As Gov’t Diaspora Initiative Moves Forward, Politics at the Forefront

With rockets targeting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this evening the latest ceasefire is already a joke. So too is the relationship between the principal players in the World Jewry Joint Initiative (ofter referred to as the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI) on this site and elsewhere).

Let’s back up to an abbreviated history.

Last July, eJP broke the story on the planning for this ground-breaking project. The PMI was pegged as a $300 million a year program and made headlines around Israel and the Jewish world. At that point in time, The Jewish Agency (JAFI) had been working with the Prime Minister’s Office on the project for almost a year. In November of last year, a Summit was held in Jerusalem bringing together over a  hundred representatives of Jewish communities worldwide, including The Agency’s partners, Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization. On the government side, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Ministry of Finance became active participants. (At some point following the Summit, the Ministry of Finance began taking a less active role.) The official releases indicated the Summit was hosted by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel.

At a June 25th meeting of the Coordinating Committee of the Government of Israel (GOI) and The Jewish Agency, the Prime Minister affirmed that The Jewish Agency for Israel is the convener of Jewish communities from around the world in its’ relationship with the State of Israel overall and for this Initiative in particular. The Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs will be the implementing arm of the GOI with regard to this Initiative. The GOI decision-making will be overseen by the Committee of Director Generals of seven ministries to be chaired by the Director General of the PM’s Office.

Which brings us to today.

1. A letter sent by Dvir Kahana, the Director-General of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, says in part, “First, I’d like to be clear – on the Israeli side and throughout this start-up period, the Government through the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs is overseeing the establishment of the Initiative and is currently serving as the convener for the Initiative (emphasis added). Our partners in the Diaspora are many – representatives of the organized Jewish world, foundations and many different philanthropists.

“We also thank the Jewish Agency for working with us on this process. We are continuing our dialogue with the Agency with the aim of finding the best way for it to fit into a role within the Initiative…”

Kahana also writes that that at this stage the initiative will focus on programs catering to Jews from the ages 12 to 35 from around the world and that by the beginning of 2015, several pilot programs are expected to be launched in cooperation with Jewish organizations and philanthropies.

2. Following a meeting of The Jewish Agency Executive, Natan Sharansky released the following statement:

“A few hours ago, The Jewish Agency Executive, comprised of the leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod-UIA, and the World Zionist Organization unanimously passed a resolution summarizing two years of consultations on the Government of Israel-World Jewry Joint Initiative and proposing the first set of pilot programs focusing on Israel engagement amongst Jewish youth, particularly on college campuses. In so doing, the Jewish Agency Executive acted in accordance with the Prime Minister’s request at the last Coordinating Committee between The Jewish Agency on behalf of World Jewry and The Government of Israel, that we move to the practical stage of the Joint Initiative and that The Jewish Agency continue to serve as the convener of the Jewish people for this initiative, just as the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs serves as the convener of the Government of Israel.”

According to The Agency, there are two pilots – Immersive Experiences and Israel Engagement of University students – both already have coalitions of funders in place and are ready to discuss with the GOI the particulars on structure and implementation.


Some observations:

In numerous conversations in the U.S. over the past few months (where the bulk of the Diaspora money will actually come from) eJP has heard continued skepticism as to the Initiative getting off the ground in a timely and meaningful way. That said, the various constitutiences, including a number of philanthropic partners, are supportive of The Agency and The Agency’s role.

eJP has also learned that The Agency has brought a number of potential funders to the table and that in subsequent discussions, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry has gone around The Agency. Here in the U.S., funders are disturbed. Both in this regard and in Kahana’s letter, it seems he missed the statement from the Prime Minister that referred to The Agency as the convener of Jewish communities from around the world.

In this context, an article posted to The Jerusalem Post‘s website this evening is just one more affirmation – like the aliya fiasco earlier in the summer – that it is about budgets, ego and politics.

Long time readers of eJP know that overall, this publication is generally supportive of the work of The Agency. We have long held the belief that the hundreds of staff in the field are top notch professionals dedicated to the organization’s goals. We still believe that. Whatever criticism we have had over time has mostly been directed to the Israeli management of JAFI. We still believe that. But …

The Agency is at a cross-roads. These days the battles are rarely between internal constitutiences but with powerful Israeli political personas, representing different political parties, and importantly different political parties than the Prime Minister (who is known as a supporter of Sharansky). In the eyes of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, and the Ministry of Aliya and Immigrant Absorption, a weakened Jewish Agency not only strengthens their own ministries, but weakens the prime minister. And it is politics and political fundraising that are at the center of many of The Agency’s current challenges. Put bluntly, philanthropic dollars from the Diaspora for this Initiative also strengthens the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the political aspirations of the minister at the top. That harms The Agency.

Only a tiny number of Diaspora influencers understand this convergence of government budgets, ego and politics and how it plays out in real life Israel. The question is, can The Agency overcome these challenges, or will they choose a waiting game and hope that the allocation of portfolios following the next election positions them better. Stay tuned.