One on One: Israel on his mind

Nachman Shai, the outgoing UJC external affairs director-general, says his goal is to provide GA participants with an experience to keep their connection to this country going strong.

nachman shai 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nachman shai 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nachman Shai became a household name here when he soothed the nation's frazzled nerves during the first Gulf War in 1991. As Iraqi scuds began to fall on the center of the country, an alarmed public donned gas masks and huddled in sealed rooms - to be prepared in case the missiles were equipped with unconventional warheads. After each siren, the handsome, soft-spoken IDF spokesman, appeared on TV and talked us through the ordeal. Since that time, Shai, 62 - senior vice president and director-general for external affairs of the United Jewish Communities - has worn many hats, all of which combine his professional skills with his passions. The former director-general of the Second TV and Radio Authority, chairman of the Israel Audience Research Board, director-general of the Science, Culture and Sports Ministry and chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, is doing his PhD in political science and communications at Bar-Ilan University and serves as a fellow and researcher at the Jaffe Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He was also one of the three judges on The Ambassador, an Israeli reality TV show in which young Israelis competed for the privilege of becoming an emissary for public diplomacy abroad. Shai's latest project is this week's General Assembly - "One People, One Destiny" - which he has been planning since the last such conference was held in Israel. "We're always thinking of how to make it unique," says Shai. Rather than spending the entire stay in sessions at Jerusalem's convention center, participants can take day tours all over the country to experience what life is like here "up close and personal." Ironically, Shai, a resident of Mevasseret Zion, was not keen initially on having the GA in the capital. But he was overruled "because that's what everyone wanted." Still, he laments "what has happened to Jerusalem - two of whose major populations, the haredim and the Arabs, are not Zionist - a city that is the focus of Jews all over the world." Furthermore, he adds, "it's poor and, unfortunately, ugly. It's a tragedy." Equally "tragic," he says, is that "the Jerusalem municipality hardly helped us, not like Tel Aviv, which told us we could have whatever assistance we needed. When such an important conference comes to Jerusalem, City Hall should be bending over backwards. The people attending this event are bringing in lots of money by staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and shopping. What is this city doing for them?" This week, these and other questions may end up being put to the new mayor, who will be attending the conference on Monday - just days after his election on November 11. In an interview at his office in Jerusalem's Jewish Agency complex on the eve of the GA - and prior to his announcement that he is joining the Kadima party ("I think there is a time to come down from the stands and enter the playing field") - Shai gives an overview of his hopes and expectations for the annual event, which takes place once every five years in Israel. It was rumored that the GA would not take place here this year due to mass cancelations precipitated by the global financial crisis. There are three events taking place here around the same time: a women's conference, the "Lions of Judah," in Tel Aviv, with 1,400 participants; the NextGen GA, with 800 American and Israeli participants; and the GA itself, with 3,000 participants. All three are fully booked. Most of the participants have come here from the US expressly to attend. There were some cancelations, but that's not uncommon. Israel is clearly such an important place for these people, that they have come in spite of the financial crisis. Did you have to adjust the program to make the financial crisis one of the focal points of the conference, due to its effect on philanthropy? Yes. We are having a plenary session devoted to it, at which [former finance minister] Binyamin Netanyahu and [Bank of Israel Governor] Stanley Fischer will be speaking. The session promises to be extremely interesting. We are also having a "breakout" session on the consequences of the crisis on the social-welfare conditions in Israel. Philanthropy will certainly be affected by what has been happening in global markets. I assume the effects are already being felt in the field, but it takes time for such effects to be assessable. We're talking about 600,000 donors - who give anywhere from $100 to $5 million - so it's hard to calculate the exact figures. Bear in mind that this is not some kind of emergency meeting held by the Jewish communities to assess the economic situation. But once there is an emergency like this one, we must examine it and figure out what to do. Stanley Fischer has said the crisis will not hit Israel as badly as other countries. Will you have to start looking more in the direction of local philanthropy? The UJC is involved in a cooperative project called Sheatufim, which is just for this purpose. However, the extent to which Israeli philanthropists will start stepping up to the plate at this time is questionable. There are many wealthy people in Israel who haven't yet developed the awareness of how significant their contributions could be. And this would be the worst time to try to raise that awareness. At present, people here are like snails curling up into their shells, so approaching them now for donations is impossible. What is needed for the long-term are education and preparatory work, and that takes time. Other than money, what connects the Jewish communities in the Diaspora to Israel? Is there any other purpose for a conference like the GA - and why hold it here? Most of the money collected in the US - 70 percent - remains there. The other 30% percent ends up here. Donors should be able to see what was done with their money. I can't show them, dollar by dollar, exactly where their money went because it's not earmarked but is given for a wide variety of projects in Israel. Not many people realize what amazing things have been done here and what a flourishing country with unbelievable achievements this is. The simple fact that there is a vibrant state, with people going about their lives, and industry and hi-tech - that's what we're showing them. What do you hope to have achieved at the end of these four days of the GA? A strengthening of participants' attachment to Israel and the Jewish communities, as well as continued financial support. The idea is to provide them with an intellectual and emotional experience - touching head and heart. Speaking of head and heart, what is the status of UJC donations beyond the Green Line? American law limits donations to areas beyond the Green Line. During the second intifada, this issue became critical because we certainly couldn't make a distinction between Israelis killed on this or that side of the Green Line. One of the ways we got around this was by designating our aid to people rather than to places. People who were victims of terrorism were then entitled to financial assistance, and it didn't matter where they lived. Another delicate issue is aliya. What is your position on this subject? It is important to encourage aliya, but it's just as important to encourage Jews to be Jews. The Jewish people is growing smaller. We're losing them through intermarriage. Of course, people can't be told whom to or not to marry. Aliya, therefore, is not the issue. The issue is that Jews live in the Diaspora and marry non-Jews. We want Jews to remain Jews out of a desire to do so. This doesn't mean they have to be religious or observant. At least as many Israelis leave the country as Diaspora Jews enter it. So we have to encourage Jews to care about being Jews in the Diaspora and to have a connection to Israel, not necessarily to move here. That's why we created the NextGen GA. How long did it take to organize this GA? We started working on it five years ago, after the last time it was held here. A new aspect is the interest on the part of Israelis to participate as sponsors. One example is [heiress and businesswoman] GA chair Shari Arison, whose companies have made a serious contribution to the funding of this GA. But with her it's not just financial. She genuinely believes in the Jewish people and in tikkun olam.