart emphasizes his organization's use of its "graduates" as aliya emissaries to their home communities. "They go back to the places from where they made aliya and explain how they succeeded," says Gelbart in a phone conversation from New York. "So we have Americans talking to Americans and Canadians talking to Canadians. An Israeli coming to speak in a foreign language to guys in Teaneck or New Orleans isn't going to have the same impact. I'm a businessman, and sometimes you have to look at it like a business, it has to be lean, mean and efficient, you have to make sure the product sells. "I'm a marketing guy, I believe in packaging the product so people can understand it, that's the bottom line. The Jewish Agency has done amazing things, brought a million olim from Russia. Americans are a little bit different." Asked if Nefesh B'Nefesh's success wasn't mainly due to the generous grants it gives olim, Gelbart says the money "isn't as much as people think." Instead, he attributes the organization's success chiefly to its hometown emissaries, its employment agency, its absorption counseling and the ready-made network of Nefesh B'Nefesh olim it provides newcomers. "What Nefesh B'Nefesh is doing is defining the pressure points that might deter someone from making aliya, and alleviating those pressure points," he says. Spokesmen for Nefesh B'Nefesh say its immigrant families receive loans ranging from about $5,000 to $23,000, depending on financial need, with the loans turning into grants once the family is in Israel for three years. The Jewish Agency does not offer such financial incentives, so it's probably unfair to compare its recent record of attracting North American olim to that of Nefesh B'Nefesh. But it may be fair to ask whether the Agency, with its yearly budget of nearly $400 million, couldn't afford to simply dole out the cash to North American immigrants as does Nefesh B'Nefesh, which has a yearly budget of only about $10 million all from private donations, like nearly all of the Agency's funds. Bielski won't say a bad word about Nefesh B'Nefesh, nor will other Agency officials; it's as if they want to show that the Jewish Agency is big enough to give credit where credit is due, and not to feel threatened. At the same time, though, Agency officials point out that the Agency pays the cost of chartering Nefesh B'Nefesh's flights, and freely gives the organization information about aliya candidates. "Nefesh B'Nefesh, birthright, AMI these are wonderful things initiated by private individuals, and it's an honor for us to be part of all this," says Bielski, noting that at the Fourth of July party at the US Embassy, Sharon mentioned to him how impressed he was with Nefesh B'Nefesh, and right afterward he, Bielski, called Gelbart in New York to tell him. The admiration between the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh heads sounds mutual. "Ze'ev Bielski is a good guy," says Gelbart. "I believe he'll do an amazing job. He knows North Americans, he knows the Western world pretty well." At the same time, though, Bielski points out that while Nefesh B'Nefesh has chosen North America for its turf and AMI has chosen France, the Agency is required to handle aliya from the whole Jewish world. "You have to have somebody to deal with the Falash Mura and the Jews of the former Soviet Union, and we didn't finish with aliya there. True, it's not 10,000 a month anymore, but somebody must do it, and if there is an oleh from South America and no Nefesh B'Nefesh there to help him, we have to be there," he says. "So we haven't finished our work yet, we're still in business. Today we're aiming for partnerships. MASA we do with (financial help from) the government. Birthright we've always been involved with them. Nefesh B'Nefesh we've always been involved with them, and we will be more involved. And I'm also not ashamed to say that I can learn from other people." Sitting behind the counter in Fistok's House on Ra'anana's Ahuza Street, Orit, Fistok's wife, says the job of Jewish Agency chairman is "tailored" for Bielski. "He's very Eretz Yisraeli, he symbolizes 'Beautiful Israel,'" she says. "Natan Sharansky is a very warm Jew, he suffered for many years, and he has charisma. But Zevik Bielski is much better suited for the job especially now, when the Jewish Agency's image is low. He'll raise it back up." Bielski finishes Meridor's term in a year, then comes up for reelection for a full four-year term. Whatever he manages to accomplish, however many olim the Jewish Agency brings over by itself and/or as junior partner to high-profile, deep-pocketed private organizations in the West he would leave the job with much-enhanced prestige and leadership credentials. In a Likud government, he would likely become a natural choice for a cabinet ministry, even a top-level, critical position like finance minister or foreign minister something a mayor of Ra'anana, no matter how successful or popular, wouldn't have the remotest chance of becoming. For that reason, at the very least, Bielski's chairmanship of the Jewish Agency should turn out to be good for the Jews.