Who wins if Diaspora Jewry loses? - opinion

Who gains the most if the Diaspora Jewry lose? Does anyone really gain anything?

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog at their first work meeting, July 18, 2021. (photo credit: MARC NEYMAN/GPO)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog at their first work meeting, July 18, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC NEYMAN/GPO)

One year ago, I was part of a meeting at the offices of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry between the newly appointed Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and our organization, Am Echad. The minister kept our delegation well beyond the allotted time for that meeting and engaged in a wide-ranging positive discussion on ways we could work together to enhance Jewish identity in the Diaspora. I left that meeting not only encouraged, but impressed with Shai’s integrity.

As we broke the ice, Shai mentioned his tenure as a visiting professor at Duke University, which lead to a discussion of the Duke basketball team and the famous “Coach K.” I mentioned that I could procure an official Duke basketball jersey for the minister since our co-chairman actually outfitted the Duke team. Minister Shai’s eyes lit up at the suggestion, but only for a few seconds. He almost immediately responded begging us not to send him anything, lest it be considered an inappropriate gift.

Contrast this to Kalman Libskind’s investigative story in Maariv last week, alleging that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry misappropriated NIS 30 million at the behest of Knesset member Gilad Kariv. The goal of the funding is to promote Reform Judaism in Israel as part of a “Jewish renewal project.” The money was transferred to a tiny organization called Panim, where Kariv served as an executive board member while already a Knesset member, despite testifying to the contrary. 

Incidentally or not, Kariv is also the immediate past CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. Also incidentally or not, Kariv and Shai entered the coalition on behalf of the Labor Party. There was no tender, no criteria and Panim’s CEO was allegedly involved in drafting the plans for the allocation. 

Lest you think this is small change, this misappropriation equals almost half of the ministry’s annual budget. Yet it was deemed worthwhile to invest half of what it invests into the world Jewish community into promoting the 40-synagogue-strong Israeli Reform movement. And unless Israel is now considered part of the Diaspora, this seems to be a gross misappropriation of funds meant to promote the Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

DIASPORA AFFAIRS Minister Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem with newly sworn-in ministers in June (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)DIASPORA AFFAIRS Minister Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem with newly sworn-in ministers in June (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

HOW DID it happen that Kariv used his position as chairman of the Knesset’s Law Committee to funnel money through the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to an organization on whose board he served, in violation of Israeli law, and avoided the normal Knesset review? 

How did it happen?

Panim, it was reported, is a small organization with only two employees and no experience with managing so large a grant. Maariv also reported that the attorney-general’s office actually warned Shai that the entire initiative was legally problematic, since his ministry is only authorized to fund projects related to the Diaspora.

This case smells of corruption from a mile away. Yet almost a week after the story broke, Israeli and mainstream Jewish mass media have chosen to ignore it. Where is the press, the self-styled “watchdog of democracy”? Where is all the indignation? Where are the same warriors of justice who refuse to sit in a coalition with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of his alleged improprieties?

In recent decades, the Reform movement has replaced the tenets of the Jewish faith with the concept of tikkun olam and a dedication to social justice. “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof,” the biblical call of the pursuit of justice, has become the battle cry of the progressive movements. So it would only be natural to expect the leadership of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, as well as local leaders, to speak out against suspicion of corruption in its midst. None has been forthcoming so far. 

The contempt for the rule of law, for proper governance, and the sense of entitlement is staggering. Yet even more concerning is the disregard for the true Jewish identity crisis sweeping the world.

Tragically, as millions of young Diaspora Jews are exiting the community, in particular from the Reform movement, and as fewer and fewer Jews connect to any form of Judaism or support Israel, the government chooses to funnel the much-needed funds into a shady operation, which has nothing to do with its stated mission of serving world Jewry.

Just think how many Jewish leadership programs, ulpans, Israel trips, that NIS 30 million could have covered. How many kids in the US, Europe and South America could have learned more about their history, culture and heritage? How many more curricula or teacher trainings could have been sponsored to upgrade Jewish education? How many Jewish students could have been encouraged to take action on campus in the face of the antisemitism, BDS campaigns and pro-Palestinian rhetoric they are facing?

But instead, Shai and Kariv have allegedly decided to use the Diaspora Affairs Ministry as their own piggy bank to promote the largely irrelevant for Israelis Reform agenda via an obscure nonprofit with no real activity. 

If Israel is committed to preserving the next generation of Diaspora Jews, if Israel is dedicated to clean government, if Israeli media wants to preserve public trust, and if the Reform movement wants to uphold its dedication to social justice, this story cannot be swept under the carpet. It has to undergo the kind of scrutiny that is expected in all cases of alleged corruption, and if found to be true everyone involved has to face consequences. 

But most importantly, the funds have to go back to serve those they were meant to serve – millions of Diaspora youth who have never heard of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.