By Or Kashti
The heads of The Jewish Agency have told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they will no longer take part in a government initiative to strengthen ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews. In a letter sent to Netanyahu last week, Jewish Agency leaders criticized the conduct of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which is leading the initiative.
On Friday Haaretz reported on a new program, under Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, whose purpose is to address “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide and “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel.”
About three months ago a new company, called the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People, received special, accelerated approval to run the program. The government is to allocate 190 million shekels ($50 million) to the program, while the company is supposed to raise an additional 370 million shekels from Jewish organizations and philanthropists.
Figures who are familiar with the initiative have warned of “autocratic leadership by members of Habayit Hayehudi” and about “turning the complex ties with the Diaspora into a political fiefdom.”
Ministry officials, however, say the program is “a strategic solution to the challenge of young Jews who are becoming distant from their Jewish identity and from the State of Israel.” According to an internal ministry document, “In recent years there has been an ongoing erosion of Jewish identity in various communities worldwide.”
In 2013 and 2014 the Prime Minister’s Office, The Jewish Agency and other agencies drew up plans to increase the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jews, but over the past several months, and in particular since the new government was established, the PMO and The Jewish Agency have been cut out of the loop on the program. The program is headed by Diaspora Affairs Ministry Director General Dvir Kahana, a confidant of Bennet. In a meeting about a month ago, Kahana approved the hiring of the new company to run the initiative.
The annual salary of the person heading the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People will be 800,000 shekels, and the various senior executives will have a foreign travel budget of about 1 million shekels a year.
In their letter to Netanyahu, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and the chairman of the agency’s board of governors, Charles Ratner, wrote: “We feel obliged to inform you that we cannot continue to participate in the Initiative as currently formulated.”
They noted that while the program was designed to serve as a joint partnership for strategic dialogue and action between Jewish communities throughout the world and the State of Israel,” the current direction and administration of the program contradicted both the spirit of the initiative and the June 2014 cabinet resolution establishing the initiative. Therefore, wrote Sharansky and Ratner, “Any and all meaningful dialogue with the organized Jewish community as represented by the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod, the World Zionist Organization and The Jewish Agency for Israel has been eliminated. Rather this undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework for programs to be conducted by a single government Ministry,” they wrote Netanyahu.
“Under these circumstances, we regret to inform you, in consultation and agreement with our constituent partners, that until the program is returned to its original conception and direction, we no longer see this as the joint initiative between the Government of Israel and World Jewry and therefore can no longer see ourselves part of it,” they said.
Sources familiar with the program criticized its aims to fight “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide and “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel.” “Will the government now tell Jewish communities around the world how to run the family unit?” a source who until recently worked with a Jewish organization in the U.S. said.
“It smells of condescension. Such an angering stance may lead to a confrontation with large groups,” he added.
The Prime Minister’s Office said it received the Agency’s letter and that the “issue is being dealt with.” The Diaspora Ministry did not issue a response.