At 90 years, The Jewish Agency for Israel is as Relevant Today as it’s Ever Been

Students from the Arava-Australia partnership; courtesy The Jewish Agency. Source: eJP archives.

By Michael Siegal

Earlier this week, The Jewish Agency for Israel received stinging criticism in an article written by a Jewish philanthropist and Chicago native, and picked up by eJewish Philanthropy. There are a number of inaccuracies and assumptions that were made in that article that demand a clarifying response. The Jewish Agency has embarked on significant streamlining and transparency; it is unseemly to rely on unfounded gossip to undermine that work and effort.

Those who know me are well aware I rarely take public positions; so it is a mark of how egregious I find the claims in this attack piece that I am prompted to respond to it. I have no option but to correct the damaging misinformation and set the record straight. I am also open to informed and rational discussion. If anyone would like to engage with me directly, my email address is: MichaelSiegal@jafi.org.

I am concerned that the anonymous writer cited in the article – and the author’s promotion of their line of argumentation – seems not to engender the kind of debate that should be sought. What is the end goal of such unfounded suppositions? Why slam – in print – a Jewish organization that since its inception has been working for the betterment of the Jewish people? Is The Jewish Agency beyond criticism? Of course not. In this instance, however, it is the nature of the ill will that makes one question what the purpose or value of such an attack that damages all of us. The Jewish Agency continuously engages in honest debate and consultation with key stakeholders to determine serious strategic change. This shows the organization’s level of maturity, prudence and commitment to fiduciary duty. The current professional leadership, in an incredibly short period of time, listened to what Jewish leaders had to say about the most pressing issues facing our people. We conducted this process by engaging a large group of major leaders in the Jewish world in a collaborative way. We’ve been praised dozens of times for doing something so brave.

The article claims there is no vision, which at best shows a distinct unwillingness to look facts in the face. We’ve been visionary from the start, and we’re applying that same capability to current issues. Today, our main areas of impact are connecting Jews worldwide, bringing world Jewry’s voice and impact to Israeli society, enabling Aliyah of both choice and rescue, and ensuring the safety of Jewish communities.

Let us not forget that global Jewry, including in the United States, feels less safe than they did even as few as two years ago. Point me to a Jew who does not with every fiber of their being wish that antisemitism was not burgeoning into the enormous problem it has become. There is no choice but to take on the reality that has been put before us. Jews in the European Union and other Western countries are feeling more unsafe than they have since the Holocaust. There are dozens of small Jewish communities – particularly within Europe – that are defenseless against this wave and who lack the political clout to challenge it. Surely The Jewish Agency, as the representative of the global Jewish people, has a collective responsibility to assist these communities.

We’re also all keenly aware of the deepening crisis in the relationship between global Jewry and Israel. The Jewish Agency has made it a priority to make sure the voices of world Jewry are heard in Israel and have an impact on Israeli society, and that Jews worldwide establish a personal connection to the State of Israel. Without this unity, we’re lost as a people. That is why the work of The Jewish Agency to this end is especially crucial: our expanded shlichim (Israeli emissaries) program, variety of Israel experience opportunities and the new initiatives we’ve built to foster peoplehood in Israel.

The article quotes a source stating, “[The Jewish Agency] can no longer make a credible case for massive unrestricted Federation funds in an environment requiring measurable impact in a free marketplace.” This shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how we operate today. We now have a very sophisticated evaluation strategy that is led by a group of world-renowned experts, making our measurement process one of the most advanced in the Jewish world. Transforming how we operate is an integral part of our change process. We’re open and willing to adopt today’s best practices.

Unfortunately, the article’s author belies his personal animus and frustration toward The Jewish Agency. However, while his experiences are obviously regrettable, this has no bearing on the organization’s current leadership or direction. A lack of reasoning and anonymous evidence to support his claims also weaken his position. This is particularly evident when he questions whether the Federations in North America ratified the purposes of the Strategic Plan in October. Well, yes, they absolutely did. The plan he cites was brought forward at The Jewish Agency Board of Governors that same month, which included a vote to endorse these purposes. Federations along with our other partners were overwhelmingly in favor. The notion that JFNA has not been supportive of our new direction is wildly inaccurate.

There are great – and potentially terrible – challenges facing the Jewish people as we draw to the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We have, in the institution of The Jewish Agency, a robust and dynamic organization that can attempt to not only ameliorate the effects of the world’s oldest hatred but can work actively within different communities. We’re working hard toward a vision for the future of the Jewish people. We may not get it right all of the time, but battering us from the sidelines is not the way forward.

Michael D. Siegal is Chairman of the Board of Governors of The Jewish Agency for Israel, having served on the board since 2012. He is the Executive Chairman of Olympic Steel, Inc. and has served on the boards of several philanthropic organizations, including as Board Chair of the Development Corporation for Israel (Israel Bonds), the Cleveland Jewish Federation and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).